Artwork has all the 'Wright' words

By Paul Arlon

Legal News

From the top floors of the tallest office building in Michigan at 500 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, the firm of Dickinson Wright, PLLC holds sway over the legal matters of a legion of high-profile clients. The pulse of Detroit is palpable as Dickinson, the anchor tenant of this nerve-center building, overlooks the river, both professional sports stadiums, and in all four directions, the rest of the city's ever-renovating downtown neighborhoods.

Along with maintaining a culture of professional excellence since 1878, Dickinson has always taken on a leadership role in the legal community. So when the newly erected and architecturally prominent One Detroit Center, now renamed Comerica Tower, began accepting tenants in 1991, a one-time chance arose for the firm to secure the uppermost floors for its Detroit offices. The firm currently holds offices on floors 37 through 41.

As Dickinson moved into its showplace quarters in what is arguably Detroit's most prestigious address, the firm set about making its law offices an investment in permanence. An aspect of the firm's commitment to the city and its dramatic urban setting included a well planned and executed collection of artworks that are displayed throughout the five floors of offices. To this end, an art committee was formed in early 1992 to select works that would be representative of the firm's long history with the city.

The focal point of this proud old firm is its spectacular two-story law library. With ceilings vaulting two floors high and with skylights and expansive windows that provide extraordinary natural lighting, the Dickinson Wright law library affords cityscape views unlike any other urban setting in Detroit. While other firms have opted for the immediacy and space-saving convenience of a digital law library, the deep-rooted traditions of Dickinson have combined the contemporary wired world along with 10,000 casebooks dating back to the 1820s and '30s, some volumes of which are irreplaceably unique.

To make certain that its collection was balanced and wisely assembled, the art committee used an established art consultant, Margie FitzSimons, then of Art Consulting Services based in Grosse Pointe. FitzSimons is known for her expertise in selecting "image" pieces for law firms. Using local and internationally-known artists and works that range from 19th century historical photographs to contemporary original works, the Dickinson Wright collection is powerfully imbued with the essence of Detroit.

The firm's custom designed signature piece runs almost the length of an entire wall of the 40th floor's balcony walkway, overlooking the firm's world-class law library -- an art installation called simply, "The Word Curtain."

Rendered by Ohio artist Rick Petry, "The Word Curtain" is an actual 5-foot high by 30-foot wide metallic curtain on top of which is woven more than 850 legal words and terms, along with the names of the firm's deceased partners dating back to the late 19th century. It was designed to not only commemorate Dickinson's past history, but also to represent present members of the firm and their areas of practice.

James N. Candler Jr., a Dickinson Wright partner, was a member of the art committee in 1992 that chose the well-known artists, such as the important original Lichtenstein in the main lobby, that hang throughout the firm's offices. Candler has more inside knowledge of the "Word Curtain" than anyone else still with the firm. He's kept the original binder that describes every art piece installed in the firm's office spaces, and still has all of the original correspondence relating to the development of their office's centerpiece.

"We had each of the firm's practice groups give us words that had specific or special meaning to their particular area of expertise," he said. "Then our art committee chose the words that were eventually placed on the curtain.

"The words are hand-wrought out of wire and rendered in cursive style writing. The artist used a lighter colored wire to fashion legal words and terms, and a darker, heavier wire was made into the names of all deceased partners from 1878 to 1992."

FitzSimons, who'd made a specialty of matching law firms and fine art, had earlier seen one other example of Petry's "Word Curtain" idea installed at an Ohio university. When she looked over the plans for Dickinson's architecturally significant law library, her suggestion was immediate -- that the prestigious old Detroit firm should have its own "Word Curtain."

FitzSimons, now working as an art consultant from her home offices in Florida and Harbor Springs, remembers installing the large body of artwork during the firm's transition to their new headquarters.

"The collection for Dickinson Wright was assembled to convey the firm's historical presence as well as its global outlook. From blueprints, the art committee of three lawyers from the firm and I made all of the selection and placement of the art. Art Consulting Services placed more than 100 pieces of art in the evenings while the firm moved in by day.

"The Word Curtain commission from Richard Petry was an interesting solution to a difficult space. I'd seen examples of his work and asked him to give us an estimate. The price was right, and the commission gave us an opportunity to involve the members of the art committee in the selection of the words. I sent their list off to Rick in Ohio. Artists are very creative people, and Rick added a few words of his own invention. I can't remember what word we had to have him remove. He drove all the way to Detroit and untangled the inappropriate word and replaced it."

The only stipulations when Petry began his masterwork, were that the Dickinson Wright "Word Curtain" must use words legal in context, and that it needed to be much more impressive so as to befit hanging above one of the finest law libraries in the country.

Dickinson Wright's library and the firm's hanging homage to its profession and history, the "Word Curtain," are inextricable components of the city itself. One needs only to stroll the balcony on the 40th floor of the Neo-Gothic Comerica Tower, look beyond the walkway's glass rails as the library's ceiling rises to window lit heights that meld with the city's skyline, and gaze upon the 30-foot long artwork to fully realize that these magnificent surroundings are the very epitome of Detroit law.

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This is a reprint from the Fall 2009 edition of MOTION Magazine.

Published: Tue, Apr 20, 2010

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