How the all-women team at END Studio is making des...

How the all-women team at END Studio is making design accessible in Detroit

From playful art installations to more affordable services, the architecture firm is carving out a different niche.

end studio detroit team

The END Studio team: Valeria de Jongh, Elise DeChard and Sophie Yan. Courtesy END Studio

Sometimes, the architects at Detroit’s END Studio are redesigning homes for wealthy clients. But you’re just as likely to find them working for a nonprofit or cobbling together junked furniture scraps into upcycled art pieces.

Elise DeChard, owner of the all-women architecture and design practice, encourages the firm to take on a handful of creative projects every year that aren’t really about making money. 

In late 2020, the firm participated in an art exhibition at Wasserman Projects, “Never Normal,” where it featured works that emerged from a popup repair shop. The studio put a call out for old or damaged furniture, asked the owners for a creative direction, and restored them for free in an imaginative way. 

“It fit in with our design ethos,” DeChard said. “We don’t want to take ourselves or our designs too seriously. Architecture can be fun, playful, surprising. Doing something like an art installation gives us a little bit of an outlet untethered to needs of building code.”

END Studio pieces in the “Never Normal” exhibition. Credit: Clare Gatto

The exhibition at Wasserman Projects mirrors the kind of projects END Studio undertakes for its commercial work: creative, functional and accessible all at once. Now in its third year, the small but growing all-women firm has found a niche doing residential renovations and working for Detroit small businesses and nonprofits, like a restaurant in Corktown and ceramics studio in Hamtramck. 

DeChard, 35, graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, then spent seven years working for larger architecture firms in New York City. After becoming slightly jaded with the work, she decided to get a Master of Fine Arts in architecture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “I wanted to figure out a different way of being an architect that wasn’t entirely dependent on client-based work,” she said. 

While in school, she tested out this idea by buying a home in Pontiac, which she temporarily turned into a gallery and artist residency. 

DeChard moved to Detroit after graduating in 2018.

“There’s a bootstrap and creative energy here that’s infectious,” she said. “To be surrounded by it makes you feel like you can do it too. And many of those people ended up being our clients and friends as well.”

Her goal to pursue personal interests in collaboration with a close team and Detroit’s creative class led her to start END Studio (the letters are DeChard’s initials). Though currently a team of just three, the firm is planning to hire more people and move into a larger studio this summer, DeChard said.

END Studio redesign of Folk’s front-of-house space to adapt to pandemic changes. Credit: Clare Gatto

One of her first hires was Sophie Yan, an interior and furniture designer who met DeChard at Cranbrook and shares a similar design philosophy. “Too often you have to have money to afford architecture,” Yan said. “And while we do have wealthy clients who want to renovate their homes, we also wanted to go beyond that by finding a different kind of clientele and even a business model that allows us to offer our services to people who traditionally couldn’t afford it.”

Design Core Detroit, a nonprofit that supports the city’s design industry, has been instrumental for END Studio in finding clients who fit Yan’s description. As part of DCD’s Detroit’s Month of Design in 2020, END redesigned a window display for Just Speak, an organization that supports youth survivors of childhood trauma. 

When Rohani Foulkes, owner of Folk in Corktown, was looking to redesign the restaurant’s front of house to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, DCD provided a $20,000 grant for the project and organized a pitching salon with architectural firms, including END Studio. 

Foukes immediately felt a connection with END. “Being a woman in small business, I’ve had multiple not so positive, sometimes quite disrespectful, interactions with tradespeople and industry folks,” Foulkes said. “More than their ideas, I liked that [END Studio] seemed to understand what Folk was doing, who we were and the transition we were going through.”

END found a cost-effective way to overhaul the main dining area into a mini-market with custom shelving, a walkup window and espresso service.

“I’ve worked with them since and plan to work with them again in the very near future,” Foulkes said. “That says everything about how I feel about their work and them as professionals.” 

The women at the studio echoed Foulkes, noting that they have experienced sexism at points in their careers, usually from a patronizing superior or contractor. DeChard, who also teaches at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, makes an effort to mentor younger women designers. 

The experience has been great for END’s most recent hire, architectural designer Valeria de Jongh. “It’s really empowering to be at a women-led firm,” de Jongh, 30, said. “I’m fortunate to have a great mentor, and work in a great environment with a lot of camaraderie.” 

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.