25 Years: Claremont Furniture

We have a long history of designing furniture for our projects. Partition walls, storage closets, display cases, and libraries are examples of some of our custom and multi-function millwork, and we have also designed reception desks for art galleries and condominium tower lobbies, tables for conference rooms, workstations for open-plan offices, and dining tables and lighting for private homes. Our intention is to make furniture and fixtures that are seamless in their aesthetic dimension, practical in their everyday use, and durable in their construction.

25 Years: Claremont House

In the Claremont House, traditional materials such as brick, concrete, limestone, steel, and zinc are used to form a non-traditional house on a typical lot in the north side of Chicago. Floor-to-ceiling glass sheets—each one ten and a half feet high and fifteen feet wide—enclose both ends of the first floor and provide visual transparency through the home’s open plan, further resisting city conventions by uniting the front yard with the back yard. This detail, in conjunction with a modern and energy efficient design, fills the residence with ambient natural light and continuous air circulation. 

25 Years: 550 St. Clair

550 St. Clair is a large-scale residential development in Chicago where we conceived the design from the inside (of the living spaces) out: efficient floor plans prioritize function and flow, floor-to-ceiling windows provide uninterrupted views, and fixtures and finishes echo those found in high-end single-family homes. Located half a block from North Michigan Avenue, in Streeterville, an upscale neighborhood with a vibrant pedestrian life, 550 St. Clair holds 112 condominiums in a 26-story tower. 

25 Years: Racine Art Museum

Many of our projects have both professional and personal resonance. The Racine Art Museum (RAM) in Racine, Wisconsin is one of them. Brad Lynch grew up in the city, taking after-school art classes at the museum’s predecessor, the Wustum Museum, which still occupies a nineteen-century Italianate farmhouse donated by a local patron in 1941. When we received the commission for the institution’s first purpose-designed home, we possessed a deep knowledge of both the long-distressed city it was meant to help revive and the environmental conditions required for the display of RAM’s ceramic, fiber, glass, metal, and wood art collection. Located on a prominent downtown site, the 46,000-square-foot, three-story museum has quickly become a top cultural destination for Wisconsin and the region.

25 Years: Perimeter Galleries

The two locations of Perimeter Gallery—exhibition spaces in Chicago and New York City—share a space-defining device that is both dynamic and subtle in its form and function: a floating wall that runs nearly the full length of each interior space. The walls support the display of painting, sculpture, works on paper, ceramics, and fiber art while drawing the viewer’s eye deep into the galleries.

25 Years: Carus Residence

One hundred miles southwest of Chicago, the Carus Residence honors, in its formal and material expression, the agricultural buildings typical of the Midwest. We sited the 6,900 square foot house, located in Peru, Illinois, at the front of the property so that its long, horizontally oriented facade - a response to the region’s flat prairie landscape - would act as a privacy screen for the living spaces, pool and yard. The L-shaped plan opens toward the side and back of the plot, creating a sequestered enclave, and a screened porch provides additional private outdoor space.

Sign of the Times

I first read about the controversy of the sign to be placed on the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago back in February in Crain’s Chicago Business and didn’t think too much about it, other than how absolutely crazy the big tower sign issue was becoming. The seriousness of this issue didn’t occur to me until four days later when Joe Cahill, also of Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote an opinion piece in favor of the sign and defending Donald Trump. My first reaction to his commentary was to remember the words of the late New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp. 

We live in relativistic times. And architecture is a deeply subjective matter. One of its glories is that even stupid people get to have an opinion about it. Nowhere is it written, however, that architecture must appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. Or that there’s no difference between an opinion and an informed opinion, educated and uneducated taste, a prejudice and an idea.

What particularly struck me about Mr. Cahill’s opinion piece is that he quoted marketing professor Tim Calkins of Northwestern University saying, “He really has built a brand that means something. It stands for quality and elegance and luxury.” OMG! He really said that? Dean Blount should have taken a line from Donald Trump and told Professor Calkins, “You’re fired.” 

Mr. Cahill himself went even further, “Nobody knows more about branding than Donald Trump. He has turned his name into one of the most recognized brands in the world, reaching far beyond traditional real estate development.” Of course, it wouldn’t take much research to discover that isn’t true. The Donald has made his money in real estate, pure and simple, regardless of his forays into entertainment and non-real estate businesses. Even as a real estate developer, he has made some serious business errors to the detriment of others (while not being personally affected) and has a meager track record compared to other New York real estate developers. And by no means is he the wealthiest of them, not to mention he didn’t even come close to making the cut in Crain’s New York Business’ “Most Connected New Yorkers.”

I realize that Mr. Cahill might consider purchasing a tie with a Trump label attached to it—perhaps he is wearing one now—but for the rest of the world this is not a popular luxury item nor a coveted one. Perhaps he was seduced by Professor Calkins pronouncement that by Donald Trump “putting his name on these really spectacular buildings like the Chicago tower and similar high-rises in other cities…a consumer who is impressed to see Trump on an opulent skyscraper is more likely to try a cologne with the same name.” Mmmm, I guess next time I’m at Walgreen’s I’ll have to look for Waste Management’s new line of men’s deodorant, or BP’s skin care products. It’s unfortunate, if not embarrassing to his institution that someone like Professor Calkins cannot distinguish between good and bad branding, or even correctly define it in regard to its specific place in the market, but I guess now we know where the real estate people get these crazy ideas. Maybe the professor should look to someone immensely more successful in both business and in building a luxury brand than the Donald, such as Giorgio Armani who famously said, “Elegance is not about being noticed, it’s about being remembered.”

Which brings me to the point of why I am writing this. Why is everyone so upset about this sign in Chicago? Why should Chicagoans care? Well, because it is Chicago, and like few other cities in the world, architecture is Chicago’s brand. Chicago is one of the few cities in the world where you can stop someone in the general populace and more than likely they can point to a significant building and identify it by name. Not because there is a huge sign on the building, but because architecture is part of the public realm, it’s important to the city, and Chicagoans are proud of the fact they know something about it. And it is not only Chicagoans who appreciate the city’s architectural legacy, but also half a million people annually who take organized architectural tours while visiting, spearheaded by groups like the Chicago Architecture Foundation—the largest organization of its kind in the world. 

I understand why Kohl’s, Mariano’s, Burger King, Office Depot, Mr. Beef and thousands of other businesses need signs on their buildings. They are companies that would never consider architecture or, specifically, the good design of a building as part of their business strategy or success—quite the opposite—and they require something to mark their spot, like a dog and a fence. Nevertheless, for scores of high-rise buildings in Chicago, it is architecture that speaks to the public about the businesses that occupy them, and there is a tangible benefit and prestige for those that do. Where architects have been involved in the planning of a building’s signage, rather than a real estate broker, there seems to be a noticeable difference in quality and affect. A few dissimilar examples come to mind and in different cities: the Apple Stores designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, take your pick of which location but I prefer the Lincoln Park Store; the Inland Steel Building in Chicago (my favorite) designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; The New York Times Building by Renzo Piano; and in Washington, D.C., where the architect Cass Gilbert not only designed the placement of the signage for the Supreme Court Building, he penned the now famous lexicon that is inscribed in the entablature above the front entry, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ 

When it was originally announced that Donald Trump was going to build a tower on the Chicago River, there was a shared gasp and a sense of angst that built up among Chicago architecture enthusiasts, but when it was completed, there was a collective sigh of relief from the same group. It was, in the end, an elegant tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and it fit well on the river. In fact, in spite of its little flaws, it became a new Chicago architectural icon and part of its brand. We have Mayor Daley and Adrian Smith to thank for that, more than the building’s developer. And for plastering a bad hairpiece on the side of the building and deteriorating the city’s brand, we have none other than Donald Trump to thank for that.


25 Years: Yamamoto Residence

Fifteen years ago we were asked to design a house in the suburbs of Indianapolis for Tom and Nancy Yamamoto after they had seen the Thompson House in a publication. They invited us to help choose the location and site in a planned development. Although surrounded by Neo-traditional houses on half-acre lots, the house adapts into a sloping site, which articulates views to a preserved area of woods and water. The plan and volumetric organization of the house was developed around a niche to display a pair of seventeenth-century six-panel Japanese screens.

The sequence of entry is defined by a series of horizontal elements including the garage, site wall and entrance canopy, which serves to both privatize and delineate the approach to the house. Setting the main living area of the house away from the street insulates the home from an area of typical suburban development, while reducing the impact of the design on that context. The intent is calm juxtaposition—not a radical statement.

The uniqueness of the design in suburban Indianapolis garnered Brininstool + Lynch a shelf full of awards, including two from the American Institute of Architects, and a host of publications, including a feature article in the second issue of Dwell magazine.

25 Years: Thompson House

A little over twenty years ago we completed the second to last of a number of projects that we worked on as both architect and contractor—the Thompson House.

It was the first project that received national and international press attention; it was also the first of a long line of projects for which we received both the Distinguished Building Award and the Interior Architecture Award from the American Institute of Architects, valuing the building design holistically. Interestingly, it received attention recently when it sold for five times what it originally cost to acquisition the land and build it.

25 Years: Architecture Is a Lot Like Cooking Eggs

My favorite scene in the movie Big Night is the final one. Shot in a single five minute take, it contains almost no dialogue, only the sounds of a kitchen at breakfast. Secondo cooks eggs for his brother Primo and the waiter Cristiano after an almost endless night of preparing and serving one of the most amazing gourmet feasts ever represented in film. The scene is not only a visual record of how to cook eggs, but a testament to getting up in the morning and moving on to the next thing, to doing what you have to do.

Similarly, no matter what happens in a studio of architecture—no matter how many mistakes are made, how many projects are unrealized, or, inversely, how many successes are celebrated—you are right back at it the next morning with a routine of tasks. If you believe in it, there is no escaping it other than to leave it altogether.

When we were in a third floor loft on North May Street twenty-five years ago, there wasn't much there. The neighborhood was dark and empty after 5pm and the views to the skyline down the railroad tracks were expansive and uninterrupted. The wind rattled the single pane windows in winter and the jets from the Chicago Air and Water Show rattled them in the summer, given our location at their turnaround point.

Our desks were 4' by 8' sheets of MDF on metal legs topped with Borco and large parallel rules with Luxo drafting lamps mounted on the sides. Our side tables were hollow core doors on wood horses. Our conference room table was identical to our drafting tables and we had eight old banker's chairs arranged around it. Our office was the epitome of simplicity and frugality.

In 1989, CAD was still relatively new to architecture. Computers were huge (in size, not in speed or memory) and we used word processors. Almost no one used email and the Internet was a vast wasteland of informational opportunity. Cell phones looked and felt like small phone booths, there were no PDAs, digital photography was in its infancy and no one transferred files digitally. Our office technology consisted of a fax machine, a copier and an underutilized phone system; we tended to “drop things off” rather than use a messenger service.

We drafted by hand, used press type and sticky backs for schedules, titles and specifications, and hand-lettered notes on drawings. We used plastic lead on sheets of Mylar and some of us also used technical pens. The sounds of the office were the tearing of tracing paper, triangles and scales clacking against the edge of the rule, lead pointers grinding, electric erasers whirring, drafting brushes sweeping, eraser shields clinking on the desk and, of course, the sound of the parallel rule rolling up and down the sheet. A quiet background of classical music filled the room since there were no personal MP3 players. My favorite sound was that of a technical pen cutting into the Mylar, making an unmistakable etching sound as it crossed the surface—much like the sound of eggs hitting the pan at just the right moment, metaphorically speaking.

While the process within the studio is as vigorous as ever, the tactile sounds of architecture are mostly gone. What can be heard if you do not have earbuds in are the tapping of keyboards, a computer mouse dragging and the sound of printers in the background. Fortunately, there is still the tearing of trace and the sound of felt tips sketching; and the routine of showing up every morning and running through the tasks at hand is still here, as is the belief in doing good work.