i4design: “The Suite 16” (part 2)

Intro (repeat from Part 1): Mitchell Obstfeld has 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

“The Natural”: Michelle Williams

In an age when we can and do go to school for everything, there’s still much to be said for innate talent. And when it comes to design, you either have it or you don’t. Michelle Williams has it, and unlike many gifted yet unschooled designers, she is admirably unabashed at being self-taught. Her personal style, which she says “is all about the mix” and manages to be exuberant, relaxed and glamorous all at the same time, goes a long way towards forming her design philosophy. “I think our homes should have an acquired look, and be filled with things that have personal meaning and make us happy. We should live with what we love.” Williams does so for herself in an impressive, always evolving North Shore home that was a clunker no one wanted to buy. She had the vision to do so, renovate it and outfit with dazzling furnishings she snagged at every end of the price spectrum. And she uses her experience, design acumen and purchasing powers as the foundation for a decorative M.O. that she stretches to fit innumerable wants, needs and budgets. “I’m an inveterate shopper and I know where to find whatever it takes,” she admits. Best of all, she knows how to make it look good—and highly personal —in her client’s homes.

Before starting her own shop, she was a public relations account executive in Los Angeles with high-profile entertainment agency Rowers & Cowan. Friends would always ask her for dressing and decorating advice, and word got around. Soon her clients, such as Shannen Doherty, were doing the same. Friends and clients continued to ask her for advice long after she moved back to Chicago, her home town, to start her own publicity business, and continued to do so even after she married, moved to the North Shore and took a hiatus to have children in 1998. A year later, her close friend Michelle Herman, ironically a schooled interior designer with a thriving practice of her own, convinced Williams to start her own gig. “She told me ‘some of the best interior designers in the world haven’t been to school. What are you waiting for?’ So I listened,” says Williams. The minute she hung out her proverbial shingle, calls started coming in and haven’t stopped since.

Michelle Williams Interiors

“The Activist Artist” : Theaster Gates

Maybe it’s being the youngest child and only boy in a family of nine that gave Gates, an arts mover-and-shaker by day and artist-of-many-media by calling, his ‘fighting’ skills—unabashed warmth, fervent curiosity, captivating showmanship and mannerly charm. These qualities put a deceptively simple face on a wildly inventive intellect that propels him to center stage wherever he is, and inspires him to generate seminal, thought-provoking artworks of every ilk. He mounts thoughtfully curated performances and interactive experiences in circumspectly chosen locales that bring people together to re-imagine social experience and cultural ritual. Most saliently, these are works that can and do change our perceptions of the world around us, for Gates is committed to producing pieces that address injustices and inequities and make an important social and political impact. “Artistic action can focus attention on ethical issues and be transformative,” he says with fervor.

The term Renaissance man is often bandied about, but Gates is the real deal. A product of Chicago Public Schools (he went to Lane Tech High School), Gates earned a B.S. in urban planning and sculpture and a M.S. in urban planning, public sculpture and religious studies, at Iowa State University. Between the two degrees, he also picked up an M.A. in fine arts and religious studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. In the last few years alone, he has produced performance, choral and installation works that explore the relationships between art, politics and race and have been shown in major exhibitions at nationally prestigious museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where he has an installation their prestigious Biennial that runs through the end of May. It all explains his rise to prominence on the national arts scene, and why we consider him a model collaborator and shining star.

Artist and Arts Programmer
at the University of Chicago

“The Bleeding Heart” : Leslie Thomas

Chicago architect Leslie Thomas has a lot on her mind besides the projects she is working on at Larc Inc., the design firm she founded in 2000—namely human trafficking, forced labor, genocide, extreme sexual violence, high maternal mortality rates, child soldiering, water quality and more. “It’s easy for us to forget the struggles and horrors others endure,” she points out. But while others talk, Thomas takes action. She is so passionately committed to making sure we don’t overlook these issues that she founded Art Works Projects (AWP) in 2007. The non-profit is dedicated to raising awareness of human rights and environmental abuses though a variety of innovative tactics, such as startlingly gripping multi-media exhibitions that highlight the gut-wrenching crises that the mainstream media avoid or a retail business that will pay artisans who have traditionally faced horrific labor challenges fair trade wages for their work.

With degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Thomas is uniquely prepared for her trail-blazing course to blend architecture, social action and the arts. Besides heading Larc Inc. and Art Works Projects, she is an award-winning art director and has received grants for her various projects from Humanity United, the MacArthur Fund for Arts & Culture, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Polk Brothers Foundation, the Graham Foundation and others. To date, AWP has mounted two multi-media traveling exhibitions that are currently circulating internationally and has another show online and two more traveling projects in production. And of course, she is about to become a retailer, with hopes of launching Work Shop in time for the 2010 holiday season. Stay tuned at www.artworksprojects.org.

Larc Inc.

“The Avant Garde” : Jorge Orozco-cordero

Many dream about turning their off-hours calling into an all-consuming career, but few manage to do it in a meaningful and effective manner. Jorge Orozco-Codero is an inspirational exception to this rule. After moving here in 2004 from Washington, D.C. to join interior architect Carly Cannell in weetu, an innovative design collaborative dedicated to giving substance to new ideas, this human factors engineer-turned landscape designer took the concept totally outside the box in 2007 with weetree, a spin-off that would allow him to use his passion for gardening and collaborate with Cannell. Imaginative residential and commercial projects are blossoming, including commercial projects to repurpose distressed properties duo is working on through both arms of their firm (such as their efforts to repurpose a dead mall and make it a community asset in Chico, California); prototypes for green walls specifically designed for Chicago’s climate and housing stock; and extraordinary gardens of every ilk. Cases in point are a series of green walls Orozco-Cordero is developing to suit Chicago’s challenging climate and housing stock, and an eye-popping, four-acre, classically inspired garden on the North Shore featuring 30-foot-long plantings based on a paisley motif.

Orozco-Codero, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in human factors engineering, worked for major industry giants such as NASA and GE on high-profile projects such as the virtual reality glove for the first Mars Explorer. In the 90s, he turned to gardening for stress-relief, and he fell in love with the pursuit and earned a Master Gardening License. When he joined weetu in 2004, he hoped to find avenues to integrate his gardening skills into the mix of services the collaboration offers, and finally figured out a viable way to do so with weetree. Clearly, Orozco-Codero is a man who knows how to follow his passion, for he is not only working on a range of intriguing projects, he is in the vanguard of his adoptive field.

Weetree Landscape Design
346 N. Justine Street, Suite 100
Chicago, IL

“The Authors” : Lisa Simeone and Gina Deary

Just as writers vividly evoke a certain narrative and mood with well-chosen words, Lisa Simeone and Gina Deary brilliantly create magical visual confections with carefully constructed language. In this case, the vocabulary they wield seems basic—namely color, texture, light, luminosity, shape, scale and size—but the milieux they fashion are dazzlingly fresh and flesh out a compelling and inventive storyline. At The Merchandise Mart’s current DreamHome, a smoldering dining room with sumptuous ruffled black taffeta drapes, fishnet patterned dining chairs, feather encrusted walls and shimmering sconces and chandeliers speaks to the sultry sartorial styles of 20th century songbirds such as Billy Holiday, Lena Horne the Sarah Vaughan, while handsome, Deco-meets-Modern interiors tailored with bespoke details (think kick-pleats a la Dior in the drapes) and ornamented with jewel-box inspired lighting (such as Austrian cut-glass crystal chandeliers designed to emulate Chanel broaches) references pre-war Parisian high glamour. For world-weary design addicts who long for new yet sure-to-last decorative paradigms, Simeone and Deary know how to deliver.

Both Simeone and Deary have heavy-duty backgrounds that merge business and design (Simeone with B.A. from University of Rhode Island and an interior design degree from Hall Institute, and Deary with a business degree from Western Michigan University and a bachelor’s degree from Harrington school of Design). No wonder they struck out on their own in 2002 after working together at Marve Cooper Designs and Lieber Cooper Associates to specialize in hotels, clubs, spas and restaurants. It did not take this ‘dream team’ long to rack up silk stocking clients, including Starwood Hotels & Resorts, White Lodging, Hilton Hotels, Marriott International and the Elysian Development Group–or earn industry wide recognition in publications such as Hospitality Design Magazine and Interior Design magazine. It also did not take the principals of these tony firms long to realize Simeone and Deary could work the same kind of wondrous design transformations on their residences, and in the past few years the firm has also added high-end residential design to their oeuvre.

Simeone Deary Design Group
605 N. Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL

“The Closer” : Marty Lescht

The Energizer Bunny has nothing on Chicago designer Marty Lescht, who is every bit as vigorous and well known as the hard-working icon here in his home town. But Lescht has something on the 21-year-old Bunny—namely a stunning and varied string of accomplishments that spans almost twice as many years. He has done interiors of every scale and style for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, from the prole R.J. Grunts to the posh Everest and Tru to the red hot Hub 51; office suites, private jets and boats for the Wrigley family; Sofitel Hotels all over the country; real estate developments such as The Domain in River North; office buildings in Sweden, Russia and India; and homes for many of his prestigious clients—including the notoriously perfectionistic, wildly creative Richard Melman. “I have a world of knowledge, a huge pool of resources and the ability to manufacture custom designs reasonably in places like China and Egypt,” notes Lescht. However, his greatest skill of all might just be getting the job done on time, on budget and on point. “Richard (Melman) always calls me ‘the closer’ because he thinks I’m consistent, not trendy and I finish what I start. Trendy goes away while consistent stays,” reflects Lescht.

Lescht is the perfect example of the adage ‘you either have it or your don’t.’ Though he attended Harrington Institute and Northwestern School of Real Estate, his competence and design sense won him the steady stream of high-power and satisfied clients who have kept him busy for the past four decades. That same innate design sense has enabled him to work on a myriad of projects, and consistently deliver outstanding results. Proof of his success is evident in the many design awards he has garnered during his career, including most recently the Pacific Coast Builders Conference 2009 Gold Nugget Award for a beach house in Santa Barbara. Given the depth and breadth of his oeuvre, we like the name he gives himself—“Mr. Monopoly, because I’m involved in everything except utilities,” he quips.

Lescht & Associates

“The Brilliant Pragmatist” : Jackie Koo

Chicago architect Jackie Koo has earned accolades galore for her show-stopping design of the Wit, a $100 million, 27 story, 298 guest room Doubletree Hotel that opened in downtown Chicago last May. It not only sports a gleaming glassy façade punctuated by a chartreuse lightening bolt that ensures it is on its way to becoming a local architectural icon—it was artfully designed to maximize every square inch of a insanely trim lot (which measures 140 feet wide and 68 feet deep to be exact). Yet she is also refreshing for so many other reasons, not the least of which is that she is now part of an elite group of women who have designed major high rises. But she is also admirably and astutely outspoken, especially about the nature of education and architecture. “I left undergraduate school with a philosophy degree. I got a great education that prepared me for nothing specific. But my career as an architect is ultimately a rejection of that,” admits Koo, who clearly has as much pragmatism as talent. And while others find her show-stopping design for the Wit brilliantly out-of-the-box, she humbly downplays the notion, noting, “the (design) was all a result of the parameters of the project. The (elements) were solutions.” Yet the hotel’s dazzling design proves she knows how to blend style with substance.

After graduating from the University of Chicago with a philosophy degree, Koo worked as a photographer’s assistant for a year before going back to school to earn a Master of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. True to her pragmatic nature, “I choose it over Columbia because it was so much cheaper. And in architecture, your success lies in your performance, not the school you attended,” she points out. Stints at Richard Meier & Partners in New York and WilliaM D. Warner Architects and Planners in Exeter, R.I., followed, but Koo returned to Chicago to join DeStefano + Partners in 1997—again taking a realistic approach. “I wanted to build things, and ultimately Chicago is a city where you get to build,” she says. When she left there in 2005 to start her own practice, clients followed, including Scott Greenberg, developer of the Wit. Now post-Wit, Koo is working on a host of private and public sector projects that will allow her to continue finding stylish yet substantive solutions to difficult design issues.

Koo & Associates
53 W. Jackson Blvd.
Chicago, IL

“The Legend” : Maya Romanoff

This past March, Maya Romanoff celebrated 40 years in business creating stunning, and usually ingeniously imaginative, wall coverings that have given new meaning to the notion of what can be put on those blank slates that define a room. He has pioneered all sorts of special and proprietary techniques to put precious metals, earthy silvers of wood and shells, crushed clay and stone, grainy seeds, shimmering beads and more on strips to affix to walls, and made a major name for himself in the process. But anyone who knows Romanoff, and has followed his progress from fashion designer to home furnishings magnate, cannot help but remember his far-more-revolutionary, and artsy, roots—especially since the still handsome but aging Romanoff is now confined to a wheelchair by Parkinson’s disease. Back in the 1970s, Romanoff’s tie-die creations were coveted by uber-chic hippies, socialites and rockers (The Who’s Roger Daltry had a vest, supermodel Cheryl Tiegs a caftan and New York’s Metropolitan Musuem of Art owns his acclaimed opera coat), but rumor has it that fellow textile magnate, designer Jack Lenor Larson, advised Romanoff to try something more lasting than fashion. Given the results, and the way he has changed the world of interior design, we are so glad he did.

Condensing Romanoff’s trail-blazing, wildly colorful career to a few sentences is like writing a brief synopsis for Leo Tolstoy’s behemoth “War and Peace.” Romanoff came to his craft organically, starting out as a curious, globe-trotting ‘child of his times.’ He took off on coming of age adventures after graduating from University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, discovered the ancient art of tie-dye, made fashions for body and home and used his sheer creativity to build his company into the home furnishings industry powerhouse it is today. A highlight for his reporter was the time in 1988 he wrapped the now-gone Sun-Times building in 48,000 square feet of hand-dyed canvas strips. It was a mind-boggling, beauteous sight. There is only one Maya Romanoff, and we are proud to say he is a Chicagoan.

Maya Romanoff Corp.
3435 Madison Street
Skokie, IL