Last fall, after attending one in a string of local Chicago design events, I was wondering why the tenor of such events had mutated over time. My recollection of shows that presented new and local design ideas, specifically of furniture, objects, interiors and architecture, is that they were often subversive, stylish, stimulating affairs. Yet this particular experience seemed quite the opposite, with the requisite amenities of any Chicago street fair: the zip car booth, beer in plastic cups, and the sounds of a local band bouncing and distorting off the surrounding buildings and dissipating into the air.
Physical surroundings, context, people and multisensory experiences all play a role in the way we absorb new work, and can either serve to reinforce or detract from what it is we are seeing, tasting or hearing. In the case of designed objects, their context certainly cannot be ignored, as they are created to coexist amongst other objects, in a space, used by people. It therefore seems vital that the presentation of such objects and ideas must be carefully curated, and not just placed happenstance in a tent alongside tie-dyed t-shirts.
It was this initial realization that led me to consider what a show of Chicago-designed furniture and objects could be, if presented with the utmost consideration for their context and proximity to one another. Rather than displaying a series of independent pieces on pedestals, I was curious to see what a grouping of furniture and objects, all designed in Chicago, would look like together in one functional, unified space. Would a larger aesthetic emerge as a result? And would the careful consideration of each piece juxtaposed with the others bring about a more meaningful experience, the whole show being greater than the sum of its parts?
These questions resulted in the decision to curate a show called Objects in Space at the Living Room Gallery, in which a series of rooms or living “vignettes” would be presented, displaying objects and furniture designed and produced exclusively in Chicago. Eager to find shared characteristics, either stylistic or process-driven, between different Chicago-based designers’ practices, I was optimistic that a New Chicago Modern might emerge as a result of the show.
As is the case with designing spaces and objects, the process of curating became at times more significant than the final outcome. In addition to discovering a multitude of talented Chicago designers, I was struck by two consistent elements: the genuineness of the people, and the powerful, visceral experience of the spaces in which they were working. With the people, there is a collaborative spirit and sense of community that permeates the world of Chicago’s furniture designers. And, unlike the constrained spaces necessitated by cost and density on the east and west coasts, in Chicago there exists a vastness and abundance of large converted industrial spaces, with streams of natural light, wonderfully aged structures and patinated materials. Such a combination of people and space, of openness and humility paired with powerfully inspiring and functional spaces, yields a unique outcome of well-crafted, carefully and honestly designed pieces. Although the formal aspects of the pieces I selected for the show vary greatly, the commonalities are there in the materials, craft and detail.
As a result of this curatorial process, Objects in Space showcases pieces by 30 different designers, many of whom do not sell retail and therefore lack exposure beyond their clients’ spaces. The gallery is arranged in living and dining room spaces that are dynamic yet cohesive, with materials ranging from felt to concrete, steel to antique paper. The gallery is transformed into a place of domesticity, divided into two spaces by a permeable room divider / jewelry cabinet made by Tim Cozzens of workshop/Cozzens, which provides a visual connection with functional separation. The living room is comprised of a seating area, displays and functional wall space with hooks to hang coats and purses. The dining room’s centerpiece is a beautiful table made by Doug Thome of Thomeworks, created out of salvaged wood from the Hammond Organ factory, with chairs by 8 different designers surrounding it, and displaying the ephemeral papier maché and ceramic pieces by Susan Dwyer of Up in the Air Somewhere. The positioning of each piece in relation to the others enables the space to take on a life of its own, with details and textures ranging from the rough hewn to the obsessively finished. With a huge range in scale, the pieces all appear to have been worked, detailed and formed to perfection, but not beyond. The designs of benches, chairs, cabinets, light fixtures, vases, tables and textiles all present new ideas while adhering to traditional practices, with approaches that seem more about materiality, craft, and well-edited forms than trends or easy digestibility.
On the opening night, a soundtrack of Chicago music filtered through the beveled walnut speakers designed and made by Bryan Boline of B2 Concepts, with people setting their drinks on coasters made of leftover veneers from Furniture Revival, under the lighting of Beau Hale, Arlan DeRussy and MODified Originals. The architectonic quality of Dennis Johnson’s paintings and Sonnenzimmer’s prints served to reinforce the concept and feel of the space. As a unified experience, the evening simply made sense. The resultant aesthetic is indeed a New Chicago Modern, yet perhaps not as much new as a point on the continuum, updating of the culture of craft, holistic space, newness and longevity that exists in the wide-open density of Chicago.