The fact that NoRo (shorthand for North Royal Oak) rhymes with SoHo may not be entirely coincidental. Like the New York arts enclave, the area off 14 Mile Road between Crooks and Coolidge is becoming a creative colony in its own right.
Once a cluster of faceless buildings devoted to manufacturing and light industry, NoRo (it was unofficially christened as such at the first neighborhood association meeting last May) is now home to interior designers, photographers, graphic designers, art framers, an architectural firm, Habatat Galleries, a catering company, and a fitness studio. There’s even a company that makes electric cycles.
There are still manufacturing businesses in NoRo — Saab moved its North American headquarters there last year — but the neighborhood, which retains a somewhat industrial look, has drawn a decidedly more diverse business base in the last several years.
Sprawling spaces, reasonable rents and mortgages, and ample parking are among the attractions. For interior designers, the area has another lure: proximity to their clients and Michigan Design Center.
“That’s why I came here,” says Richard Ross, owner of Richard Ross Designs, who moved from Ferndale to NoRo about two and a half years ago.
“This building also has more street presence, not that we’re a retail space, but it’s nicer when someone pulls up to your space and it has some presence.”
Ross likes his location on Leafdale because “in the back we have a huge warehouse, which is wonderful because we can load and unload and keep things warehoused right here.”
Ross’ sentiments are echoed by Barry Harrison and Arturo Sanchez, proprietors of Art | Harrison Interiors on nearby Delemere.
They bought their 1961 building seven years ago after spending 12 years in Birmingham’s Rail District.
“We could never buy our building in the Rail District and, as business owners, we wanted to do that,” Sanchez says. “When they jacked up our rent to the ceiling, we said, ‘Forget it.’ ”
So the business partners searched for new digs and found an ideal 6,000-square-foot space, a former engineering firm, and began renovations.
“We have 26 parking spaces here; in Birmingham, there was very little parking,” Harrison says.
Just a stone’s throw away on Nakota Road is a building owned by commercial photographer Alan Davidson, who also relocated from the Rail District. He subdivided the expansive edifice — it’s 16,400 square feet — into six spaces and rents them out. Recently, he bought another building on Delemere Court.
Davidson scoped out other neighborhoods, but was hooked on NoRo, and bought his first building in 2007.
“I wanted a neighborhood that was really going to pick up in momentum in five years,” he says. “I love Pontiac and downtown Detroit, but I don’t want to wait 15 or 20 years to see those areas come to life. There’s a real ‘hurry-up’ factor here.
“I used to live in New York, so I wanted something with a SoHo, Bohemian feel,” he adds.
But it wasn’t merely a hip quality that Davidson was after; he craved a friendly, neighborly vibe.
“I wanted someplace with density, which breeds friendship and safety.”
That sense of fellowship was cemented when Harrison and Sanchez hosted the first NoRo neighborhood meeting at their spot last spring. “It was all about being friendly and knowing who your neighbors are,” Harrison says of the get-together.
“We were all able to network and socialize,” Sanchez says. “We’re all self-employed, many of us work late, and that’s led to great camaraderie. Sometimes Alan [Davidson] will pop by when he’s walking his dogs. Or maybe Barry and I will drop by and see Mary [interior designer Mary Olk] for a glass of wine.”
That first party was such a hit that Harrison and Sanchez are hosting a neighborhood Oktoberfest on Oct. 29.
The small-town congeniality even touched corporate giant Saab.
“When Saab moved in, the CEO came over and introduced himself and invited me to their open house,” Davidson says. “So I offered my parking lot to them if they ever needed it. That’s the old-time neighborhood feeling I like, where you knew the butcher and dry cleaner and they knew you.”
Sociability aside, there was a further enticement for Harrison and Sanchez to move to NoRo: There was room for their furniture workshop. They create bench-made bespoke pieces for their clients and also sell their line through Tennant & Associates at Michigan Design Center and at Filsinger Chicago in the Windy City’s Merchandise Mart.
On a hot, still day, sawdust particles dance in the sunlight as the pungent smell of freshly cut wood permeates the humid air in their woodshop at the rear of the building. A carved mahogany leg sits on a worktable, awaiting enlistment as support. Timber is piled in a corner. Wood chips dot the floor. Harrison and Sanchez have about 45 pieces in their collection, which includes light fixtures and other accessories.
Though they say they’re somewhat stylistically indebted to Art Deco, Sanchez says “We don’t have a ‘look.’ We work in many genres. But we have a consistent thread: Our work is very tailored and edited.”
“And we’ll make our pieces lower, or wider, depending on what the client wants,” Harrison says. “For most pieces, there isn’t an upcharge for resizing. That’s becoming a big plus for us.”
Like Harrison and Sanchez, who are marking 20 years in business, Ross designs his own furniture, although he doesn’t make it on-site or have his own line. But “that’s one of my aspirations,” he says.
“It’s important for me as a designer that things fit to the inch, and that’s why we do a lot of custom pieces,” Ross says.
Harrison looks around at the renovations he and Sanchez have done to their place and mentions adding a bar. Another area will be turned into a living room where they can meet with clients.
“We’re really invested in this building,” he says.
“And we’re in it for another 20 years,” Sanchez adds.
Etterbeek Chandelier This Art | Harrison Regency-inspired iron chandelier is in a distressed gilded finish with a soft glaze and accented with amber glass.
Boutros Chaise An Art | Harrison daybed made of solid mahogany in an ebony finish, with cashew-colored cut velvet upholstery and faux fur pillows.
Constantine Console This piece started out as the center of a railing. Art | Harrison incorporated the medallion design into a console base, hand-forged using iron, gilded, and distressed with a marble top.
Sommerville Table The first piece in the Art | Harrison Collection was inspired by a client who loved fiddlehead ferns. Made of hand-carved mahogany with a veined red onyx top.