When I first called architect Chip von Weise, principal of von Weise Associates, to talk about how he snagged the highly sought-after contract for the new GE Monogram Design Center, he sounded amused, but not surprised. Several media outlets have picked up the Merchandise Mart showroom, which is opening this month. It is the latest project in von Weise’s decades-long Chicago career, encompassing everything from office interiors to hotels and summer residences. So why, in particular, is this GE showroom so popular? You could say it’s all about the marketing. But, whatever you do, do not call von Weise a marketer.
One thing I find interesting about your firm is you have hugely different clients. When you look back over the last 20 years, can you pick out a strand inherent in all your projects?
We’re not style people. We don’t have a signature von Weise look. Some firms have a style—you come to them because you want your project to look like that. We try to approach every project with the intention of taking the client’s desires, both practical and aesthetic, and trying to create a concept for the project that melds to an architecture idea. For example, we did a civil rights law firm, the offices of Stowell & Friedman, and we loved the notion that civil rights is the balance of the rights of the individual and the common good of the collective. And we wanted to design something reflecting that. Almost all of our projects tend to have that sort of dialogue between our clients and what they do.
Why did you choose that sort of dialogue over a consistent style?
It’s more intellectually interesting. One of my concerns with modern architecture and the star-architect system of high-design architecture is that it’s based on style. It’s easy to understand it conceptually, it becomes a buzzword, lots of people talk about it. You can sell it. But ultimately it’s less than what really good architecture is about. Frank Gehry has been diminished to a style.
I came from a marketing background. I worked at Leo Burnett for three years after I graduated from college. I left because I saw that model and I said I do not want to do this for the rest of my life. I do not want to be selling beer, hamburgers, or cigarettes, or whatever the project du jour was for my clients. I wanted to be doing something that had a high level of intellectual content, integrity. Marketing is very important in the discourse of our society and economy. Really smart people do it. But the process itself wasn’t very interesting to me.
Well it’s interesting that you’re getting a lot of press for the GE showroom, what’s essentially a marketing project.
It’s weird, right? It was kind of nice to get noticed after being at this for a while, to have people say, “These guys have been around, they’ve done some nice stuff, they’re doing a really interesting project.”
In fact, when I first called you to do this interview, you said the media had picked up the GE showroom more than anything in your 20-year career. Why do you think that is?
Two reasons. One, GE’s a big company and GE Capital just did a 100,000-square-foot office in the city, which is bringing a lot of jobs to Chicago. So the Mayor’s Office has been personally involved, which is a little bit weird, since it’s only a 3,000-plus-square-foot showroom. The head of the [City of Chicago] building department called me and said, “Can I help you?” I’m like, “Excuse me? I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never had you call me and offer your help.” Also, GE has a vested interest in success, so their PR department has been issuing press releases for the showroom. You know, my 11-person firm doesn’t have a public relations department. We don’t have a marketing person. We don’t spend a lot of time selling our image, our projects or the culture of design.
So why did you decide to submit a proposal to GE?
We didn’t. We got an email saying that GE is doing a project in Chicago, and would we submit a proposal. I almost deleted it. And then I thought, “Maybe it could be real.”
What made it a good fit?
Working in the Mart requires an architect who can do commercial work and high-end residential design, and who knows the idiosyncrasies of earlier buildings. There aren’t a lot of people who do all those things.
The GE showroom shows off technology, and you’ve said technology is really important in your work.
It’s a blessing and a curse. We were very early adopters of three-dimensional computer models to walk our clients through their projects. We’re interested in technology and how you make your building a better place to be. We’re not interested in technology as a marketing tool for our clients to say that they’re green. For example, we’ve never done a LEED house. I always tell the owner, “It’s more important to do the green thing than to tell your friends about it.” We think that intelligent environmental design should be part of all architecture, and historically it has been, from the earliest architects.
You have to embrace technology, otherwise you become irrelevant. I’m almost 50. By the time I’m 70—and I want to be practicing when I’m 70 because architecture is an old man’s profession, you learn more and more and more as you go along, and hopefully you get smarter and better—I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to be doing something radically different than what we’re doing right now.
One thing that’s noticeable in your work is its connection to nature, especially in your residences. It almost seems personal.
I grew up in a house outside of Cleveland, Ohio, on a big piece of property with two streams coming down into a river, and not a lot of people around to hang out with. My mom was an artist and she was interested in the early environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s. Richard Serra, Michael Heizer—those early land artists. I met a lot of them. My mom would invite them to our house for dinner. That was a big influence on me when I was a kid.
I can see this influence in your 2012 AIA Illinois Mies Van Der Rohe Award–winning Carton House in Michigan.
Very much. It was a spectacular site. We were dealing with a fragile dune, and there are all sorts of restrictions in Michigan through the department of environmental quality that we had to meet. Everything we did in the design process was about the relationship of the house—its two small structures—to the landscape.
How do you go from this to your large, commercial office projects?
The houses are personal; they’re emotional. They’re about the pull on the cabinet, the shoes in the closet and whether they’re on angles or in cubbies, the texture of the carpet on your bare feet—all that needs to be talked about and collaborated on. Now, in an office building, that’s a lot less important. We use architecture in a much more direct manner to achieve specific and tangible goals. I call it the leasing narrative. You use texture, colors, and spatial perception as your tools to do that.
Do you think you had that narrative with GE?
After talking with them at length, we took the project in a more lifestyle way than they originally anticipated. In most showrooms, there’s nothing that says you’re at a place, right? You’re clearly in a store. So we have four kitchens, but we also have a dining room or living room—and one side is a house. GE understood that relationship between the intuitive, emotional response of the client and the environment in which it’s placed.
Sounds almost like marketing.
I suppose it is. But it’s still where people work and hang out, and if you can positively impact that… I don’t want to just go in there and slap finishes on and tell the client it looks better. We want dialogue.