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Design at Work> Kirkland & Ellis
SOM designs an efficient yet subtly luxurious office space for a large Chicago law firm.
The conference center's reception area also doubles as an event space.
Courtesy SOM

Though River North is now seen by many as a desirable, mixed-use extension of downtown, the idea of building a major new Class-A office space seemed far-fetched even a decade ago. Today, the northern side of the Chicago River is home to one of the city’s most refined offices, the 680,000-square-foot headquarters of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, located in a 60-story tower designed by Pickard Chilton. With interiors by SOM, Kirkland & Ellis has an atmosphere of tailored elegance that is geared to attract younger workers while also conveying a sense of understated luxury suited to senior partners and their well-heeled clients.

The conference center overlooks a terrace (left), offices are restrained but light-filled (center), and the offices have commissioned contemporary art (right).

Located along the Riverwalk, the offices have a two-story terrace at the river level, one open to the public with a café and white table cloth restaurant, and one above for the firm. The connection to the river and views of the Loop are emphasized with additional terraces at the sixth and 24th floors. SOM placed public and communal spaces on these levels as well, including a sixth floor conference center—also used for firm parties—and an additional café on the 24th. “The uniqueness of the site was very important to the firm, as was the idea of having a social space along the river,” said Jaime Velez, director of interiors at SOM.

Velez said the firm wanted a highly functional space with a restrained elegance. After a long investigation into the firm’s culture and goals, Velez and his team looked at the design of high performance, subtly luxurious spaces, like sail boats, for inspiration. The reception area for the conference center emphasizes this high efficiency approach, with many elements doing double duty. The curved Corian reception desk also serves as a bar during firm functions. Lounge seating can be easily removed for larger events. Fourteen-foot floor to ceiling motorized wall panels rotate to open an adjacent conference room up to the lobby. “Many law offices use rich materials to convey luxury,” said Velez. “We emphasized height and views.” Carefully edited signature elements keep the space from feeling too austere. A custom light installation hangs overhead, and the windows overlooking the terrace are edged with live plants on both the interior and exterior.

A typical private office (left) and an employee cafe (right).

The offices have very clean lines and neutral colors. “We designed the firm’s old offices in 1974, and it still looked good 35 years later,” he said. “They wanted something equally timeless for the new space.” Low partitions and clerestories allow natural light deep into the floor plates. All the partner offices are outfitted with furniture from Unifor, and, working with SOM, equity partners were able to choose from a wide variety of pieces from the line to customize their offices.

The offices also feature a series of commissioned artwork organized by the well-known Chicago gallerist Linda Warren. In all, SOM has created a space that is both serene and social, which is as close to a balanced work environment as many workaholic attorneys are ever likely to find.

Alan G. Brake



Monterey Carpet

Cafe furniture
Walter Knoll

Focal Point


Office seating

Office systems





Reception furniture

Interior glass