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March 19, 2019

A Million dollars in art and fancy fridges:
Chicago residential buildings take
interior design to the next level

By Editor Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Time was, looking at brand-new apartment buildings meant managing your expectations. Sure, you might get a bright, fresh apartment with new appliances, a party room and an in-house fitness center. But if you were hoping for a space with a little personality, or a lobby that offered something beyond those standard-issue brass-and-glass chandeliers, some hard-wearing, inoffensive wallpaper and a couple of big potted plants, you might have to look elsewhere.

Even in high-end buildings, says Ann Thompson, Related Midwest’s senior vice president of design and architecture, “The spaces were very nice, but they could feel a little vanilla.”

Flash forward to Related’s early March opening of the condo floors in its Robert A.M. Stern-designed Streeterville tower, One Bennett Park. Museum-worthy art — a large scale tapestry by artist Pae White, embroidered with the intricate shapes of insects rendered in metallic thread, and a “floating” sculpture by Calder prize-winning artist Tomas Saraceno — takes pride of place in the lobby.

A separate lobby for the building’s 279 rental units also features marquee art, by Chicagoan Nick Cave, and both spaces are anchored by patterned marble floors intended to be a modern take on the classic architectural patterning of David Adler. Accents include gold lame pillows and a deep rose, art deco-style sofa in a model living room.

Units at Lincoln Park’s Fifteen Fifty on the Park, with designs by the artful modernists at Gary Lee Partners, will be outfitted with slick, open-plan-worthy kitchens so chic, your Margiela sneakers won’t look out of place at all.

At 1000M, a 72-story tower planned for the South Loop, developers are touting a design pedigree that includes Kara Mann, known for edgy-but-elevated residential design. Mann will provide designs for public areas and model units as well as interior finish choices for units from micro (a 325-square-foot mini-condo) to macro (a 5,500-square-foot penthouse).

In an earlier outing as whole-building interior designer at 111 W. Wacker Drive, Mann installed bold details such as a video art piece and a lilac sofa in the lobby, and striking hand-painted wallpaper in the amenity space elevator lobby.

Today’s flavor? Definitely not vanilla.

“I think buildings that have more committed aesthetics are appealing to people because they have an identity, one that people can connect with,” Thompson said, noting that developers now start a design process for new buildings with psychographics that provide them a profile of the buyer they hope to serve. Instead of aiming for a broad swath of the marketplace, buildings are targeted to specific personality/lifestyle types, and tailored to fit them like a bespoke suit.

Photos: One Bennett Park

A look inside Streeterville’s 70-story residential tower, One Bennett Park. Read the full story.(Photos have been digitally enhanced.) (Related Midwest) “People understand they’re buying a level of design as part of a real estate purchase,” she said.

That’s true for buyers and renters throughout the price spectrum. In developer Cedar Street’s “Flats” branded buildings, small studio apartments might include design-forward Smeg refrigerators, and public spaces are tricked out with a living-room atmosphere that extends to artwork by local artists, cool vintage accessories and of-the-moment color palettes.

“Design has always been important to us, and integral to our brand,” said Cedar Street partner Mark Heffron, who oversees design for the company. “Our take on it is a little different than others, but it has always been something that has helped us stand out in the marketplace.”

As the societal trend toward density and smaller individual living spaces continues to grow, it becomes ever more important for public spaces in apartment and condo buildings to show off elevated design that residents would be proud to have in their private homes. On some level, the idea is egalitarian: That marquee painting or swanky velvet sofa might not be within your reach for your own space, but it can be yours — as long as you’re willing to share it with your fellow building residents.

Budgets for design, and time devoted to planning it, have increased as the demand for design upgrades has increased. “If you track our projects from 20 years ago to now,” said Thompson, “the commitment to design has grown substantially. One Bennett Park has over a million dollars of art in the building. We wouldn’t have done that 20 years ago.”

Among other costs developers are willing to absorb in the name of good design: time and focus. “It does take a lot of care on the front end,” said Heffron, who notes that the Flats designs are based initially on the vibe and time period of the vintage structures, “but we think it’s worth it.”

Heffron manages design budgets, in part, by sourcing finishing touches in a way that suits his customer base. “We’re not going to buy everything from a big design store. We’re a little scrappier than that.” He often finds creative reuse for vintage pieces the company discovers inside its buildings, pre-renovation.

Perhaps more important, Heffron says, is the design you don’t see, which not only improves residents’ living experience, it helps keep the prices right. Creating smaller individual units helps keep rents lower — but it also increases the importance of thoughtful design.

“Design isn’t only the nice finishing touches in the lobby,” Heffron says. “When you do a 500-square-foot one-bedroom, you have to make sure that it’s going to live right. It doesn’t pop out on paper, but a well-planned small unit requires a lot of effort. The trick is to do it well, get those style points, but do it in a manner that you can have a rent that’s approachable.”


Kara Mann, known for edgy-but-elevated residential design, worked on the common areas of South Loop’s 1000M. (Millerhare) Mann, who is known for bringing the wow factor to her designs, echoes those sentiments. “We spend a lot of time on the layout and flow of the space. A killer layout is essential. I’m a big proponent of things being very functional, but elevated.” In her kitchens for 1000M, for instance, Mann created a corner for a “morning kitchen” — a convenient spot in the pantry for coffee maker, toaster and supplies, to make grabbing that first cup and bite of the day a little easier.

Foundational design is the underpinning of functionality, says Thompson. “Because a building is really well designed, you walk in and it’s very calming because everything is in its place, everything has a place and everything has been thought of in advance.” Those details can be minor — like bronze corners on walls in public spaces, to limit wear — or more obvious, like thoughtful placement of lighting.

After all, your building is your home — an extension of your hip, colorful, co-working, dinner-party-throwing, swanky pool-deck-lounging, art-appreciating self. “You can see how the design of these buildings draws certain people who want to belong to a certain tribe,” Thompson said. “In a weird way, these buildings with very strong design help people identify with something.”