Chicago Interior Design: Principled, Innovative and Bold

Published: February 28th, 2013

Is there such a thing as Chicago interior design?  If so, how would we define it?  What makes it recognizable and unique?

As a lifelong Chicagoan and an interior designer, I love this question! After all, you can feel the boldness and vitality of this city’s character in so many of its  art forms.  It’s in our music, from the rhythmic insistence of homegrown “house” to the wailing blues of Buddy Guy, from the soulful jazz of Von Freeman to the full-blown brilliance of the Chicago Symphony.   We recognize it in our poetry, whether it’s the “louder than a bomb” hip-hop of a “slam”  or the hushed revelation of Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool.”  Theater?  With 5 Regional Tony Award-winning companies, we know our raw Steppenwolf from our athletic Lookingglass and daring Chicago Shakespeare.  Our architecture, of course, is second to none, and most Chicagoans  practically carry within them the genetic code of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies van der Rohe.

Chicago architecture is as big and brilliant as any of our other art forms and is the cradle of Chicago interior design.  After all,  it was Sullivan who revolutionized the way we think about all design with his imperative,  “Form (ever) follows function.”

This principle joins together that great Chicago trinity of  Sullivan, Wright and van der Rohe, forever changing our perspective.  They taught us that good design is rooted in both nature and the human spirit, and is as much about space as it is about structure.   Wright’s “open plan” for interiors allowed us to see not just rooms but the flow of space.   In form and material, his interior design is  seamlessly compatible with the space it inhabits just as his buildings seem perfectly suited to their natural settings.

Chicago Interior Design - Wright Home and Studio
Chicago Interior Design – Wright Home and Studio

Van der Rohe, inspired by these great predecessors, transcends them.  Large spaces devoid of clutter and ornamentation, with minimally furnished interiors and transparent glass facades,  bring a timeless clarity to his design.

Chicago Interior Design - Farnsworth House
Chicago Interior Design – Farnsworth House

Furnishings like his Barcelona and Brno chairs – both pictured above in the Farnsworth House – add scale and grace while enhancing the  integrity of the whole.

The contemporary Chicago architect Jeanne Gang declares that “The one thing I really love about Chicago is it’s never afraid to change its identity.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  From the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to today, Chicago has been a laboratory of design.   Chicago interior design brings the same boldness, innovation and principle that one finds in its music, its poetry and its plays.  As Sullivan wrote,

“The man who designs in this spirit and with this sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of  his life and for his life, in the fullest, most consummate sense.”

The best Chicago interior designers must meet this standard.  While ever evolving, Chicago interior design should reflect the essential connections between form and function, structure and space, nature and humanity. At its best, it is integrated, innovative and true.  What does Chicago interior design look like in our homes?  More on that in upcoming posts.

I’d love to hear what you think about this question, so feel free to share with me on Facebook.