By Michael Workman
It’s a particular kind of civic challenge to build up part of a city as a district, a challenge rooted in the careful cultivation of image, allies, resources and reputation. In fact, for the better part of the past decade and a half, Jill Maremont has been doing just that in the River North neighborhood, striving to brand the area worldwide as a mecca for international design outside the powerhouse real estate of the Merchandise Mart. The Mart, owned by Vornado Realty, one of the largest commercial real estate firms in New York, veritably oozes luxury commerce. But just as the massive Mart building is delimited by its own zip code, its shops are often seen as off-limits to the wider public. “The Merchandise Mart can be a little intimidating and a lot of the showrooms are for designers only, and so the thing about the district is that it’s open to everyone,” explains Maremont. “Designers are much of the clientele of these showrooms, but it’s meant so that the public can feel comfortable walking into them off the street.” And they’re literally everywhere in the surrounding blocks, countless design studios and showrooms radiating out from every direction around the Mart—showrooms Maremont now counts as among the membership of the River North Design District, or RNDD.
Starting with a handful of members including Golden Triangle, Montauk Sofa and Organic Looms, alongside Casa Spazio/Jesse/Home Element—whose owner Mike Cao has served as RNDD’s president since the beginning—the effort has since grown to encompass affiliate members outside the neighborhood, including law firms, outside designers, craftsmen and others, though the effort’s focus remains on the showrooms. “The Mart really anchors that neighborhood, so all of these showrooms sort of pop up around because it’s really convenient to hit the ones at the Mart, then hit the ones outside of the Mart. Everything is consolidated in one spot,” says Maremont. “But what I’ve really been helping with is the branding. Nobody called it the River North Design District until I started telling people that’s what it was called. It was something that we basically created.”
Not all such ventures are successful long-term. Witness the West Loop gallery district that, for a time, was a thriving zone for contemporary art. Modeled on New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and spearheaded by Kavi Gupta gallery, the district-building attempt stagnated as rising rental prices drove out most of the grass-roots and small- to mid-size galleries that successful contemporary art gallery districts need to thrive. There are essential differences, of course: though it’s nonsensical to equate art’s value with its price tag, design is functional and inherently more commercial. History, of course, is important too. If enough people invest in showcasing Chicago as a capital of design innovation, informed as it is by the vanguardist influences of the New Bauhaus, Buckminster Fuller, György Kepes, Massimo Vignelli, Mies and the vast spectrum of others, it could provide an important socio-economic and cultural lure rarely found elsewhere. In any case, Maremont and fellow RNDD members recognize the audience-cultivation value of embracing visual art as a component of their programming, especially concurrent with the opening of EXPO and the launch of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. In fact, with the help of committee chair Lisa Bell, Maremont and the RNDD membership typically spend as much as nine months of the year planning for it.
“There are a lot of galleries in the neighborhood and we have really, really embraced that. This year it’s our third annual walk which, on the first Friday after Labor Day, it’s the biggest season to buy art and what we’ve done is piggyback onto their date and it’s actually gotten so big that we have thousands of people that come through and every single showroom has an event, we have a kickoff party, an after-party, and it all sells out every year. This year, we’re pairing designers with artists and they set up a vignette within the showroom and you get something really creative and cool within the windows and people can pop in, have a drink, have a bite then move onto the next.” There are at least sixteen showrooms this year with pairing such as Aimee Wertepny of Project Interiors with artists Jill King and Sheila Ganch, displayed at Toto; Susan Brunstrum/Sweet Peas Design with Casey Matthews at Chicago Luxury Beds; and Nicholas Moriarty with Magdalena Krzak at Ligne Roset, all of them curated by Daniel Kinkade of Daniel Kinkade Fine Art.
It’s an effort that took place over months of planning, meetings and detailed collaboration. “I narrowed the list down from my roster of artists to mainly local artists who had not had a recent Chicago show, were new to my roster, or who hadn’t had exposure to designers or the RNDD crowd,” explains Kinkade. “From there, we asked each designer to pick three favorites and, based upon their feedback, the style of each showroom, the designers’ styles and feedback from artists, we matched them up.” It’s a program that’s generating notable frissons of excitement among the participants. “We love art and having the opportunity to see new work is very exciting,” says Michael Del Piero of GOOD Design, who was paired with artist Greg Dickerson, “an artist we adore, will be the featured artist at Oscar Isberian Rugs. Collected studio and ancient pottery from my travels will then be shown alongside their exceptional rug collection and Greg’s artwork.”
Given all this commerce then, it’s a fair question as to whether the reputation of River North as a destination for luxury goods might be off-putting to those whom might consider the perceived price points themselves as a matter of inaccessibility. Maremont argues that’s precisely the purpose for all this programming they’re putting on: that it’s a chance to take a closer look. “For example, the Golden Triangle, it might look intimidating because of the location, and it all looks so cool, but they have things that everybody can afford, and they have sales throughout the year,” she asserts, also arguing that investment in durable goods is fundamentally about valuing sustainability. “I also think that people, maybe especially young people, are starting to realize that if they buy an IKEA sofa, it’s not going to last forever. Then they’re just contributing to a landfill. So contribute as much as you can for a sofa that’s going to last, then in ten years reupholster it and you’ll have it for your whole life.”
It’s these kinds of community-service notions that have so far helped make River North echo in the minds of design enthusiasts as on par with L.A.’s La Cienega and the Miami Design District, both of which were inspirations for Maremont from the start. Building on those ideas of outreach and sustainability remains a central concern of the district’s development, and central to its year-round programming. “A lot of our projects are meant as inspiration,” says Maremont. “So, what we’ve done the last couple of years is we’ve done a Pecha Kucha format in which we come up with a topic, which is a little different from how you’d normally do it, then invite around five designers to come speak about what’s inspiring them now.”
The River North Design District Gallery Walk opens with special programs the night of September 8, with projects continuing through October 8.
Michael Workman is an artist, writer, dance, performance art and sociocultural critic, theorist, dramaturge, choreographer, reporter, poet, novelist, curator, manager and promoter of numerous art, literary and theatrical productions. In addition to his work at The Guardian and Newcity, Workman has also served as a reporter for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, and as Chicago correspondent for Italian art magazine Flash Art. He is currently producing exhibitions, films and recordings, dance and performance art events under his curatorial umbrella, Antidote Projects. Michael has lectured widely at universities including Northwestern University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Illinois at Chicago, and served as advisor to curators of the Whitney Biennial. His reporting, criticism and other writing has appeared in New Art Examiner, the Chicago Reader, zingmagazine, and Contemporary magazine, among others, and his projects have been written about in Artforum, The New York Times, Artnet, The Financial Times, The Huffington Post, The Times of London, The Art Newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Art In America, Time Out NY, Chicago and London, The Gawker, ARTINFO, Flavorpill, The Chicago Tribune, NYFA Current, The Frankfurter Algemeine, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Village Voice, Monopol, and numerous other news media, art publications and countless blog, podcast and small press publishing outlets throughout the years.