On view at the Chicago Cultural Center through November 2, “CHGO DSGN: Recent Object and Graphic Design” captures the vast and variegated creative production in the city. Freelance writer Renée Olson conducted a series of nine interviews with members of the Chicago design community whose work appeared in CHGO DSGN. Edited transcripts of interviews with Charles Adler, Bob Faust, Felicia Ferrone, Firebelly Design, Sara Frisk, John Pobojewski, Holly Hunt, Jake Nickell and Rick Valicenti appear below.
Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter.com
Renée Olson: Does the Chicago design community hide its light under a bushel?
Charles Adler: One of the things about Chicago I’ve always been frustrated with is that it’s the dark side of the work ethic. Everyone just huddles up in their own studio. We work but we don’t tout ourselves, and yet there are massive talents here.One of the problems I’d like to participate in solving is how do you get (the design community) out there and connected—and what can happen when you start connecting all these people?
RO: What is the CHGO DSGN show saying?
CA: (Though) Chicago has a history with design that gets overshadowed by other cities; (it fully) exists in the realm of the designed world. CHGO DSGN showcases the beautiful, inventive, personal and ambitious work that comes from this great city.
RO: You’ve spent a lot of time in New York and San Francisco, but now you and your wife are raising your daughter here. What’s your impression this time?
CA: I’ve lived in Chicago off and on, for three to four years at a time since 1994 or 1995, and each time as I’m back, I see change, like a pop in the face. The city feels more lively now. It’s coming into its own, in many ways, without losing itself. And what I mean by not losing itself is that people are just doing their own—pardon my French—shit. Ultimately, they’re just being themselves, and there’s an honesty to it.
What I love about the city is this merging of the philosophical and ambitious: being able to see beyond itself and see the opportunity, and having a pragmatic, working-class work ethic. We get shit done.
RO: Is there any Chicago in Kickstarter?
CA: I don’t know. I just happened to be here and was working with a college friend, (co-founder) Perry Chen. That’s how Perry and I connected. When we finally launched the site on April 28, 2009, I was the only piece of Kickstarter living here. Perry and Yancey (Strickler), my other cofounders, were in New York.
RO: Did you know that a CHGO DSGN project—Pinch, a salt cellar and pepper shaker by Craighton Berman Studio—was the first product funded by Kickstarter?
CA: It seems that is true! Huh. I’d always thought it was Glif, but Craighton had them beat by a few weeks. Although truthfully I think Craighton falls poetically outside the traditional product design category, but in this case he’s right.
RO: Are you completely done now with Kickstarter?
CA: I’m an advisor, and it’s part of my heart and soul, but, yes, functionally, I am not there in any way. Kickstarter is staying private. That doesn’t do anything for my bank account, so I, like everybody else, need to work. I’m doing some advising and consulting work. It helps pay my mortgage and my wife is in grad school, so I can pay for her grad school.
Do I want to start something again? That’s probably what I want to do, but I don’t know when. I’ve got a few ideas kicking around in my head, but I don’t know that I’m ready. It’s only been a few months since I left.
(Editor’s note: Ten pieces in the CHGO DSGN exhibition were funded with Kickstarter: You Are Beautiful book by Matthew Hoffman and Firebelly . Martin Kastner’s Porthole , MNML’s LunaTik and TikTok, Craighton Berman’s Manual Coffeemaker and Pinch , Central Standard Timing’s CST-01 watch , Strand’s RX-Made Clock and Bottle Opener , USA-OK chair by USA-OK Industries)
Bob Faust, principal, Faust Design
Renée Olson: Tell me something that no one would know about your vivid kaleidoscopic wallpaper just by looking at it.
Bob Faust: I was walking through our storage area one day—I’m the director of special projects for the visual artist Nick Cave—and thousands of ceramic birds, the kind your mom and grandma put on display, had been moved to the floor to get used for a project. We snapped a picture of it, and I said, “Oh my God, this is going to be the most amazing wrapping paper.”
So we did a series of wrapping papers about five years ago, and recently an exhibition came up for Nick (at the Denver Art Museum) that I was designing (titled) “Sojourn.” The idea and theme of his birds came back as very representative of that title. I said, “Well, we’ve already got this amazing pattern made… what if this becomes your title wall and we blow it up at a different scale?” We’ve taken several of those patterns and turned those into wallpapers.
I love the idea that when you’re across the room it just looks like pattern, and then you come closer and you’re like, “This is 1,000 birds”—and you connect it to Sojourn, and ask, “What does it mean when a bird comes for a season and then leaves?”
RO: Show curator Rick Valicenti says that your design has become “fearless” as a result of collaborating with Nick Cave.
BF: In a way it’s true. Nick’s fearlessness is huge to me. I measure myself by that when I get nervous. I’m like, “Well, he wouldn’t be afraid if he felt good about what he’s doing. He’s just gonna do it. Fuck what people think.” And so that helps me sometimes.
RO: You use a lot of color in your work.
BF: Not in all my work, but in lots of it.
RO: Would you rather go colorblind or swim the Amazon River at night?
BF: Essentially you’re asking me do I want to come out with half a body, or be colorblind?
RO: You could have an easy time of it.
BF: OK, the Amazon. I’m not so afraid of not seeing color. But if I jumped into the Amazon River—I decided not to consider the fact I could be eaten—it’s going to give me an experience that’s going to make something else happen.
RO: What is your favorite piece in CHGO DSGN and what does it say about the city?
BF: I love “Savage Chair_Black” by Jay Sae Jung Oh because to me it’s storytelling.
A chair is a place where you read a story, or share a story, but when you look at that chair, it is a story. It’s all of those accumulated cups and books, and things that are around this chair that have been turned into the chair, and so you make up your own story by looking at this object. Then I think about how beautiful it is, and also how wicked it looks. And that makes me think of the dualities of Chicago. Its history is as a place of labor and brutality. But we’ve also got amazingly beautiful skyscrapers and lyrical parks and the lakefront. So when you ask, “What’s your favorite piece, and how does it relate to Chicago?” it’s all of that stuff for me.
RO: Amazingly, it took a forklift to get it into place.
BF: Let me say one other thing about Chicago because I think that’s why I am reacting to this piece. One of the reasons I choose to be here is that it’s a city that has all the resources you could want as a designer or artist.
But it’s also a place where you can experiment and make interesting, exciting work that you might not be 100-percent comfortable with yet, and you can put it out there in the world—like this chair that’s maybe too heavy. When it comes down to it, it is way too heavy if it had to come in with a forklift. But we’re all looking at it, and we’re looking at it for what that idea was, and its bravery. And say we put something out and it fails, it completely fails. If there was passion put behind it, and thought put behind it, this city will look forward to the next time you put something out. They’ll remember: “Bob did that. It was a failure, but wow, was it interesting. I’m going to go see what he’s doing.”
And that wouldn’t happen in New York City, and that wouldn’t happen in LA either. If there’s a critic there, the critic chooses if you survive or have to find a new way of making a living. This city doesn’t do that. It’s not quite as cutthroat or competitive. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It certainly does, and we all have to be a bit careful, but in this design community, I can honestly say that since I got out of school, people have been helping me get to the next place.
RO: How do people react to your last name?
BF: It’s all over the map. One of the best times was walking into a Gothic Literature college class late. You know, there’s like 200 people in stadium seating and you just want to walk in under the radar. I came in and they said, “You must be Mr. Faust.” It was fantastic.
RO: Given what seems like an exciting year for the practice of design with this show and the opening of the Chicago Design Museum, what do you think people will call this moment in time?
BF: The magnitude doesn’t feel big to me. I read several things where people are saying, “This is the summer of design.” I would love to believe it, and I would love that when I’m seventy-five and retired and sitting on my sofa that I feel like I was part of something, but I don’t think we’re going to know that until we’re away from it. I’m just trying really hard to do good work right now.
Felicia Ferrone, principal of fferrone
Renée Olson: What’s harder? Coming up with the idea or making the idea happen?
Felicia Ferrone: Making it happen. I have always been acutely aware of manufacturing or fabrication limitations, even though I myself am not a maker. Everything looks so deceptively simple, and yet it’s actually quite difficult to produce.
But also that’s my favorite part, that a-ha moment with the fabricator when at first they’re like, “Oh no, that can’t be done. No, can’t do that.” And then I tell my students, “It’s up to you as a designer to spark ideas and have a catalog of details in your head.” So you say, “Well, what if we did this?” and throw something out there. I find nine times out of ten (the fabricator) says, “Well, we can’t do that, but we could do this”—you know, it gets them unstuck.
RO: Have you ever had a fabricator come back and thank you for your input?
FF: They don’t necessarily do that, but then a fabricator will say, “Oh, I made one for my daughter, but I put a back on it,” for this stool that I did. It’s more in little ways like that.
RO: I understand a lot of your pieces are made in Chicago.
FF: Yes. It’s amazing how much truly world-class fabrication there is in the city. The metal fabricator is one of the best in the world.
RO: Tell me about your magazine tables.
FF: That came out of pure function. I still like print. And I have a table next to my sofa that has a bottom shelf where I put all the magazines. When the pile gets really high, it flips over. So it came out of a need for a dish that can contain everything, no matter how large the pile. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to move one into my house yet.
RO: What color will it be?
FF: I don’t have much color at all in the house, which is why it’s very iffy for me to choose. I think I’m going to go crazy and pull in the plum.
RO: I understand the Revolution glassware collection is part of the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Is there a story behind that?
FF: Yes, that’s actually my very first piece. When I moved to Italy, I was working for (Milan architect and furniture designer) Antonio Citterio, not really knowing who he was. I was in the architecture section. I had always been sketching objects and furniture, but I never had a professor or anyone say, “Hey, that’s a field.” I still don’t know what made me take a little sketch of the Revolution and actually make a prototype. Then the Milan furniture fair came along, and I thought, “Well, every editor is in town…”
The editor of Abitare loved them and asked, “Do you have anyone producing these? I know someone and you should meet him, and I’ll set it up.” I went out on my scooter with my prototypes in my purse. We sat down and five minutes later he said, “Maria, bring in a contract.” It was just crazy. That never happens.
It’s obviously a piece that’s hugely important to me. Being part of the permanent collection is truly a dream-come-true kind of thing. I still walk through the museum and I think, “Wow, I can’t believe what I designed on my yellow Ikea sofa one Sunday in my little apartment is here.”
RO: The collection has also appeared in films, right?
FF: Yes, it has this life of its own. Last spring, it was in “Oblivion” with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. It had a crazy beautiful house, like a space station house. And it had no objects, except for my glassware, which was really exciting.
RO: What inspires you about Chicago?
FF: Probably the architecture most of all, and the lakefront.
RO: What’s your favorite building?
FF: The Mies van der Rohe post office.
RO: I’m fascinated by the idea that a corrugated cardboard king started bringing artists from Europe in the 1930s to Chicago, including Mies van der Rohe and other significant figures, which gave the city the New Bauhaus.
FF: I just learned that about two years ago. It’s just amazing to think that was going on here. I think there was a lot more manufacturing too. I was trying to find a wood fabricator and I found this fourth-generation wood factory in Rockford. And they were talking about what they used to make versus now. And it’s interesting, the layers of stuff that’s here. But because it’s Chicago, we just don’t spend time promoting. Everyone’s just working at their stuff, working hard.
RO: Does that say something about the people who produce creative work in Chicago?
FF: I think so. In New York, there is such a need to stand out above the noise that it becomes such a huge part of the work and what you have to do. Versus here where everyone is just doing their thing.
RO: Do you have a favorite piece in the show?
FF: The piece (by Tim Parsons) that holds books. I thought it was beautiful, the way it got books to stand.
RO: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done to books.
FF: That was the most unexpected delight in the show.
Firebelly Design (Dawn Hancock, Will Miller, Nick Adam)
Renée Olson: Tell me something no one would know about the Divvy logo design just by looking at it.
Nick Adam: There was a super-short timeline and the challenge of having letterforms—an I, two V’s, and a Y—make weird spaces.
Will Miller: We had struggled with letter-spacing for a week while we were iterating logo options. And when you’re in something so deeply, and you take a break, you can see things. So the way I remember it is that we went for a walk to get some afternoon coffee and we looked down, and there’s the answer of the two Vs locking into place (the double chevron painted in a bike lane). And we looked at each other like, “That’s it.”
I think it’s good to point out that the name wasn’t picked because of that symbol. The name was picked first. That was a problem that we had to contend with and that’s how we solved it.
NA: When we were sharing the design with the client, we’re telling them about this guy in sixteenth-century France setting metal type. His name is Guillaume (William) Le Bé and he invented what became known as the guillemet, which roughly translates to “Little Willy,” also known as the angle quote. So we’re telling this story and the Department of Transportation guy says, “Oh, you mean you want to use the sharrows, the ones we paint on the street?”
RO: So it’s a real word? Share plus arrow?
NA: In transportation vernacular, yeah.
WM: We felt adapting the mark that says the road is shared and putting that into the logo allows cars and other people to understand that this bike does belong on the road. It was funny, like, “Okay, we probably didn’t need to go that deep with the explanation, but it’s excellent that it does date back to this other guy.”
RO: Do you think people recognize Divvy as a design project?
WM: I honestly would say no. I personally like that because I enjoy design most when it’s not felt as design for design’s sake, when it’s just there for you to use and it works.
RO: What about Chicago inspires you?
Dawn Hancock: Collaboration is very important here. We genuinely want to see other people succeed. There’s not an air of competition like in other cities, like New York, for example. I’ve talked to friends there and they think we live in a fantasy world, like why would you send clients to other companies? I do it every day. If somebody calls here and it’s not a good fit, I send it to someone else. I want to get them help from somebody good. We all try to support each other. The Divvy project’s a great example—IDEO couldn’t really handle that project on their own in the timeframe they had.
Sara (Frisk at IDEO) took a chance and said, “Well, let’s work with Firebelly, because we hear they do great branding and it seems like it would be a good match.” That was an unheard of thing for them to do, a big, well-known place like IDEO saying, “Let’s work with Firebelly,” which I still think of as this tiny little design studio that nobody knows of. The way we support one another inspires me.
RO: What is your favorite piece in CHGO DSGN?
WM: We (gestures at Nick) actually arrived at the same piece.
NA: We like “Savage Chair_Black” by Jay Sae Jung Oh. I think what stood out about it is its size and its contents. It cloaks what it is. You don’t really see at first all the objects hidden within it. You just see this throne-like chair and then as you examine it closer, you start to see an elephant and a guitar and a kitten. It feels really interesting to celebrate something extremely designed, extremely luxurious and have it be made out of leave behinds, things that aren’t used anymore.
WM: It’s a very striking piece. I was completely confused about how it was created, which is why I enjoyed it more after learning the way that it was produced.
DH: For me, it was “Vibes Melt Down,” the incense burner Cody Hudson did. I always look at stuff like this and think, “I wish I would have thought of that.” It’s so simple and smart and funny. I think design doesn’t have to be so serious, which is ironic ‘cause I’m a pretty serious person.
WM: Can we give a shout out to somebody?
WM: One of the people in the show I collaborated with, Levi Borreson of Legacy Frameworks, designs the Rambler bike. He does amazing stuff. I helped him with creating the script for that and the name of the Rambler, as well as the silver head badge on his bike.
NA: Props on hand-building bicycles.
DH: I think if anyone deserves credit, it’s Rick Valicenti for putting the show together.
WM: Big thanks.
DH: That show was ridiculous.
NA: And it’s just to share, because he cares about the work, cares about teaching others, and cares an incredible amount about community.
DH: He’s one of the people I looked up when I started the studio, and thought, I want to do stuff like (Thirst). Not just that it is really well designed and beautiful and crazy-looking because he was one of the few who’d do that type of work, but it was because he was always so willing to give whatever to whomever. I feel lucky to be able to have him to call on.
Sara Frisk, independent strategist and former portfolio director at IDEO
Renée Olson: How long did branding and design take for the Divvy bike share program in 2013?
Sara Frisk: It was really fast. I think we each had three weeks. We (IDEO) had two or three weeks to name, and (our collaborators, Firebelly Design) had two or three weeks to do the whole design. It was crazy.
RO: And the name Divvy?
SF: We were looking at names that felt right in the character and qualities of the word—it’s fun and it gets to the idea of divide and share—and that were intuitive for a system like this. This one kept surfacing, but it definitely wasn’t a crowd favorite. My colleague, David Berthy, is the one that really believed in it, and his conviction in the end is what sold it through.
RO: What’s it like to see the bikes all around the city?
SF: It’s amazing. I’ve never done anything that’s been so widespread. I think it’s something people joke about: “Oh, my mom doesn’t know what I do.” Well, my nine-year-old knows what I do because of Divvy.
The craziest part was Gabe Klein, God bless him, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, who has since left, and is now super endearing. But at that point, he was really difficult. We would all show up at his office to present under this ridiculously tight timeline. He wouldn’t show up and he’d ask us to show up three hours later. He had really strong opinions, so he was throwing extra names in and changing colors and stuff like that.
We were trying to throw our weight around as much as we could to maintain the integrity of the design because we really wanted to have it out on the streets. Thankfully, at the end he told one of IDEO’s founders, Tom Kelley, that we saved him from himself during this process. Somehow we were able to have enough conviction and solidarity as a team that we were able to make the client happy, make the city happy, and be really proud of the work.
RO: What’s your favorite piece in CHGO DSGN?
SF: My favorite piece is the crazily woven radiator, “Pipe Radiator,” by Jae Sae Jung Oh. I found that piece delightfully unexpected in the context of the rest of the show. It tells a beautiful story of the union of function and beauty, with decided playfulness and irreverence.
I love the contrast of a utilitarian Chicago against some of the other super-polished and sophisticated pieces, like Craighton Berman’s Manual Coffee Maker or Jerry O’Leary and Dave Vondle’s Central Standard Timing watches. I live in a new condo with central air, but I want one.
RO: You’re known for your changeable hair color.
SF: When I moved to Chicago is when I started coloring my hair crazy. I always colored it, but not unnatural colors. So I’ve had pink, blue, green, yellow, orange, turquoise—this is the first time I’ve ever been platinum. Black, brown, red. Various shades of all of that, and various parts of my head. My whole head was purple at one point.
RO: Has this become something people expect?
SF: I think so. Every once in a while I go back to one solid color, and I have people ask me what’s wrong. I get bored easily, which is why I’m jumping ship here. I’ve never done anything in my entire life for eight years in a row except for be a parent.
RO: Does it seem that the practice of design in Chicago is at a pivotal point in its history?
SF: When I moved here in 2000, to be honest, the design here felt very corporate and safe. It was hard for me to find a place where I felt like I fit, because no one was really pushing. That’s really different now. The industry has changed. The level of experimentation has changed. And (show curator) Rick Valicenti is largely responsible for that. He was breaking a lot of rules and doing things that didn’t make sense to anyone else, which was really refreshing and commendable. Inspirational, I should say.
It certainly feels like design is stronger, and it certainly feels like we’re doing amazing work as a community right now. I don’t know whether that’s because Rick was able to shine a spotlight on it in a way that hadn’t happened yet, or if it’s because we’ve been growing this massive collaborative support network and that has fueled good work and fueled people being passionate, and has allowed all these connections to be made.
RO: What do you see happening next for design in Chicago?
SF: As I’m launching out on my own, I’m really intrigued by the idea of a collaborative freelance economy. Based on what I know about Chicago and the designers here, I’m starting to see the opportunity in an independent network that can grab people you think would be good at collaborating on one thing here, and a few others there, and we could all work together independently at the same time. I may be crazy.
I had dinner with Steve Ryan, a partner at VSA in Chicago, and he said, “I feel like we’re going to look back at this point in the city and in the industry, and see this as the inception point of all these little new studios that have popped up in a different way than we’ve ever known.” So what does the collaborative economy mean for the way that we work, and the way that we move the industry forward? (Firebelly’s) Dawn Hancock and I went back and forth about me being ready to jump ship at IDEO. We had a text chain (about possible future projects with Firebelly), and she wrote, “Do you need a contract from me before you give notice?” And I texted, “No, I trust your word.” And there’s not many people I would say that to. It means a lot to have integrity and to do what you say you’re going to do, and I’d like to think that that’s what Chicago stands for.
John Pobojewski, Intermedia artist and designer, Thirst
Renée Olson: Did you start learning an instrument in fourth grade?
John Pobojewski: Yeah, I was a percussionist. And like most boys who grew up in the nineties, I had a grunge band. I also had a sketchbook full of album-cover designs for imaginary bands that I would dream up. They’ve always kind of been merged for me—design and music.
RO: Can you describe “Metallics,” your piece in the show?
JP: It’s an ambient background video composed to be played in sync with a live performance for a piece from 1995 by Yan Maresz, a French composer. There was a call for entries for a new media concert, and I was accepted and assigned this piece. I wrote the software for it, using a programming platform called Processing.
RO: What surprises you about people’s reactions to the video?
JP: I’ve been told that the piece—metallic shapes spinning against a black background—is really dark and that it takes on a sinister quality that the music alone doesn’t have. I guess there’s something about the motion and movement of it.
A lot of my work is very kinesthetic. I’m not a very graceful person. And so I like studying the physics of motion. I love a good motion capture and the mathematical laws of nature. And this piece employs a lot of those to animate the physics involved. There’s also a lot of natural movement that looks kind of serpentine. I think that’s part of it.
RO: The way the trumpet is used plays a part as well?
JP: The trumpet is not a very flexible instrument. It’s not very colorful. It’s like a lead male tenor’s voice. And to use it to most effect, the composer has the trumpeter do all kinds of crazy things like growl into the trumpet, take the mouthpiece and blow into it to make a popping sound, or hiss through the horn. So there’s a flexible and strange soundscape, and when you hear that paired with the motion, I think it makes the piece take an unusual direction.
RO: What do you not have enough of?
JP: Time. They say that the world is actually getting faster. So days used to be twenty-seven hours long. And in the dinosaur era, they were thirty-two hours long. It has to do with how long it takes the earth to spin once around its axis. And apparently at some point, with the mass of the continents back then, the earth spun slower. So fuck those dinosaurs. I want my extra eight hours.
RO: Do you have a favorite piece in the show, perhaps something that doesn’t spin?
JP: Some of the more interesting work is the object design, especially the tableware Martin Kastner’s been doing for Alinea. Alinea does amuse-bouches and his little contraptions of wire and cork and wood display them in a unique and interesting way. It’s really quite striking. They look weird and elegant at the same time.
I love the work of Tim Parsons, whose work is what displays the work. I’ve worked with him, and I think he’s truly brilliant. He takes common, ordinary materials and processes and uses them in really unusual and weird ways. For the show, he uses materials that designers ship in—boxes, shipping containers, and things like that. The table that’s in the room with my video is built out of shipping tubes. The bookshelf he designed for the book library is amazing—a really gorgeous collection of sticks.
Holly Hunt, CEO, Holly Hunt Design
Renée Olson: Do you have a favorite piece in the show?
Holly Hunt: The portrait of the designers on the back wall is fascinating. The show has so many different things and different ideas, but the people and the faces and the creative energy in the portrait—it is the glue that brings the show together. It was Rick (Valicenti)’s idea, and Sandro brought it to life. I just thought it was a great piece about Chicago in this time and place.
RO: Is there anything of yours in the show that happened by accident or that you tried for the first time?
HH: The most interesting thing we have in the show is the Shadow Series and as far as I know it’s the first time a material with this kind of sensibility has been used in furniture. We found it in California from a (fabricator) named Alex Rasmussen who works with aluminum in high-end audio equipment. His wife says to him, “I like Holly Hunt furniture. Why don’t you make something for her, why don’t you make furniture?” He tries to reach us, but the minute you say “aluminum,” people say, “No, no, no—we’re not doing that. We’re selling high-end stuff here, we’re not selling aluminum.” Alex finally reaches us when we’re in LA and talks to Alberto, the head of our design department, who says as much. And Alex says, “Well, take this,” and he hands Alberto a piece of milled solid aluminum with a black anodized finish and a couple of inverting curves.
Alberto looked at it and said, “This is interesting.” Then he showed it to me and it was really interesting, so we went to see the plant. I had an idea for a very thin table that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t afford carbon fiber. So we decided we could make a very thin table and a couple of chairs—maybe six pieces of furniture—in that material. Nobody else is using it—it’s been a fabulous breakthrough and innovative new process.
RO: Where did you grow up?
HH: A small town in west Texas.
RO: I love any place with wide-open sky.
HH: It’s where you can be who you want to be and be what you want to be—all you have to do is work hard. It’s great for that.
RO: How did you get started in furniture?
HH: Quite by accident actually. I went into retail after college in a Federated Department Store’s executive training program. After that I wanted to really be a designer, so I wound up in New York working as the assistant to the owner of a costume jewelry company and we sold to department stores.
By that time I was doing my own houses—I married a guy who was from Chicago—and it was trial by fire, I guess. I did the office and my house, and I did the apartment in New York, and we had a place in Boca Raton, I did that, then we had a place in Chicago when we left New York. You start to love doing it.
Then when divorce was on the horizon in eighty-four or eighty-three and I had three young sons, I said, “I am going to need a desk and something to do.” So I bought this showroom in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. I had been a customer of this showroom. I thought, I can do it better than they’re doing it.
I feel very fortunate that we made it through the vagaries of the economy and style. I sold the company last February to Knoll and we now have ten showrooms; the newest opened in London in September. You know, everyone has to come from somewhere. It’s not where you come from—it’s where you go.
RO: Is there a Holly Hunt customer?
HH: I hope so. (Laughter.) I think we’re a bit more modern than traditional, although we sell some very beautiful, more traditional pieces. We’re very mixed. I think that the ability to change and be classic or change and still be timeless has been key.
RO: Did your childhood home have good furniture?
HH: Mom and Dad built a house when I was in junior high or high school and Mother bought all early American-like furniture, maybe walnut or maple. The colors were mauve, and I was determined that I wanted mine to be different. So I had a green room, pale, pale green…. It seemed like such a good idea when I was fourteen. It had blonde furniture.
Jake Nickell, Co-founder and CEO, Threadless
Renée Olson: With Threadless, you give artists and designers a way to create work that an international community votes on, guiding your company to produce and sell it. Is there something Chicago-y about that?
Jake Nickell: I think design is really about wanting control, right? What we’ve done is design a platform, but then we’re giving up control of it. In New York and LA, especially, I don’t see stuff coming out like that—where people give up that much control. The Midwestern mentality goes hand in hand with that, but I wouldn’t say it couldn’t happen somewhere else.
A more significant difference may be that people in Chicago tend to apply a lot more elbow grease and logical, real-world thinking to what they’re doing. A lot of tech startup scenes are grounded in online services or in trying to amass as many users as they can. Here I think there’s more of a push to actually make real things and tie technology to it.
RO: How did Threadless get started?
JN: I was going to art school and I was a member of this online forum with 3,000 artists around the world. The only reason I started Threadless was to make cool stuff with my friends on this forum.
I thought I could help add value by creating this place where I make products out of their designs. But I think a lot of entrepreneurs looking to start crowdsourcing businesses now are thinking, “Oh, I can just outsource my work to this crowd. The crowd will do it for me,” you know. And when you think of it as the crowd working for you rather than you working for the crowd, it’s a different mentality. I think that, too, has to do with being in Chicago and where I was in terms of head space.
RO: You make T-shirts. What else?
JN: I never thought I would own a clothing company. The reason we sell T-shirts is just ‘cause that’s an easy canvas to work with—and people can never really have too many T-shirts. (Laughs.) We also have a whole line of greeting cards in Target. Eighty different designs: a whole four-foot section of the greeting card section.
RO: It must be hard to get four feet of greeting card space anywhere. Does the voting work the same way the T-shirts do?
JN: Some of the cards have our T-shirt designs reinterpreted, but we also hosted three greeting-card challenges for submissions.
RO: What else?
JN: We did a challenge with Absolut Vodka to design the Chicago bottle.
We also have deals with Marvel, Disney, Nickelodeon, Minecraft, Universal and Warner Brothers that basically allow our community to remix their intellectual properties. So we just launched a challenge with “The Incredibles,” so anybody can design a shirt for “The Incredibles.”
RO: So if somebody’s design gets picked—
JN: We did a Muppets challenge so this artist who designed it, Victor Callahan, gets twenty percent of the net profits of the sales of this design and then Muppets also gets a percent of the sales of the design. The first licensor we signed on was Disney. It was a groundbreaking agreement—they’d never done this before where just anybody could remix their IP.
RO: Are you getting any flack for partnering with corporations?
JN: I mean there’s a little bit, but not really. Most of our artists grew up drawing Spiderman or whatever. I think it’d be worse if it were designing a shirt for Gap, but these entertainment properties are nostalgic.
RO: So you’re cracking open a door to big labels.
JN: For the artist to say, “I designed an official Ninja Turtles shirt,” is a really cool thing.
RO: What don’t you have enough of?
JN: Growing up, I was an introvert and not very popular in high school. With Threadless, there’s hundreds of thousands of people participating and I think I struggle a little bit with that sometimes. Interacting with other people now is both my weakness and my strength. (Laughs.)
RO: Is there a piece in the show that you really like?
JN: The Colossal piece by Christopher Jobson. He and (Kickstarter’s) Charles Adler and I, we all have kids that go to the same school up in Evanston. It started as an art blog and now he has an online store where he curates things you can buy. The art blog is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
RO: Does Threadless have a social-good streak?
JN: Yeah, we’ve done a lot of charity work. The biggest thing is a line of fourteen T-shirts we did with UNICEF that each had a form of aid, like a bucket of water. One shirt had a mosquito on it, which represented mosquito nets. One shirt even had a cargo plane on it. And then each of those shirts cost what it would cost to give that form of aid. The cheapest shirt was $13 and that was the mosquito nets. We had shirts that were $40, $5,000, $75,000…
JN: We even sold one $300,000 shirt.
JN: That was the cargo plane.
Rick Valicenti, show curator and principal, Thirst
Renée Olson: What’s the reaction to the CHGO DSGN show been?
Rick Valicenti: The feedback I get sounds like, “Oh my God, I had no idea.” Practitioners, educators, people who are in the show, people who are not in the show all say, “I had no idea there was so much great work happening in the city.” I didn’t either till I started to look. And it was reassuring.
RO: What’s in the show?
RV: We are celebrating the region’s creative spirit by exhibiting over 300 works from over 200 Chicago designers in communication and object design. We have everything from the DIVVY bike naming and graphic identity program by IDEO and Firebelly to the world’s thinnest watch from Central Standard Timing to the product designer Steven Haulenbeek’s collection of bronze bowls cast in ice during last winter’s frigid polar vortex. There’s definitely a lot of risk-taking and surprise in the show’s collection.
RO: Tell me how the Sandro portrait, which captured 117 of the designers, came to be.
RV: In 1968, the year of the Kennedy and King assassinations, Chicago was the host city for the Democratic National Convention. Just outside the windows of the Cultural Center were the protest riots led by the Chicago Seven: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, etc.
A few years later Richard Avedon created a portrait of the Chicago Seven. Sandro’s portrait of Chicago designers appropriates the compositional and tonal look of Avedon’s piece in order to capture the revolutionary and radical spirit that is today running through the Chicago design community.
RO: How long is it end to end?
RV: It’s over eighty-three feet in length.
RO: If the Chicago Cultural Center hadn’t contacted you, would you have ever thought to put the show on yourself?
RV: No. I think it took somebody from the outside. While the people at the Cultural Center aren’t really on the outside, they’re not designers so they could say, “That’s never been done before. We should do a show like this.”
RO: Crain’s Chicago Business quoted designer Bruce Mau in 2011 as saying, “In Chicago, there’s an engagement with design that I never experienced anywhere else.” Do you agree?
RV: It’s a great comment and, like others, I’m a cheerleader for the Midwest. I think the people here are not only making great things, we’re embracing things manufactured in Chicago. And layering new technologies of making and running them through the community of design talent. The result feels uniquely Chicago.
RO: What does that mean?
RV: We have a spirit that feels to me unique. I’ve had the luxury of going around to various schools and cities every five weeks for the past thirty years. I’ve been on four continents. I meet lots of designers. I see lots of schools teaching design. I see lots of exhibits. Everywhere I go I measure what I see against where I came from—Chicago. We embrace a level of design that is different from my last trip, which was Boston. Our architecture is strong, but our communication design and our object design feels way more spirited, way more fresh than the university-centric patina that is Boston.
RO: What keeps the world from knowing it?
RV: Ah, that’s a good question. That may have something to do with the way Chicago people behave. Charles Adler (a Chicago-based co-founder of Kickstarter) and I were saying that we don’t do a great job of tooting our own horn. And that we do a really great job of remaining comfortable within our silos: Rick’s in his studio, Charles is in his home or in his coffee shop. So-and-so’s in their small office. And only occasionally do we come out and say, “Hey, look what I’m making.” We’re not hanging publicly with our clients. And the clients’ friends. And so we’re a little more quiet as a result. We’re a little less on everybody’s tongue.
As a result, we have the kind of persona that’s like the net in a volleyball game. Between the two coasts. In that net, a lot of balls get snagged and we play a pretty important role. We just don’t promote it or boast about it.
RO: What is your favorite piece in CHGO DSGN?
RV: I am in love with the four posters (center) by Cody Hudson and Chad Kouri where the client’s name and logo has been removed with a jigsaw. For me, it encapsulates all that defines doing and making design in Chicago.
A week before the show was to launch I received a note from the agency representing the culturally significant client saying that under no circumstances were these posters to be on display. I contacted both Cody and Chad and let them tell me what to do. Since they had done the work pro bono and paid out of their own pocket for the edition to be silkscreened they really wanted to share their work with the public.
I reminded them that it was me who received the letter and unless they brought a jigsaw to the Cultural Center where the works were already professionally mounted, I was not going to show them.
Not to be deterred, Cody arrived the next day, jigsaw in hand.
RO: Tell me about the unexpected patron behind the New Bauhaus in Chicago.
RV: In 1933, Walter Paepcke, the CEO of the Container Corporation of America, put out an invitation to the members of the Bauhaus who were being exiled from Germany. The ones who responded positively were Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes and Herbert Bayer. It would take until 1944—they had a couple of missteps and misstarts along the way—for the New Bauhaus to stick. But from the 1940s to the seventies, they were an education force: they populated the Institute of Design for graphic design and the Illinois Institute of Technology for architecture. Many of the designers who became design principals in Chicago passed through that curriculum. And those principals, like the man I worked for, Bruce Beck, were in the early classes. I pick up some of the New Bauhaus, and pass it on to this generation.
RO: What happens next?
RV: By the 1970s, Jay Doblin from the Institute of Design creates a company called Unimark that brings a young maestro from Milan to Chicago named Massimo Vignelli. They build a major design force and do identities for American Airlines, Alcoa Aluminum and Target. A decade later, the modernist zeal that defined a modern Chicago got somewhat commodified and all of a sudden we as a community of graphic designers are perceived as being way, way uptight and conservative.
In the mid-eighties comes another wave, this one from Berkeley, California, in the form of Émigré Magazine, which uses Macintosh typefaces for the first time. The founder, Rudy VanderLans, is interviewing designers all over the world who are outside the tradition of modernism. And the once young Turk Vignelli, in an interview by Rudy, says that all the work that Émigré Magazine is doing and all the designers who are practicing like that are doing—and I paraphrase—crap. And this goes on for a while until there’s peace that’s made and designers realize that, in a world where you can do anything with the new technology, then everything’s possible. And so what do you want to do? Well, you just want to do what you think is best.
RO: And how does it all come forward to today?
RV: There are some studios that are following the model of Unimark and RVI, like VSA Partners and Bart Crosby. Bart did the University of Chicago Booth logo in the show. He’s our master of corporate identity systems, bringing that tradition of corporate design forward. But there are young guys and women who are forging unknown territory, saying, “We’re trying to figure it out too.”
When I look at the show as a whole, I see such vibrancy. I don’t see dogma. I see a way of being. I feel verve. And it is fearless.