By Heidi Mitchell
As published in GRAY No. 58
A staircase at Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower project in Chicago.
Nearly two decades after it was nicknamed the Windy City, Chicago blew away any preconceived notions of what an urban landscape could look like.
The year was 1893, and the World’s Columbian Exposition had landed at the South Side’s Jackson Park, reshaping a metropolis devastated by the Great Fire just 22 years prior. Dozens of whitewashed buildings sprang up south of the Loop business district in what would become a model of symbiosis among architecture, design, industry, transportation, and public space. Architect and exposition director Daniel H. Burnham recruited the nation’s top sculptors of the built environment—including McKim, Mead & White, Louis Sullivan, G.W.G. Ferris, Frederick Law Olmsted, and other luminaries—to redraw the railroad capital of America, and segmented off the 26 miles of land fronting Lake Michigan, transforming it into a landscaped park that was, and remains, accessible to all. From the ashes, a sparkling White City emerged.
The city’s aesthetic has changed dramatically since 1893. The Chicago School of architects perfected the steel-frame skyscraper. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pared down built structures to, as he termed it, “skin and bones.” Frank Gehry and Anish Kapoor drew swooping lines across Millennium Park. Black designers were at last recognized for their contribution to the city’s look and feel with 2019’s African American Designers in Chicago exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. These days, international fairs continue to draw diverse talent and their patrons—to the annual NeoCon design trade fair, to the Basel-like Expo Chicago art show, to the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and to countless summer festivals. Creatives confident enough to flaunt their Midwest pride—Theaster Gates, Holly Hunt, Virgil Abloh, Jeanne Gang—keep one-upping themselves while motivating other creatives to bring their A games. “I think it’s admirable that creative people here don’t feel the need to flock to the traditionally ordained ‘design cities’ to validate their contributions to the design world,” says Tereasa Surratt, vice president and global group creative director at Ogilvy and owner/innkeeper of the beloved artists’ retreat Camp Wandawega. “They own and celebrate their roots and are inspiring the designers of tomorrow to rethink where they can find and create inspiration. Global talent flocks to them here.” In a city with 77 neighborhoods and at least as many ethnic enclaves, those flocks come in every shape, shade, size, and discipline, and they change every year.
From a jewelry designer who grew up in Paris to a team of Mexican interior designers that encourages community dining to a maximalist decorator from Indiana, here are seven tastemakers shaping Chicago’s creative scene today. »
FROM TOP: Solstice on the Park is a residential tower shaped by the angles of the sun and one of the first Studio Gang projects to explore the concept of solar carving—shaping a building’s form to maximize solar access—for environmental advantages. Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois.
Studio Gang | Jeanne Gang
After studying at the University of Illinois and then the Harvard Graduate School of Design, architect Jeanne Gang worked at the prestigious Office for Metropolitan Architecture in the Netherlands before returning home to Chicago, where she eventually built her namesake practice. The firm started out creating community centers like Glencoe’s Writers Theatre, and over the years has expanded its portfolio to include civic, residential, and hospitality projects, most recently, the riverside St. Regis Chicago. Her super-tall structures and sexy, curvy lines (exemplified by Chicago’s 82-story Aqua Tower) define her aesthetic and make her one of the few living female starchitects with her own firm. Employing nearly 100 practitioners from all over the world, Gang uses design to unite people, nature, and communities—always with an eye on sustainability. “I have always been excited about making it possible for people to step outside on a terrace or balcony of a tall building,” Gang says of her residential work. “The sculptural aspects of my buildings grow out of the qualities that make the insides great for living.”
ABOVE: The design of the Swiss Consulate Chicago, by Kwong Von Glinow in collaboration with Swiss architecture office HHF, took inspiration from the geometric work of Swiss-born architect Otto Kolb. BELOW: The office is organized around a green core that holds public and gathering spaces; offices and a conference room surround this central, social space.
Kwong Von Glinow | Lap Chi Kwong & Alison Von Glinow
Lap Chi Kwong and Alison Von Glinow, alums of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, both did time at Herzog & de Meuron’s head-quarters in Switzerland, but in 2017, the married couple decided the Midwest offered a better home base for an experimental practice than Basel or Kwong’s native Hong Kong. (Alison Von Glinow grew up in the Chicago suburbs.) Their own home, Ardmore House, breaks convention by flipping the traditional two-story family-house typology, and their conceptual work (from public installations to reimagined affordable housing) presents fresh, human-centric ideas for using and interacting with space. “We like to start designing with the word ‘value,’” Von Glinow says. “Values include bringing in light and air, engaging with the surroundings, prioritizing shared social spaces, and using sustainable, authentic materials to achieve healthy living environments.” As former residents of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seattle, Boston, New York City, and Basel, the couple “find it fascinating to transport ideas from place to place and see how they transform the space itself.”
For a project in the historic Palmolive Building, interior designer Christopher Kent embraces unconventional furniture shapes and layered in art for some additional color.
In a city known for heavy, wood-paneled interiors that evoke a clubby vibe, the work of Christopher Kent is a revelation. A believer in bold hues, layered patterns, and the power of the occasional vintage furnishing, the Southern Indiana native pushes his high-end clients to go maximalist, blending periods, textures, and rich shades with pieces they have amassed over the years. “I love to embrace other people’s collections,” Kent says. “Telling their story, not mine, is extremely important.” A residence he designed in the iconic Palmolive Building layers gold-tapestry Roman shades with berry-hued striped armchairs in the dining room, an all-pink kitchen, a blue-velvet scalloped headboard in the primary bedroom, and unconventional wallpaper in the powder bathroom. His other residential projects—as well as designs Kent created as Restoration Hardware’s in-house gallery designer—are just as bold. Kent admits his showroom looks didn’t always jibe with Restoration Hardware’s signature gray-on-gray palette, but he’s certainly found his vision. “I 100 percent see in color,” he says.
Tzuco | Chef Carlos Gaytán, Cadena + Asociados Concept Design
Rare is the Mexican restaurant that goes for Baroque, but that’s just what Tzuco, in the buzzy River North neighborhood, has done. Executed by Mexico City–based Cadena + Asociados Concept Design, chef Carlos Gaytán’s high-end Mexican-French eatery amplifies the dining experience through storytelling that takes guests to his hometown of Huitzuco, in southwest Mexico. Diners can’t help but be satiated by the food, but the décor is equally satisfying, dramatic, and unexpected with a moody dark palette, corn silks, wooden figurines, handmade wooden tables, and leather-upholstered chairs. The idea was to give diners a sense of community and a desire to linger, which is why chef Gaytán and principal designer Ignacio “Nacho” Cadena insisted on an exposed kitchen right in the center of the dining room. “Open kitchens have always existed since humans began cooking around fires during ancient times,” Cadena says. “Open kitchens are not a trend; these are tribal origins that cannot be hidden.”
STAY & EAT
Japan has arrived at the West Loop, courtesy of Studio K, Karen Herold’s interior design firm known for big, splashy projects like Chicago’s Hotel Zachary and The Girl and the Goat. Here, the Nobu restaurant and hotel brand set its first Midwestern property inside a ground-up, brick-and-glass building, allowing the 116-key retreat to blend into the fabric of the formerly industrial neighborhood. But inside, guests are transported to a loftier place. Upon entering the lobby, the design of which is inspired by kintsugi (a traditional Japanese process that uses gold to fill cracks in broken porcelain), they are greeted by a 26-foot-tall brass sculpture inlaid in the indigo plaster walls. The lobby leads to the restaurant, where extra-high ceilings are held aloft by columns inspired by Samurai swords. Upstairs, hallways are illuminated by wooden lanterns, and guest rooms feature exposed concrete ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and various suites have wooden soaking tubs in the bathroom. Inspired by the weathered beauty of Japan’s oldest buildings, natural materials in varying patinas are left intentionally imperfect, “as if they’ve been stopped in the middle of the aging process,” Herold explains.
Opening a boutique in the funky Bucktown neighborhood was a spontaneous decision, says Robin Richman, whose clothing and accessories draw daring dressers from all over the world. “I had a wholesale knit business for years and was in need of a retail space. One afternoon, I was driving down Damen Avenue and saw a beautiful corner garden with a storefront for rent. The next day, I signed a lease.” That was 24 years ago, and since then, the eccentric designer has been traveling to Europe to fill the racks of her eponymous boutique, one of the first female-owned independent stores in the area. Though her northern end of Damen Avenue quieted considerably during the pandemic, a diverse international clientele still makes pilgrimages to Richman’s shop for Marc Le Bihan’s deconstructed dresses, Henrik Vibskov geometric leggings, Uma Wang’s textiles, Antipast’s knit socks, and Guidi’s zip- front booties. “My aesthetic has changed over the years,” Richman reflects. “The look is still avant-garde, just less severe.”
Pieces from the Almasika line include the Comb necklace (above) and Berceau cuffs (left).
Born in Paris, Catherine Sarr has had a passion for jewelry from the get go. A former DeBeers global communications manager, Sarr’s interest in the world of jewelry is deeply entwined with her appreciation for storytelling and a desire to explore the duality of jewelry as both adornment and spiritual object. “[At DeBeers] I was exposed to designers from all over the world, especially from Asia, and I was impressed with how they told stories through jewelry,” she says. She launched her company, Almasika, in London, then brought it with her when she moved to Chicago five years ago. (Almasika officially relaunched in September 2020.) Sarr likes to use her baubles’ sensual forms and flowing lines to express how mankind has thought about adornment for millennia, exploring the shapes, symbols, and stories “that transcend cultures and unite us as humans.” Her latest line, Sagesse, is based on concentric circles—a celebration of ancient symbols used across cultures around the world. “What you put on your body should have meaning,” she says. “It should spark dialogue and transport you.” Sold at trunk shows, select high-end jewelry stores, and online at Net-a-Porter, Almasika’s creations have a devoted following who are, Sarr notes, “inherently curious and have a great sense of style.”