In March of 2020, we all went inside. Immediately prior to that fateful date, we had learned about the mysterious other life of Brian and Jan Hieggelke, the founders of Newcity. For years, Newcity, the magazine, recognized and supported our work, even highlighting our firm, Design With Company, as Chicago creatives to watch. It turns out the magazine is one outlet of a few ventures, and Brian and Jan are also accomplished film producers. They don’t really try to hide that fact, it is right there in their bio. “Brian Hieggelke is a writer, publisher and film producer based in Chicago.” Nevertheless, to us at the time, that new bit of information ignited our imaginations and led to a cascade of events that significantly impacted our lives. Yet, the direct outcome of this initiating epiphany has not been publicly available. Until now.
The work of Design With Company has always aimed to intertwine storytelling with the design and perception of physical spaces. Projects took the form of temporary pavilions and exhibitions. Although we had not ventured into movie-set design, we believed that architectural spaces serve as stages for human activity and platforms for projected meaning. Isn’t that, after all, the purpose of film sets? Prior to knowing a film producer, the world of filmmaking seemed so distant. It was certainly not a potential domain for our architectural inquiries. Once we did know some producers? We wanted in.
Never shy, we asked Brian and Jan if we could design something to be featured in a movie. They said sure, without really knowing what this “something” might look like. For starters, there’s the simple fact that our work to date had not been made for film. More importantly though, films have pretty strict union regulations that govern who can work on them and how. There are production designers after all, and that is not what we could offer—we’re academics and designers. While we think a lot about the relationship between narrative and space, they don’t really teach you how to design film sets in architecture school.
In March of 2020 Brian and Jan were in the early stages of producing their next film. It was called “Homesick,” written by Shelley Gustavson and Jim Vendiola; Jim was slated to direct it as well. The story was set in Chicago and featured a young woman living temporarily in a townhome that was under construction during her stay. Much of the narrative is intertwined with this unfinished home, with its backyard being especially pivotal to the plot.
Our brief was to conceptualize the townhouse. We sat with the script for a couple weeks and scheduled a date for making the pitch. The meeting was online, of course, since we were a few weeks into COVID lockdowns. Not knowing how long the lockdowns would last, we remained optimistic. Brian, Jan, Jim, Shelley and the film’s actual production designer were there. They seemed to appreciate what we came up with, but didn’t quite know what to do with it. To be honest, neither did we. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to find out since the film was not made by Newcity. It ultimately fell victim to COVID-related financing obstacles.
As a result, the proposal sat as a digital document of what could have been—the conceptualization of the spatial and visual qualities of a townhome set for “Homesick.” That document is what we are sharing with you now. The presentation includes a close reading of the film script and how architectural space might contribute to its overall themes and plot. It is organized into parts: potential locations for the townhome, a breakdown of the key interior spaces, and a set of visual themes for the cinematographer.
That last part is what interested us the most. We devised ten themes: Old and New, Layered Space, Anonymous People in Motion, Graphic Lines and Shadows, Temporary and Changing Environment, Character, Possible Futures on Walls, Veils and Shrouds, Thick Atmosphere, and High Contrast Lighting Environment. Most themes are conveyed with an image superimposed with white isometric linework, capturing the essence of each theme both viscerally and symbolically. The last four themes—for reasons which are now unclear—lack accompanying photographs.
This kind of study might be something that happens for every film. We don’t know, we’ve never done this before. However, from our perspective, it was a great exercise for thinking through opportunities latent within a written script and matching the scenes with spaces and visuals to enhance the story.
COVID closed the chapter on this opportunity to get our work on film, but it opened another. While recording lectures for the course Stewart was teaching that went online, he found a love for making videos. He started a YouTube channel that explores the concepts presented here as well as related concepts around the built environment. This exercise with Brian and Jan was a crucial milestone in that journey. As of now, Stewart has made around a hundred twelve- to fifteen-minute long videos that have been watched over fifty million times.