Bo Shepherd and Kyle Dubay, the couple behind Woodward Throwbacks, preserve Detroit’s history by giving old materials new life
By Jamie Ludwig
Photography by Darrel Ellis
As the buildings and neighborhoods of a city change over time, pieces of its history can wind up being erased or forgotten. In Detroit, Kyle Dubay and Bo Shepherd aim to change that by salvaging wood and other usable materials from old buildings and transforming them into something new. In the process, the couple, who own Woodward Throwbacks in Hamtramck, weave together the city’s past and present, and preserve both for future generations. “We’re only bound by our own creativity, and Detroit has a lot of interesting textures and a lot of fun stories that we can pass on through the pieces that we make,” says Dubay.
Around 2013, Dubay, who grew up in Saginaw, and Shepherd — an East Coast native who relocated to Detroit to attend the College for Creative Studies and later worked as an interior car designer at GM — began taking long bike rides around the city and bringing home interesting finds from neighborhood streets to furnish their respective apartments. Neither had formal training in furniture building (outside of Dubay’s high school shop class), but they were both raised by entrepreneurial parents who have a knack for working with their hands: Shepherd’s dad is a contractor, and Dubay’s dad owns a car shop. So it seems natural that as the two developed their skills, using a portable table saw Dubay set up in his garage, they also found a way to turn their passion project into a business.
Today, Woodward Throwbacks employs 11 people and operates out of an old Dodge dealership. The 24,000-square-foot space, which opened for business in 2016, houses their workshop on one level, and their showroom on another. They still produce barware and home decor, occasionally collaborating with local artists such as WC Bevan and brands such as Faygo, but their prime focus has turned to interior design. The pair’s clientele includes companies such as Carhartt and Amazon, who’ve commissioned them for projects for their Detroit offices, but they’ve also drawn customers from far outside the Rust Belt region: Their Instagram account has more than 53,000 followers, a number that’s sure to grow after Better Homes & Gardens magazine named Shepherd one of 11 Black creators defining style and culture in 2021.
Among Woodward Throwbacks’ local clients is Sam Mertins, who recently worked with the couple to build an English-style pub in the basement of her Detroit home. “To say their work is quality is an understatement,” she says. “They’re thoughtful, unique and wildly creative. The team took a vision I had and made a beautiful reality.”
While much of the recent conversation about Detroit has been concentrated around the city’s downtown and a handful of hot spots, Woodward Throwbacks challenges that notion, in part by sourcing materials from all corners of Detroit. “People are so focused on downtown, and quote ‘opportunity zones,’ and the trendy neighborhoods that you have to take a step back,” says Shepherd. “Detroit is such a large city and there is so much outside of downtown, and we’re [saying] ‘Hey, you have to take Detroit for what it is in its entirety, not just one area of the city.’” Adds Dubay, “We’re not just working in West Village or downtown. We’re also out on Greenfield or all the way out on Gratiot, and working all over the city.”
As the couple’s business has grown, they’ve shifted from salvaging on bike rides to working with contractors and building owners. One of their favorite projects was salvaging materials from Detroit Hardware Co., which had been open for 94 years and co-run by members of two families from the 1950s until it closed in 2018. “It was an amazing experience just talking to [the owners’ families] about the possessions they had had and loved for so long…it really excites us when we get to prolong someone’s legacy,” says Shepherd.
This year Dubay and Shepherd are excited about a home design and renovation project on a house they purchased in North End. Naturally, they plan to incorporate as much salvaged material as possible. “The fun part and challenge for us is that it will not look like your stereotypical salvaged design,” says Dubay. “The aesthetic is more modern with clean lines and nice surfaces. It is definitely going to be a portfolio piece for us, and hopefully an example for other people on how you can use salvaged and sustainable materials in more of a contemporary way.”
During a time of uncertainty due to the pandemic and economic crises, the success of local businesses like Woodward Throwbacks can seem like a light in the dark. Their best advice on building a successful enterprise? Roll with the punches along the journey. “No matter what you thought your business would be, you will need to adjust it to survive and thrive,” says Dubay. Next up: Plans to launch a mod-inspired furniture line based around some corkboard the pair harvested from an old liquor store on 8 Mile. “We would have never thought we would be doing the things we are doing now,” he says. “But we noticed opportunities when they were presented and we’ve always taken big risks to get the rewards we were seeking.”