A Weekend in Grand Rapids, An Underrated Hub for American Design

Three hours from Chicago, Grand Rapids offers everything from a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece to a decorated history of furniture manufacturing

November 12, 2021 1:50 pm
Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1908 Meyer May House is one of the master’s finest Prairie Style residences, built for a local clothier in Grand Rapids.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1908 Meyer May House is one of the master’s finest Prairie Style residences, built for a local clothier in Grand Rapids.
Meyer May House

It’s easy to see Grand Rapids as the Rodney Dangerfield of Michigan cities, overshadowed by hip Ann Arbor, car- (and Motown-)driven Detroit, and the culinary mecca Traverse City. But as many of us have discovered over the past months of restricted travel, there are a slew of towns a car ride away that offer plenty to see and do.

Home to the Ottawa when French trader Louis Campau established a trading post here in 1826, the community was well on its way to becoming Michigan’s second largest city by 1850. Fueled by the flow of the Grand River and access to extensive forests, the town made its mark in the 1870s as a furniture manufacturing hub. By the turn of the century, dozens of factories were in operation and a “Grand Rapids Made” logo was a consumer’s assurance of a quality product. 

While the glory days petered out in the post-war years, Grand Rapids remains home to Steelcase, whose offerings have defined the offices of corporate America for decades. Another industry leader, Haworth, is located in nearby Holland, and Herman Miller (think Eames, Noguchi and Nelson) is right up the road in Zeeland. 

The first best move for design fans visiting the city is to check into The Canopy Grand Rapids Hotel, housed in an eight story brick-clad building that has been designed (by Chicago’s Valerio Dewalt Train) to echo the warehouses and industrial buildings that have long been a part of the urban fabric. The interiors — propelled by Anderson/Miller, Ltd. —  deftly reference motifs and materials of the modern past — terrazzo, room dividing panels, thin, linear oak beams — to create spaces that hit that sweet spot between heavy homage and an of-the-moment freshness.

A room at the Canopy Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Canopy Hotel/Jim Haefner

Once you’re settled in, take a gander at the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s wide-ranging collection and be sure to work in a visit (book ahead) to Frank Lloyd Wright’s ’s 1908 Meyer May House, one of the master’s finest Prairie Style residences, built for a local clothier. And if you’re got room in the trunk for some vintage furniture, take a swing through Lost & Found Treasures of Old and New, known for a well-priced selection of pieces from the 1950s through the ‘70s (445 Century Ave SW). 

Of course, you don’t have to be a design nut to enjoy Grand Rapids. For political history buffs, there’s The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, with exhibits that examine the 38th president’s early life, his years as a Congressman, and the stunning circumstances that propelled him from the Vice Presidency to the White House. And vinyl aficionados won’t go home empty-handed if they hit up Vertigo Music, The Corner Record Shop and Dodds Record Shop.

When you’ve had enough of docents (or shopping), do an about-face and hit up Clique Lanes, a small, old school bowling alley that doesn’t overplay the retro card. And if you don’t overdo it on the munchies there, take a minute to consider dinner. You’ll need it: This town offers plenty of options. Terra — which is big on local farmers and suppliers — offers a good variety, from mussels tikka masala to goat cheese gnocchi with sweet corn, smoked bacon and pickled banana peppers. Sovengard serves up Scandinavian-inspired dishes and if a burger or sandwich will get the job done, try The Green Well. If you’re in town November 19 and 20, you may want to make time for the Wine, Beer, and Food Festival. Now in its 14th year, this palate-pleasing event features beverages from all over, plates from local eateries, music, speakers, and more.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum.
Grand Rapids Art Museum/Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing

Like any self-respecting Midwest city, Grand Rapids doesn’t come up short in the beer department. In fact, USA Today readers voted it “Best Beer City” in 2020 and 2021. The micro scene kicked off in 1997, when two Hope College pals opened what became Founders Brewing Co., still going strong with a taproom at 235 Grandville Ave. SW.

Today there are over 80 suds factories in the city and surrounding area, including Brewery Vivant, a Belgian-inspired operation with a big barroom housed in a former funeral home. And if you have a thirst for a true German-style draughts and a Gemütlichkeit atmosphere — and don’t mind a 20-minute drive — Cedar Springs Brewery offers a menu of award-winning Bavarian-style brews. No matter where you end up, you’ll be saying “Cheers!” in no time.


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