Braving the lightning bolts of an early summer storm, Chicago’s intrepid designers and design aficionados came out in force to attend last year’s Guerrilla Furniture and Art Truck Show outside Morlen Sinoway Atelier. This year, the event promises to be even more robust, with more than 30 U-Haul trucks registered to showcase wares, and enough coordinated events—14 to be precise—scheduled to warrant making a map for the first time in the six-year history of the event.
This expansion is one of many signs that Chicago is primed to support the ambitions of a growing community of designers now calling the city home. With ample space for affordable studios, industrial manufacturing within close range of the city center, three design schools, and a variety of new forums to show design work, Chicago provides all the crucial ingredients for a vital design scene. Not to mention that the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, now one year old, dedicates the most square footage of exhibition space to design in the country. From that perch, curator Zoe Ryan is spearheading an effort to build a definitive collection by making acquisitions in reverse chronological order. “At the Art Institute,” Ryan said, “we’re hoping to tell a broader story, including younger designers who are Chicago-based but are very much working in a global arena.”
Central to this nascent design community are such forums as Volume Gallery and the , as well as the Object Design League. Since ODL’s inception in 2009, it has grown to be both a social and commercial nexus for new Chicago design, having hosted events, sponsored design charrettes, curated exhibitions, and most recently, opened a pop-up shop carrying objects by ODL participants alongside designers new to the Midwest. Worth Your Salt was staged inside an existing Bucktown boutique for three weeks, and for Smith, it fulfilled ODL’s aspirations to bring young designers together to both share their ideas and sell their work. The shop/exhibit, said Smith, “tried to address the entire design community: designers, retailers, and consumers. The success of the shop was that we sold a good volume of stuff. In design, unlike contemporary art, it’s okay for it to be a more commercial activity.”
Finding a way to put work out into the world is among the biggest challenges for any designer. , director of SAIC’s Design Objects track, “All of the schools have really different but not incompatible approaches. When we were developing the program, we looked really closely at other schools in Chicago and considered [SAIC’s] art context. Many of our faculty came from Europe or studied at Cranbrook. We also looked to programs like London’s Royal College of Art and ECAL in Switzerland, where designers had the opportunity to be independent in a studio environment.” Still, the school has drawn faculty from local talent like industrial designer , all made an appearance in New York for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) this May. An annual trip to the Milan International Furniture Fair, where it is one of few American schools to show student work, is a standout aspect of SAIC’s education program. “If you want to work in design-conscious companies,” Nugent said, “Milan is one of the most important places in the world to show. The students get a sense of what their competition is, and an understanding of the bigger picture.”
For Zoe Ryan, who along with her curatorial work is also teaching a course at UIC, a new paradigm is emerging. “Designers are thinking in a much more manifold way, with many types of creative projects in one studio,” she said, citing Chicago’s deep design history across disciplines, its schools, and the presence of consulting firms like IDEO as important components of the current rapid expansion of design activities. Rather than calling this new work emerging, however, Ryan puts it differently: “Designers, at their best, are ambidextrous. They make multiple turns in their careers, which can all be said to be very emerging, in terms of using new technology or finding new formal solutions.” In other words, Chicago’s designers are on a roll.