New Currents in Chicago Design Features

New Currents in Chicago Design

Steeped in modernism, young Chicago designers have embraced their city’s design history and innovated something of their own.

Tom  Biederbeck

You can never dip your toes in the same river twice, to paraphrase Heraclitus. In Chicago, the cultural waters run deep. At the crossroads of the nation, in the intersection of the arts—visual design, architecture, fine art, music, performance—Chicago is always transforming itself, weaving the crosscurrents of the new into its mutable creative culture… a flow that’s never the same, but always reflects what’s gone before.

Chicago designers carry their traditions with a purpose while pursuing their passions fearlessly—whether absorbing the thinking of Bauhaus émigrés, like László Moholy-Nagy, who moved to the city in the 1930s; earning a seat at a corporate table in the new modernist era; or embracing the city’s musical and graffiti cultures in succeeding decades. Today, the intrepid travelers in the currents of Chicago’s design culture navigate the waters with nerve and purpose.

© Jared Eberhardt

STREET STYLE: CODY HUDSON
“Cody Hudson is one of those artists who traverse the disciplines of design, music and art,” says fellow designer Jeremiah Chiu. That’s a start. Hudson has emerged from the skateboarding, punk rock and graffiti communities and moved into a wide-ranging practice with big-time clients like Facebook, Scion, Converse and Nike.

Restaurants, public murals, sneakers, snowboards, sculptures and paintings—no medium seems to escape Hudson’s restless hand, which he applies with of-the-moment and analog sensibilities. He grew up in Wisconsin and says, “I did a little of everything, from bagging groceries at Piggly Wiggly to studying graphic arts and printing technology for a couple of years. I didn’t realize it was graphic design.”

Early in his career, Hudson worked at Jager Di Paola Kemp Design (JDK), a Vermont design firm that did much of the work for Burton Snowboards. It was during his time at JDK that Hudson was drawn to American modernists of the prior era. “It was eye-opening to discover Saul Bass, Paul Rand, the Eameses—JDK Design was like the art school I could never afford.”

Hudson has been working in Chicago for almost two decades now, but those impressions from his early design heritage have stuck with him. “I like envisioning myself working back in the ’60s. It’s less about visually imitating the artists of that time than it is a comfort factor for me—how they actually did that work, using cut paper, markers and pencils. My work has a hand­made feel,” he says. “If you have a choice, it makes a difference to be able to do the work ‘off the computer.’ But I love the cleanliness of working in the grid. Helvetica is still one of my favorite typefaces.”

Hudson’s sculptures are one expression of this unique approach. They begin as paper cuttings, which he then scans into the computer, cuts from steel and welds together. Aside from the computer scan, the process could have come from the 1920s.

The celebrated restaurant Longman & Eagle is another example. A watering hole and dining destination in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, whose front window and server T-shirts proclaim “EAT, SLEEP, WHISKEY” (there are rooms to rent upstairs), Longman & Eagle got its first Michelin star in 2010. The project development studio that developed the restaurant concept, Land and Sea Dept., is now thriving (Hudson, from the beginning, was a part of the studio that has branded or conceived of five other restaurants, among other pursuits).

Hudson describes the restaurant as “a scruffy clubhouse” that has become something completely different. “It’s open to everyone, but you can get a good meal there, maybe hear some good music you wouldn’t find at a fancy place.” And the Longman & Eagle’s logo, which Hudson designed, represents both the environs and Hudson’s approach: it’s an ampersand, rendered slightly distressed, based on Le Corbusier Regular (which, contrary to its name, was not designed by the architect, but developed from an early 20th-century zinc stencil set).

“My personal work and my client work are merging together,” he says. “At first I tried to keep them separate, but clients started asking for that scrappier, hand-drawn feel.”

So is that what distinguishes Chicago style today? Democratic, open to influence, but grounded in discipline? Hudson isn’t sure. “Everything around you inspires what’s happening in your work,” he muses. “I’ve been here so long, I don’t know any different. But there’s definitely a Midwestern thing, an ability to try new things, because why not? We kind of exist in our own little world here.

“And anyway, the reason I do design is because I’m not good at talking about it.”

© Alexa Viscius (left) and © Joe Mazza (right)

ACTIVATING THE SPACE: JEREMIAH CHIU AND RENATA GRAW
In its seven years of existence, the studio Plural, opened by Jeremiah Chiu and Renata Graw, had an outsized impact on Chicago’s design scene, spanning media and earning eyes with an idiosyncratic take on serious fun. Chiu and Graw are moving on in their careers, Chiu with Studiochew in Los Angeles, and Graw with Normal in Chicago. But their effect has been extraordinary, observes Chicago designer Rick Valicenti, who describes them as “a duet that continues to set fire to the fringes.”

Valicenti characterizes Plural’s impact as prescient: “What Jeremiah and Renata are doing has the potential to ripple.”

The Brazilian-born Graw defines where the pebble falls and the ripples begin: “Never define the format before you go on the journey. …We’re more interested in making work honest than trying to be ‘original.’ Defining the question correctly and answering it honestly is what makes it original.”

I relate to modernism more in terms of craft than ideology. I see it as an approach to creating and organizing form, especially in typography.”—John Pobojewski

The city’s tightly knit creative community offers answers, as it leaps barriers between designing, building, playing and performing—the “modes and practices where the disciplines inform each other,” articulates Chiu, a native Chicagoan. So Plural’s output has come in all forms, from a precedent-setting poster synthesizer for the 150th anniversary of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to optical effects in animation, video and print.

Graw and Chiu were tasked with creating SAIC’s identity to help the school’s yearlong celebration. The designers devel­oped online graphical software that enables the school’s internal design team to build a family of products, with related identities, tailored to specific events in the anniversary year. Going several dimensions beyond a logo, the software generates complete poster designs with its own set of rules and content—in effect, the software incorporates both graphical elements and a virtual “brand manual” that show how visual expression has changed over the school’s 150 years.

The identity reflects the designers’ convictions. Interactive designer Ricardo “Buddy” Bojorquez, who collaborated with Chiu and Graw on the project, says, “In any given project you can only control so much. At some point, you have to let go and let someone else steer the ship.”

Like most of Plural’s output, the SAIC 150th anniversary identity is characterized by a fascination with geometry, spatial relations and modernist design thinking that express how, in Graw’s words, “restrictions yield infinite variations.” It’s an observation that could have come from any of the gifted improvisers in Chicago’s jazz history. “We’ve been influenced by all those headstrong visions about the emer­gence of the new,” says Chiu, himself a performer and an improviser on synthesizers and keyboards. “Our impulse is to take a simple thing and make it go as far as it can go.”

© Thea Volk

DRIVEN BY RHYTHM: JOHN POBOJEWSKI
“I’ve always been a musician,” says John Pobojewski, a principal in the Chicago studio Thirst. “First sax and then percussion. My father was the house drummer for a band that was driven by rhythm, so music was all around us, … but I had a passion for art and design. Growing up, I was always dreaming up preposterous schemes to do both.”

Preposterous mission accomplished. What he calls “intermedia,” the merging of creative disciplines, comes naturally to him, especially in the space where the musical and the visual inspire each other. “I have a background in both music and design,” says the classically trained Pobojewski, “so a lot of my work bridges those two worlds, either in making sound visual, in creating soundscapes, or in exploring animated environments, textures and themes. I’m fascinated by how music and sound can evolve imagery; so early on, I developed an interest in programming code to manipulate visuals with sound.”

His modal and rhythmic sensibilities are as evident in work that incorporates music—which Pobojewski himself composes, often using code—as in projects that have no auditory component. An example of the latter is the revamp of Terminal 5 in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a project that inspired Pobojewski to say he was “emotionally invested.”

For Terminal 5, Thirst envisioned a series of murals that would evoke both the city and the experience of flight, and the studio worked closely with the space’s architects, Westfield Corp., to accomplish this. The entry mural is translucent, setting up a visual rhythm using software written by the designers. This evolves into a low hallway lined in ceramic frit tiles that form an abstracted aerial view of the city and its lakefront—a symphony of horizontal motion that “forms a literal grid of the city,” says Pobojewski. “It’s all about location and destination.”

The final mural, also in ceramic frits, runs above a cafeteria space and depicts the flights connecting Chicago with the rest of the planet. Continents can be identified even though there are no geographic or national boundaries shown, only the flight paths.

We’re more interested in making work honest than trying to be ‘original.’ Defining the question correctly and answering it honestly is what makes it original.”—Renata Graw

These works reflect the passion Pobojewski and Thirst partners Valicenti and Bud Rodecker have for exploring new, distilled forms with maximum impact. Again, the influence of modernism hovers. Pobojewski says, “I relate to modernism more in terms of craft than ideology. I see it as an approach to creating and organizing form, especially in typography.”

Tightly scored and dynamic in its presentation, Thirst’s work invokes what Pobojewski says is “a rigor that’s been passed down through the Bauhaus new modernism, the heritage of Chicago.” He adds, “While it continues the discussion of modernism, it’s a tradition that’s constantly evolving and renewing itself.”

The twin influences of modernism’s descendants and intermedia aim Pobojewski at an intoxicating synesthesia of the arts, an amalgam of creative disciplines that reveals new vistas for design.

“It’s a passion that becomes super vibrant, compelling, forcing us to ask ourselves, ‘Where can these forms take us next? What new things can we make?’ We might be talking about design and music, but we could just as well be talking about design and architecture.”

© Devin Ehrenfried

CELEBRATING THE OBJECT: JENNIFER MAHANAY
In the 21st century, print is a bold and risky way to carve your brand. But in the world of high-end auctions, the Wright auction house in Chicago and New York has employed paper and image in elegant and memorable ways to stand apart from larger competitors like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Wright’s auction catalogs—treasures for collectors—look more like exquisite coffee table books than lists of merchandise ready for the block. For the past nine years, the design efforts at Wright’s Chicago headquarters have been led by Jennifer Mahanay, whose team produces not only catalogs, but also marketing and exhibition materials and the house’s websites (wright-now.com and wright20.com).

She notes that the founder of the house, Richard Wright, has championed design as a marketing tool in the industry. “It was pretty shocking to the auction world at first, but now we’re known for it,” says Mahanay. But the most important part, she adds, is that they feel invested in the work. “It’s our joy to frame the material in a way that people haven’t seen before.”

Mahanay has a degree in graphic design and photography, a fact that is resoundingly clear in her art direction for the catalogs and online presence. Images are often full bleed and exquisitely rendered. “Celebrating the object is what we do. Yes, we always show the piece in an enticing way, but we can never overshadow the object. Every item has a story we try to tell. And when we launch a series of auctions for certain types of material—contemporary art, jewelry, design—we work to create a brand for the category that we can carry forward.” Details like a common grid and typographic style for each category help accomplish that.

Regardless of the particular event or item, the Wright style is instantly identifiable. Mahanay describes her own style as “steeped in modernism,” something she has carried with her throughout her professional career. “We want the work to be bold, tight in the grid.”

In Chicago, she says, design is grounded in the spirit. “The city is deeply affected by design history, from [art director] Art Paul at Playboy to the design-driven business model of packaging manufacturer Container Corporation of America. I’m fortunate to have learned so much from that history. No matter what field you’re working in, it’s an exciting time to be a designer in Chicago.” ca

Special thanks to Rick Valicenti for mentoring so many great Chicago designers and for his assistance with researching this article.

Tom Biederbeck is a writer, editor, publisher and visual communicator. Formerly, he was editor of STEP inside design magazine. He’d like to learn more about Chicago’s vibrant African American and Latino design cultures—who wouldn’t?

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