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Making a Scene
A new generation of designers taps Chicago's considerable resources to support a vital and expanding community of young movers and makers. Samantha Topol introduces the city's multi-talented players.
Revolution Glassware by Felicia Ferrone.
Mark Walker

Braving the lightning bolts of an early summer storm, Chicago’s intrepid designers and design aficionados came out in force to attend last year’s Guerrilla Furniture and Art Truck Show outside Morlen Sinoway Atelier. This year, the event promises to be even more robust, with more than 30 U-Haul trucks registered to showcase wares, and enough coordinated events—14 to be precise—scheduled to warrant making a map for the first time in the six-year history of the event.

This expansion is one of many signs that Chicago is primed to support the ambitions of a growing community of designers now calling the city home. With ample space for affordable studios, industrial manufacturing within close range of the city center, three design schools, and a variety of new forums to show design work, Chicago provides all the crucial ingredients for a vital design scene. Not to mention that the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, now one year old, dedicates the most square footage of exhibition space to design in the country. From that perch, curator Zoe Ryan is spearheading an effort to build a definitive collection by making acquisitions in reverse chronological order. “At the Art Institute,” Ryan said, “we’re hoping to tell a broader story, including younger designers who are Chicago-based but are very much working in a global arena.”

Central to this nascent design community are such forums as Volume Gallery and the Object Design League (ODL). Part social magnets, part mentoring opportunities, part business showcase, these outlets make sure that young designers find strength in numbers as well as the chance to show their work to best advantage before a supportive audience.

Smith and Linder’s Pipette fiber optic and LED lamps.
COURTESY smith and linder
ODL at the 2009 Guerrilla Furniture and Art Truck Show.


Lisa Smith and Caroline Linder, graduates of the first Designed Objects class at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), stayed in Chicago to start their own office, Smith and Linder, as well as the Object Design League. Since ODL’s inception in 2009, it has grown to be both a social and commercial nexus for new Chicago design, having hosted events, sponsored design charrettes, curated exhibitions, and most recently, opened a pop-up shop carrying objects by ODL participants alongside designers new to the Midwest. Worth Your Salt was staged inside an existing Bucktown boutique for three weeks, and for Smith, it fulfilled ODL’s aspirations to bring young designers together to both share their ideas and sell their work. The shop/exhibit, said Smith, “tried to address the entire design community: designers, retailers, and consumers. The success of the shop was that we sold a good volume of stuff. In design, unlike contemporary art, it’s okay for it to be a more commercial activity.”

Finding a way to put work out into the world is among the biggest challenges for any designer. Volume Gallery, started by Claire Warner and Sam Vinz, two former employees of Chicago-based Wright, one of the country’s premier auction houses for modern and contemporary design, is also forging new territory in this respect. Volume refers to itself as event-based, with exhibitions staged in different locations suited to the project in question. Limited-edition objects at a range of prices in order to make the work accessible for young design collectors are featured as well. Though Warner and Vinz are ultimately interested in representing American design at large, their first two collaborations are with the Chicago-based designers Jonathan Nesci and Felicia Ferrone. “There are so many people doing interesting work in Chicago,” said Warner. “They are often just working on a smaller scale. What we wanted to do as a gallery is help create a platform for designers to do a comprehensive collection.” For Volume’s next event this fall, Ferrone is exploring work with local manufacturers to produce objects in a range of scales that take the entire exhibition space into consideration. “I feel really fortunate,” Ferrone said. “Volume offers an amazing freedom to allow designers to produce their own vision.”

Invariably, Chicago design professionals cite the many top university programs as key to this burgeoning design culture. Between the historic Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), the Industrial Design program (and its recently opened Innovation Center) at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), and the Masters in Design Objects at SAIC, now in its third year, Chicago’s design education landscape has never been more vibrant.

Coil Lamp by Craighton Berman.
courtesy Craighton Berman Design

The pedagogy of each program varies, with IIT being characterized as the most scientific, UIC as strong in interdisciplinary collaborative practice, and SAIC as drawing on a more European model of individual craft. For Helen Maria Nugent, director of SAIC’s Design Objects track, “All of the schools have really different but not incompatible approaches. When we were developing the program, we looked really closely at other schools in Chicago and considered [SAIC’s] art context. Many of our faculty came from Europe or studied at Cranbrook. We also looked to programs like London’s Royal College of Art and ECAL in Switzerland, where designers had the opportunity to be independent in a studio environment.” Still, the school has drawn faculty from local talent like industrial designer Craighton Berman, himself a Guerrilla Truck Show veteran and participant in ODL's Worth Your Salt exhibition.

Above and beyond education, Marcia Lausen, director of the School of Art and Design at UIC and principal of the graphic design firm Studio/lab, has observed a shift in the city’s newly established practices. “Chicago is becoming a place less driven by the pragmatism of the past, and more about critical or reflective practice,” she noted. “The city used to be full of designers without an educational training, and that is really changing.” Thinkmore, a four-person studio founded in 2009 by Hemmant Jha, is one practice exploring ways to bridge Chicago’s intellectual and professional worlds. One of the first projects for Jha and his partners, who all have dual backgrounds in engineering and design, was a self-initiated design for an affordable wheelchair. The social implications were significant, and after a partnership with a local rehabilitation center was slowed by legal considerations, Thinkmore established a nonprofit called Wheelwell in order to open the project to different collaborators to help bring a design to market. For Jha, research labs at universities offer the benefit of investment in a design’s intelligence, so he began a product design workshop at IIT this past spring. Both wheelchair users and venture capitalists were brought in to critique the final projects, and two designs from the course will continue development. “Designing the object is the fun part, but it is also a small part,” Jha said. “In order to get something like this made and into the world requires a broader set of skills and expertise.” Any profits generated by the project would be recirculated into the curriculum at IIT to fund similar courses.

The event-based Volume Gallery showed work by Jonathan Nesci at the Andrew Rafacz Gallery in March.
Courtesy volume gallery

With growth come financial needs. Designers and educators alike hope the city will offer more support in the form of grants or recognition. There’s a pervasive sense that this is necessary because young American designers, without a more established atelier apprenticeship tradition as exists in Europe, are at a disadvantage to their counterparts abroad. Recognition also attracts funding, of course, and more Chicago designers are getting attuned to raising their profiles by traveling to international fairs. Volume, Smith, Linder, and others in the ODL like Michael Savona, and Bruce Tharp and Stephanie Munson of Materious, all made an appearance in New York for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) this May. An annual trip to the Milan International Furniture Fair, where it is one of few American schools to show student work, is a standout aspect of SAIC’s education program. “If you want to work in design-conscious companies,” Nugent said, “Milan is one of the most important places in the world to show. The students get a sense of what their competition is, and an understanding of the bigger picture.”

Materious' Fallen bench, shown at a private exhibition at 166 West Burton Place in Chicago.
Richard Shay Photography

For Zoe Ryan, who along with her curatorial work is also teaching a course at UIC, a new paradigm is emerging. “Designers are thinking in a much more manifold way, with many types of creative projects in one studio,” she said, citing Chicago’s deep design history across disciplines, its schools, and the presence of consulting firms like IDEO as important components of the current rapid expansion of design activities. Rather than calling this new work emerging, however, Ryan puts it differently: “Designers, at their best, are ambidextrous. They make multiple turns in their careers, which can all be said to be very emerging, in terms of using new technology or finding new formal solutions.” In other words, Chicago’s designers are on a roll.

Samantha Topol

Samantha Topol is a Chicago-based writer.