Local artist melds art and architecture as sculptures pop up around Detroit
At first look, Alex Porbe’s home and studio on Allen Road appear to be a classic Tecumseh farm, but the large metal sculptures that sit near the driveway are a clue that things are not what they seem. Behind the barn doors is a studio where Porbe creates architectural commercial metal work as well as functional art, also called studio furniture. The majority of his work is completed right on Allen Road, although he does some laser cutting and metal bending at a local facility.
The scope and variety of Porbe’s work is expansive and ranges from small pieces like a lamp to large architectural fixtures. His work can be found in restaurants around the Detroit area, The Palace of Auburn Hills, General Motors, The Detroit Science Center, and the Lear Corporation to name just a few of his clients.
Growing up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Porbe was raised in an artistic home. His parents were both accomplished musicians, with his father a performer for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Porbe said his father was also a talented woodworker, and that was his first exposure to working in three-dimensional art.
Originally, he thought his interests would lead him into the graphic design field, but an instructor at The Center for Creative Studies recognized Porbe’s talent with larger work and suggested he focus his attention on industrial design. Following this advice, Porbe graduated in 1991 from the Detroit school with a BFA in industrial design.
After graduation, Porbe took advantage of easy access to industrial scrap yards by living and working with four of his friends in an old crane factory on the riverfront in Detroit. The quintet renovated the building into a work/living space. Porbe spent that time creating functional artwork which he sold in a gallery built into the industrial space.
“We started developing customers and clients from that,” said Porbe. “It was really exciting.”
His ability to work with architectural design and his skill at fabrication got the attention of architects and interior designers and spurred the creation of his company Incite Design, LLC. “It was hard to get established in the beginning,” Porbe said. “I did things like live in my shop, for years. I was single and I didn’t have kids so it worked out okay. It was sort of the artist bohemian lifestyle.”
During the flush economy, Porbe’s talent was in great demand, and working out of a large facility in Detroit he had a staff of six assisting him with commissioned work. After 9/11, Porbe anticipated changes in the economy as the market began to soften and adapted his business accordingly. “It slowed down so much,” he said. “I wanted to keep doing the work but I couldn’t maintain a labor force in doing art, so it was back to myself again.”
Although he loved living in Detroit and being part of her creative community, it made sense to find property in the country where he could live and work and safely raise his children. Wanting to stay about 90 minutes from Detroit, Porbe remembers putting that distance in an online realty site and Tecumseh popping up. Although familiar with Ann Arbor and Adrian, Porbe had never been to Tecumseh, but soon realized the city would be perfect for his new life.
Although there are other people doing custom metal work in the nearby area, Porbe believes his expertise fills a niche. “I’m doing the more creative, high-end stuff these other shops don’t want to touch because it’s too complicated or it hasn’t been figured out by the architect in advance.”
His talent lies in his ability to create pieces from ideas presented by architects and designers beginning with a drawing design and continuing to finished fabrication. Porbe said most often people are either designers or fabricators, having both skills is rare in the industry.
Creativity obviously plays a big part in his sculptures and functional artwork, but for Porbe there is a creative element involved his industrial work, as well, which makes it easier to take the time from his art projects to focus on paid commissions. Clients look to him for creative input on items which are not often thought of as artistic. Two of his current projects are hand-rails, one a mixture of wood and stainless steel with an art deco design, and the other project is two curved, sweeping metal rails for staircases in a new construction in Bloomfield Hills.
Porbe finds the appeal in working with metals is creating clean lines and working with interesting shapes and finishes, in both art or architectural work. Nature strongly influences his personal designs, especially elements found in water.
Although he had considered teaching, until this month Porbe had not explored the idea. Teaching a class for Community Arts of Tecumseh (CAT) is a way for Porbe to nurture an interest and excitement for the arts. He worked in the Detroit arts community while based in that area, and now is happy and excited to share his work and talent in different ways to benefit Tecumseh and the surrounding area. His goal is to make art exciting and help people find their inner artists.
“It’s been great,” Porbe said. “I’m teaching the principles of metal sculpture.”
Because there are no facilities for welding at CAT and the students aren’t being trained in welding, the class works with wood and other materials to create mock-up sculptures. Each metal sculpture, based on the mock-up will be created by Porbe in his studio.
Someday Porbe expects he will do more teaching and less fabrication, but for now he enjoys expressing his creativity through his full-time work. “I’ve been fortunate to do the creative stuff, and to have a name for that,” he said.
Porbe’s portfolio and information can be found online at incitedesignllc.com, and he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313.477.3098.