in residence | HOMEFRONT
Few people can boast a full-size English greenhouse in the middle of their living room, but Derek Smiertka and Chad Ackley can. The couple, partners in life and in business, live and work in a Detroit space that’s just as unconventional as their greenhouse.
That space can be found in a third-floor walkup in the Dodge Building (no relation to the auto company), which is set in a neighborhood with deep industrial and railroad roots: Milwaukee Junction. In the couple’s neighborhood, trains still roll through routinely, as they did in 1890. When Smiertka and Ackley moved into the 3,000-square-foot space a year ago, “It was really rough,” Smiertka remembers. “They white-boxed it (with plumbing and electricity), then we put in walls.” The pair’s home is one of four units in the building, three of which are occupied by artisans like themselves.
The couple makes high-end terrariums, lighting, and other custom décor using reclaimed glass and wood from deconstructed Detroit buildings. Their 3-year-old company, Leadhead Glass (leadheadglass.com) — which they relocated from Ferndale — creates pieces that are crafted in-house with a modern aesthetic and made with hand-cut clear glass panes. Among their 30-some retail venues are Leon & Lulu in Clawson and Pure Detroit in Detroit.
Just as Smiertka and Ackley were looking to expand Leadhead, they were approached by Jordan Wolfe and Kyle Polk, the Dodge Building’s property managers, who were looking for local artists and designers to move in. It was a huge transition for two guys who had never lived the urban lifestyle, let alone in a former factory where springs and sprockets had been produced. Smiertka, who previously worked in governmental affairs, hails from exurban White Lake. Ackley, a California native who formerly worked in finance, says working and living in the same space can be challenging. “We’ve tried to make a separation between the two by creating a comfortable area to live in, and segregating the work area to a particular section of our loft,” he says.
Inside their sunny, concrete-floored, 12-foot-ceilinged loft, an industrial fan whirrs, moving air across the massive space. Besides the greenhouse, which anchors the living room and is used to store plants, there’s a massive 18-by-10-foot wall unit that Ackley and Smiertka made of pine and Lauan plywood, and then filled with an array of art objects, books, and artifacts from their travels around the world. Behind the wall is storage for more utilitarian items. Another long wall is covered with their collection of urban-cool art and, at the end of the space, a knee wall covered with a slab of marble from the old Michigan Central Station. It dips down so that when Ackley is cooking one of his French or Japanese dishes in the kitchen, he can see to the other end of the room, where several production tables hold neat piles of hand-cut vintage glass on a grid, along with rolls of copper and lead to fuse them together.
Smiertka devised curtains from long painter’s tarps and hung them high from iron pipes, to diffuse the light from the original factory windows. He also made unique shelving units with the same piping.
Behind the kitchen is a roughed-in bathroom with a shower, antique baroque lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and a stellar view of the Fisher Building. The bedroom next door is also a work in progress, but it’s comfy enough to feel like home. At night, save for the slow, cozy, clickety-clack of the trains rolling by, Smiertka says it’s country-quiet.
“We like to start work a bit later in the day, so we usually don’t finish until later,” Ackley says. “Living and working in the same space certainly gives the ultimate flexibility, but we love what we do and it can be hard to pull away from it sometimes.”
Even so, Ackley says they’ve found plenty to do in the neighborhood, trading ideas and skills with the growing numbers of artisans who live nearby and discovering some of the local culinary treats, like Park’s Barbecue. “It’s been in the neighborhood for ages and for those who like a heavy vinegar North Carolina-style barbecue, it can’t be missed.”