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1345 Division Street
Detroit, Michigan 48207

Toby Barlow

By Tunde Wey
May 22, 2013

It is not as visionary as we all make it out to be – that intrepid venture into Detroit to start something. Yes, the folks who are building new things should be commended, they are braver – or maybe just more astute – than most, but the truth is it doesn’t take vision to choose Detroit to be an entrepreneur. The more omnipresent truth might be that entrepreneurs who eschew Detroit are in fact the people losing; more recently it has been a badly-kept secret that Detroit is swollen with opportunity. The real test of prescience is doing things differently and doing it better.
"I think there is a huge untapped economic opportunity in Detroit the likes of which I have never seen, waiting to be filled in by lots of small ideas, some of which will go big" says Toby Barlow with a singular confidence that erases all doubt. The force of his conviction is not hinged on statistics or hear say, it is firmly pressed in experience.
Toby Barlow is a Detroit resident and Creative Director at Team Detroit, Ford Motor Company’s agency of record; co-owner of Nora, the Midtown design-focused retailer; co-owner of soon-to-open Corktown restaurant Gold Cash Gold; co-founder of Write-A-House, a Detroit writing residency program; and co-founder of Signal-Return, a traditional letter press design and print shop in Eastern Market. Each project, business or fascination has created a continuous series of affirmations for Barlow, reinforcing this conviction: Detroit is a place where opportunity should be taken for granted.
Barlow is speaking from inside Signal-Return. The open space with exposed ducts and steel girders has all manner of old letter pressing machines. Distinct type faces, stamped on wooden blocks, sit on tables, most stained with old colors from previous print runs. The space, designed by M1/DTW, a highly-sought-after local architecture and design firm, is all white, with bright yellow accents. Large glass panels cover the face of the building on Division Street, a side road off of Russell Street, Eastern Market’s busy thoroughfare.
Letter pressing is old world chic, a perfect wedding of art and technology. Each word is composed and set by hand for printing so the satisfaction of work exists without the exhaustion of labor. Barlow beautifully describes the allure of this practice: "I think (letter press) printing is an interesting model for the art market because you are able to make multiple copies that each have a unique value. It’s not so mechanical as to be without human interest and it’s not so unique as to be one-of-a-kind."
Letter pressing has become very vogue; previously the domain of hobbyists and enthusiasts creating obscure literature for galleries and maybe weddings, its infiltration into mainstream design lexicon is almost complete. Venture into any hip happening in the city and you might find a letter-pressed piece advertising it. Like most things that bubble to capture the popular fancy, there is wariness about a bust. Barlow seems unperturbed.
"I think we have proven out the model of being a print shop that teaches and shares its expertise with the community and is an art resource for prints. We have an established traffic flow; we’ve very quickly proved the viability of the model."
Signal-Return, which Barlow co-founded with a slew of other Detroit enthusiasts, espouses four principles which guide its operations. These principles are Teach, Connect, Serve, and Produce. Signal-Return serves the community by teaching letter press printing and typography, and also connecting them to the work of other letter press artists. The print shop also serves as a studio that produces "relevant, challenging and beautiful work."
Barlow has sleepy eyes and silver hair, sometimes disheveled but today neat and distinguished, and a New York accent faintly perceptible behind his extended drawls. He seems to move, bipedally or vocally, at his own pace, deliberate and sure. At 47 he has a good amount of time to understand exactly who he is, saying, "I'm good at team building and optimism and creative problem solving," but Barlow’s secret weapon might be his ability to intuitively recognize what is necessary.

For Detroit he is eloquently prescriptive: "…The urban renaissance of Detroit is waiting for more sticky points; while other people have waited for big solutions to come, my theory is that lots of small points of interest generate greater activity. So what I’m interested in from both a business and civic perspective is helping to kindle these sticky points."
Barlow’s optimism is adequately anchored by the reality of Detroit’s unique circumstances. Barlow moved to Detroit from Brooklyn, without really knowing much about the city, saying he had "the benefit of being unburdened by its history" even as he became quickly aware of it. Without this burden that sometimes manifests as a stultifying premeditation and awkward self-consciousness that arrests new ideas, Barlow seems to have confidently balanced action with intention.
"I think that new ideas need to respect history. I think that everybody plays a part but there have been too many people holding Detroit back, based on things that happened twenty to thirty years ago. There are always currents that happen or continue; I think you can be either hypnotized or paralyzed by them or you can seek dynamic alternative paths."
In his distinct fashion, Barlow elucidates what this dynamism for Detroit means, specifically highlighting one of Detroit’s chief challenges: welcoming new ideas while still honoring its tradition.
"My operating theory is that clear communication, honesty, and patience works through most inherent contradictions. There’s a fantastic tension in this city between the desire to progress and the concerns about making sure that people and cultures aren’t bulldozed in the process and I think that by all the sides in those dialogues considering all those points you can find room for common ground."
Barlow has a lot to say about Detroit, and the more he speaks the more one sees that the real opportunity here is more than just starting something; it is sustaining what was already here in the first place.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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