i4design Magazine Picks Top 16 Midwestern Designers

Intro:  Let me start by saying that Mitchell Obstfeld is my new Facebook BFF.  He’s been running the trade magazine i4Design for 15 years. (Before texting, and anyone besides Prince was spelling “for” with a number)

Personally,  I’m nervous about doing roundups because I don’t feel like I have a big enough vocabulary of artists to make a great list. Well, Mitchell doesn’t have that problem, after all these years in the field, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of who-is-who, and what’s-what. I asked if he could knock off a list of 300 local design innovators in his sleep, and he nodded. I believe him.

So when Mitchell Obstfeld makes a list of the 16 best designers he knows, and why they made the list,  well, dammit, everyone take note.  I asked if we could snag the article, so without delay, re-posted with permission, with photography by Erin McClellan …

i4Design Magazine proudly presents our 4th annual Suite Sixteen picks for 2010, where we showcase the Midwest’s most innovative design pros who are pushing old boundaries, exploring new concepts and making a difference in design with the work that they do. Some are established; others are emerging and on the rise; all are tremendously talented. May you find them as engaging as we do…

“The Thinker” : Clare Lyster

If Clare Lyster, an assistant professor of architecture at University of Illinios at Chicago, has her way, a speculative FedEx facility she designed under a grant from the Graham Foundation could be your new home-away-from-home. “You could drop-off or pick-up everything you need to take care of in your life, “ says Lyster, whose work is all about building life-enhancing networks and infrastructures locally and globally. Despite her grounding in architecture, she is a fervent inter-disciplinarian who sees her field as “the framework” to organize and anchor collaborations between designers and social scientists of every ilk. Cases in point are her speculative research projects on alternative recycling networks that can benefit the City (from the Salvation Army to eBay); how global distribution networks impact Chicago; and alternatives for the $18 billion expansion of O’Hare Airport. “We’re putting all this money into it, so I keep thinking about how to maximize the investment. We should be amplifying the civic infrastructure there. Why not go to O’Hare to shop or see theatre? If architects were more involved in the design of public places, we would have better cities,” she points out.

A native of Ireland, Lyster came to the United States to earn a Master’s Degree at Yale School of Architecture, and then moved to Chicago for a fellowship and teaching position at the UIC. She garnered the attention of Joseph Rosa, who included her in his landmark 2007 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition Young Chicago: Contemporary Ideologies; he was impressed with her long-term speculative project on Lawndale (Lawndale: Expanding the Latent Landscape) that envisions using land swaps and newly created infrastructures to reconfigure and reactivate the neighborhood. Lyster finds these kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary projects “a contemporary and realistic way to think about urbanism. It’s not a part of a larger master plan, it’s a more democratic appropriation of available space.” Are you listening, Mayor Daley?

CLUAA (Clare Lyster Urbanism
and Architecture)
230 E. Huron Street
Chicago, IL

“The Playmakers” : Sharon and Peter Exley

Play is fun, but research shows it is also good for us. Peter and Sharon Exley, an architect and artist-cum-educator respectively, were way ahead of the proverbial pack when they co-founded the multidisciplinary design firm ArchitectureIsFun in 1994 to do projects that engender play and fun. “As adults, we have a tendency to forget to play and have fun. But doing things with spirit and joy makes life interesting,” says Peter, who also brought the very high-spirited, internationally heralded PechaKucha gatherings to Chicago in 2006—when only San Francisco ran the program Stateside. The Exleys have worked on such a compelling and visually dazzling host of museum, church, library and school projects that another fortuitous pairing, the legendary design team of architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, call their oeuvre “work of significance and relevance, joy and seriousness, range and depth.”

Peter earned his M.A. at University of Pennsylvania and is an alumnus of SOM and Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, and Sharon has a BA in Fine Arts and M.A. in Arts Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Yet they say their greatest achievement is “our daughter Emma.” “It’s deserving since she led us to our first project,” reasons Sharon. In truth, as a tyke Emma loved hanging out at the Chicago Children’s Museum, and the Exleys worked on a series of volunteer gigs that led to paid work. But they built on this foundation to create their imaginative firm, which is ostensibly dedicated to children. Yet there is a bit of child left in all of us, and these are spaces that let everyone’s imaginations run wild.

111 W. North Avenue
Chicago, IL

“The Renegade” : Ugo Alfano Casati

Chicago has always been a mid-century design Mecca thanks to an architectural history that has given savvy locals dealers a mother lode of vintage trappings to sell. Then Richard Wright opened his now internationally respected and market-making namesake West Loop auction house devoted to the period in 2000. It was hard to imagine room for anyone else…until Ugo Alfano Casati hit town. The Italian expatriate moved here from Paris to join his life-partner, and opened a namesake West Loop gallery to sell mid-century furnishings in 2003. But unlike his peers, Casati focuses on European merchandise, and has introduced us to a whole new class of drool-worthy pickings he unearths in Europe from Gio Ponti, Carlo Molino, Gae Aulenti, Achille Castiglioni, Carlo de Carli, Gianfranco Frattini, Angelo Mangiarotti (who is his own personal favorite) and more. And in the past year, he has added simpatico work by contemporary Italian designers to his oeuvre. “Naysayers told me it couldn’t ‘t be done, but I’m still here and have survived the downturn quite nicely,” laughs Casati. “I have a good loyal following locally, and sell all over the U.S and internationally too.” And soon he may be shipping U.S. pieces back to Europe, since he just added Chicago furniture designer Jonathan Nesci to his roster.

Casati’s love of home furnishings is understandable given his family background. “I grew up in Ethiopia, where we owned companies that produced art glass and wood for furniture manufacturers.” Post-university, he held marketing jobs in Paris with Bodum and Alessi respectively. When he decided to move to Chicago, “I thought I would start an e-commerce business, but everyone wanted to see the pieces in person, and touch them, so I opened a bricks and mortar gallery,” he says. And like Wright, Casati is also a market-maker. He mounted the first formal exhibition on the work of Angelo Mangiarotti in 2008, and published a monograph on the designer’s at that time (Angelo Mangiarotti Matter and Sense, $45).

Casati Gallery
949 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL

“The Hidden Jewel” : Dina Griffin

Mention the celebrated Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago, and Italian starchitect Renzo Piano comes to mind. But any architect will tell you that the brawn behind most such beautiful designs comes from the architect of record (AOR)—namely the local office big name designers collaborate with to get the job built. In this case, that is interactive Design, the 10-person firm co-owned and headed by Dina Griffin. As president, she was the one who routinely did the Paris-Chicago run to consult with Piano while handling a very full work load of stateside clients. Today her firm’s name is etched for all eternity—or at least a very long time—in the building’s cornerstone along with Piano’s. Yet Griffin, one of only 254 black female licensed architects in the United States remains under-the-radar, despite an enviable client list that includes other museums as well as healthy range of institutions (such as Lincoln Park Zoo, Northwestern University, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District). “I know a lot of other firms were going for the job, but we didn’t. They came to us. We’ve done a lot of work for AIC, including the East Garden that was demolished to make way for this,” she says. Much to her surprise, but not ours, she was asked to give this year’s convocation speech at her alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Architecture.

Griffin was working at architecture behemoth OWP/P in the interiors department when she got ‘the call’ in 1998 to meet with the founding principals of Interactive Design, which was then four years old. “I wasn’t interested in working for a small firm, but I knew I wanted to do more than interiors and you tend to get pigeonholed at big firms,” she explains. Plus, leaving the security of a well-established practice to help build something new was risky. But they made her an offer she couldn’t resist. “They said I could do buildings, and run entire projects,” she says. So she made the jump, got to run her very first project at the firm, and hasn’t looked back since. Today, the practice she heads has 10 architects who are insanely busy despite the economic downturn. “I think our firm is an aberration because we’ve never had to do any marketing,” laughs Griffin.

Interactive Design, Inc. Architects
308 W. Erie Street, Suite 506
Chicago, IL

“The Graphic Guru” : Rick Valicenti

When design world stars need design work for their own needs, such as seamlessly integrated branding, sharp multimedia projects or impressive websites, they hire the unpretentious yet enormously accomplished Chicago designer Rick Valicenti. His roll call of client relationships reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the design world, and includes architecture firms such as Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, Studio Gang, John Ronan and Lucien Lagrange; corporations such as Herman Miller and Motorola; and design world impresarios Richard Wright, Holly Hunt and more. Even the Harvard Graduate School of Design is on the list. Though he would have been labeled a ‘graphic designer’ a decade ago, now there is no way to put one or a few words on the depth and breadth of Valicenti’s capabilities, output and potential. And no one does; he is constantly accepting new challenges from clients, such as a current project with Archeworks to help students bring the most compelling issues they identified in their recent Infrastructures for Change conference to ‘multimedia’ life.

“I started out as a hacker,” quips the intellectually curious Valicenti, who has BFA and a MA and MFA in photography but is clearly an early adapter given his tech-breaking admission. He is now starting what he calls “my 30th year of unemployment,” reference to the fact that he went out on his own in 1981 and founded Thirst, his current firm, in 1989. With only four members, it is small but intense, and intensely attentive to its clients. “We care most about marrying conceptual rightness with the highest level of production values,” notes Valicenti. The stringent M.O. works; Valicenti’s work is s included in the permanent collection of The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; has been featured in myriad design publications; and has garnered a slew of prestigious awards— including the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Medal in 2006, which is considered the highest honor in the graphic design profession.


“The Rising Star” : Jessica Turf

When Jessica Turf says, “I love a good challenge,” she is referring to those meaty, soup-to-nuts projects she has on her plate as an interior designer at Jessica Lagrange Interiors. “I do everything, from helping my clients determine their most significant wants and needs, deduce their style and set a budget to figuring out how make sure their projects are comfortable, innovative and different than everyone else’s.” These challenging times have also added another layer to her job. “People are so budget-conscious right now that sourcing is more important than ever,” notes Turf, who is ways on the lookout for stylish yet economical options that meet her firm’s stringent quality requirements. These are tall orders for anyone, yet this young interior designer is competent at delivering the whole package, and is also charming, earnest and hardworking. These attributes—namely talent, a solid design background and an engaging, even-keeled demeanor–are very similar to those of her mentor and employer, Jessica Lagrange, who is known for her integrated and balanced approach to design, impeccable professional experience and charming demeanor.

After earning her bachelors degree, Turf tried stints in advertising at Leo Burnett and fashion merchandising at now defunct Active Endeavors before going back to the Harrington School of Interior Design. She was inspired to embrace the profession by her mother, who is also an interior designer. After earning her degree, Turf worked for Missie Bender Interior Design in Glencoe, but landed at JLI in 2007 a move to be closer to her home in the city. Ironically, her husband, Ryan Turf, is also in the design business as a merchandiser for CB2. That makes everything they do in their own place another challenge. “We banter back and for a lot,” quips Turf.

Jessica Lagrange Interiors
605 N. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL

“The Ethicist” : Pete Landon

Back in 1987, when funds flowed free and people sunk veritable fortunes into their villas, Chicago architect Peter Landon opened his own office. But unlike many of his peers, who were also starting practices at the time to focus on high-end housing, his intention was to do community based housing. And he did, in areas such as Roseland, Lawndale, West Humboldt Park, Chinatown, Uptown, Pilsen and more. Today, he has built a practice that he estimates “is roughly 1/3 affordable, 1/3 public and 1/3 market rate.” And he has done so with such sensitivity, commitment, passion and distinction that he and his firm are considered a city treasure his chosen milieu. Doing this type of housing requires a steadfast mindset and the ability to build close connections with community residents, activists and organizations; Landon is particularly drawn to this aspect of his job. ‘I never went for the glitz, probably because I thrive on diversity,” he muses. For that reason, he is also pleased that “we’ve gotten to work in neighborhoods all over the city.” His progressive approach and sheer design talent has earned him (and his firm, since Landon approaches everything as “we,” not “I”) many awards and honors, including the commission to do the impending National Public Housing Museum on Taylor Street, won in a hotly contested competition.

Landon attributes his passion for his chosen arena to an urban planning class he took in architecture school. “I connected with it, and always wanted to continue in to do that kind of work. It just took me a while to figure out how,” he says. After graduating, he worked for Weese Langley Weese, an award-winning firm known for its emphasis on non-profit and education projects, until he left to start his own practice. His work, and his firm’s, has won awards and been published widely, and through it all Landon has also put time and effort back into his own community of peers by teaching, lecturing, participating in City of Chicago task forces and local non-profits. Currently, he is a founding board member of archi-treasures, a collective of artists, architects, educators and community organizers who are in service to Chicago neighborhoods.

Landon Bone Baker
734 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL

“The Political Organizer” : Gregg Garmisa

There’s power in numbers. And Gregg Garmisa, who founded Chicago Design Matters (CDM), a high profile non-profit 18 months ago to promote Chicago-style architecture and city planning worldwide, knows that all too well. “There’s a creative renaissance going on here thanks to the City’s design standards, our talent pool and the Mayor’s green initiatives. We have enviable built environment and all this technical and creative know-how. So our goal is to unite the public and private sectors in an effort to spread the gospel in other parts of the world,” he explains. That’s the official line; in shorthand, CDM’s agenda is the Chicago design community’s version of technology transfer: we show cities in India, China and other quickly growing locales how we did it and can do it for them. And Garmisa, whose non-volunteer job is vice president and principal at WMA Consulting Engineers, knows how to deliver. After a year in existence, CDM can boast a star-studded organizing committee; two successful conferences (one in Mumbai and another here on green technology for a visiting Chinese delegation); and three more conferences in Asia on the drawing boards, including what Garmisa says “we’ve loosely termed Chicago Week at the Expo 2010 Shanghai China this fall.”

Garmisa, who matriculated at Stanford University, Georgetown University Law School and is married to political activist and all-round fireball Lauren Beth Gash, has a soft spot for community service and ‘da mare’—who got the ball rolling. “Lauren took me to a meeting that the mayor was at, we were kicking around ideas about how to make Chicago better and I suggested that we should export our unique know-how. Everybody loved the idea, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time,” says Garmisa. A few days later, he got a call from Rita Athas, president of World Business Chicago, who told him “the Mayor told me to call you,” he recalls. Which is exactly how a political operative-cum-foreign policy advisor-cum-lawyer-cum-marketing maven came to found this public and private sector collaboration, and be on our list of design forces.

Chicago Design Matters

(tune in tomorrow for the next 8, or cheat and just look at it here)