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05.19.2014
Concrete Thinking
Architectural concrete is back in upscale interiors.
Optimo Hat Co.'s Graham Thompson chose a custom concrete countertop for his downtown store.
Robin Amer

When Graham Thompson opened an outpost of Optimo Hat Co. in Chicago’s historic Monadnock Building, he wanted his shop’s aesthetic to match his dapper custom hats and the rustic South Side where he makes them. The store had to be chic with an industrial flare. So amid the wooden hat forms, steel display racks, and a rainbow of fedoras that start at $650, Thompson installed a custom-built concrete countertop and a set of matching concrete bar stools. The curve of the countertop matches the curve of a brim. The slab is functional, too, equipped with a radiant heating element and a steam vent for minor topper touch-ups. “It kind of goes with our industrial production look,” said Thompson of the charcoal gray countertop’s elegant sheen. “We have tools and machinery that are of that color and feel and era.”

Optimo’s countertop was fabricated by Tom and Karen Bucina of Chicago Concrete Studio. The husband-and-wife team work out of a space in the Beverly neighborhood once owned by the Wilbert Vault Co. The company does between eight and 10 projects a month at $90 to $100 per square foot. Every job is completely customized, down to the color. “Oh, you want it purple? Well we’ll make it purple for you,” said Tom Bucina. “Or you want it 15-feet-long, solid, one piece? We’ll make that for you.”

Bucina also created custom concrete wall panels for the new Saint Laurent boutique in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, and is working on a second set for the couturier’s boutique in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. “They like the warmth of it, the subtle nuances that only concrete can give you,” said Bucina of his high-end customers. “You can’t get that from marble.”

But high-end concrete can sometimes hit the same price as traditional luxury stone, said Paul Audrain, principal at Chicago-based Audrain Architecture.

Elwin Robison, professor at Kent State University’s College of Architectural and Environmental Design, attributes some of concrete’s return to popularity to the influence of architects like Frank Gehry, who sparked a “revolution of curves and warped surfaces.” The popularity of industrial-spaces-turned-condos doesn’t hurt either. “When we say industrial, we don’t mean we’re throwing the floor down like it’s a warehouse,” said Tony Vera, owner of Chicago-based VeraFloor Systems, which specializes in premium concrete floors. “The industrial look still calls for a nicely finished floor.”

Vera’s customers include Marc Jacobs International and BCBG Max Azria Group, but the bulk of his work is residential. Vera installs an average of five floors per week during busier times, as well as several large projects a year that total more than 30,000 square feet. Prices range from $3 to $7 per square foot, and the company’s sales grew 46.1 percent last year to $1.9 million from $1.3 million in 2012. “We’re taking out wood in a lot of newer condominiums downtown,” said Vera. “We’ll come in and take out the wood floor that was sold with the unit and put in our product. Wood is beautiful but it’s just not what they want.”

Robin Amer