CHICAGOLAND at WantedDesign. Photo by Alex Welsh
By Morgan Walsh
Now that it's officially July, the city of Chicago has settled into its annual routine of near-constant street festivals, concerts, BBQs, neighborhood 5Ks and other seasonal activities. With the heat and the holiday, it's almost easy to forget the hullabaloo surrounding the Chicago design community and it's myriad events only a few weeks ago. Starting in May and culminating in the first weeks of June, the Guerilla Truck Show, This is Chicago, and CHICAGOLAND set up (and tore down) shop; CHGO DSGN and the Chicago Design Museum hosted opening receptions; and Catalyze Chicago, a young organization offering resources to local designers, hit their membership capacity.
Preview Reception at Chicago Design Museum. Courtesy David Ettinger
The common thread, title-wise, between the names of these events and the organizations collectively represent the Chicago design community and, like the proverbial diamond in the rough, its various facets: collaboration, shared resources and a regular old Midwestern work ethic. Presumably anticipating a sylvan summer getaway, Rick Valicenti likened various groups of Chicago designers to multiple campfires across the city. His thought, which is clear within his show, was that the closer these campfires become, the more light they'll put off, making it easier to see Chicago design from a distance. So before the "summer-of-Chicago-design" fades into just-another-Chicago-summer, here is a summary of just a few Chicago design events that have taken (or are taking) place, how they overlap and what the community can still gain from them.
CHGO DSGN at the Chicago Cultural Center. Courtesy Ross Floyd Photography
"CHGO DSGN" is a massive display of current object and graphic design currently on view at the Chicago Cultural Center. Curated by Valicenti, 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, the opening night saw over 2,000 visitors. With limited promotion, the record turnout was a testament to the interest in local design work, and to the vast network at play. Rick's show, as it is often fondly referred to, features over 100 makers, and over 200 pieces of work, presented in funky, densely packed vignettes. While CHGO DSGN offers the obvious benefit of accessibility to a public audience, it has also helped bring designers in closer proximity to each other. Per his example above, exhibiting together is one way to dissolve the boundaries, both physical and perceived, between object and graphic designers, to see what is happening outside one's bubble and envision future relationships.
Opening Night at CHGO DSGN. Courtesy Alfonso Monroy and Elizabeth Muskopf
In addition to supporting Chicago design locally, the city also recognized the value in showcasing Chicago design nationally and partially funded "CHICAGOLAND," an exhibition of furniture, lighting and objects, with a Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) grant. For the second year, CHICAGOLAND presented new work at WantedDesign during New York's Design Week and the Guerilla Truck Show. Consisting of eight designers and collectives, the group functioned as a kind of ambassador for the greater Chicago design scene, promoting not only the participants themselves but colleagues and businesses back home as well.
CHICAGOLAND at the Guerilla Truck Show. Courtesy Tim Parsons
Conceived as an alternative platform to showcase design work during NEOCON, the Guerilla Truck Show celebrated it's 10th anniversary on June 13th. The past decade has hardly dampened its youthful spirit, as Chicago designers once again demonstrated their ingenuity by using storefront spaces as pop-up galleries, postering glass façades of occupied spaces with advertisements for off-site events, roasting marshmallows on tricked-out bicycles and temporarily re-branding a local establishment Bar Basso in honor of the favored Milan hangout.
Chicago Design Museum's Opening Night, installation by Plural. Courtesy David Ettinger
"This is Chicago," a celebration of the 100th anniversary of AIGA, and "Starts/Speculations: Graphic Design in Chicago Past and Future" at the Chicago Design Museum, focus on graphic design, though the inclusion of lighting and objects in the museum's store duly serves as an introductory exhibition of 3D work. AIGA Chicago tasked designers to create posters in response to the question "What does design in Chicago design mean to you?", while ChiDM's two-part approach developed a curatorial vision of graphic design that has defined the city and what asked local designers to envision how technology might change communication in the future.
Recently built workspace at Catalyze Chicago. Courtesy Catalyze Chicago
If exhibiting work is one way to dissolve the divide between designers, another perhaps more obvious way would be to start from the beginning, by encouraging designers to share their physical space. In a similar vein to entrepreneurial hub 1871 but with an emphasis on prototyping and industrial manufacturing, Catalyze Chicago is not just a coworking space but a full-fledged shared workshop as well. Its founders want to engage designers, engineers, artists and coders and hope that members rely as much on the intelligence and experience each brings as the shared tools, machines and lab space they offer. They're also culling a list of local manufacturers and vendors willing to work with designers on new ideas and production methods.
Opening Night at CHGO DSGN. Courtesy Alfonso Monroy and Elizabeth Muskopf.
With so much to do during the summer in Chicago, it's temping to wait until the weather cools down (and school starts back up) to refocus on the numerous projects that we all take on. Yet Chicago designers are still drawing on the energy of the events and exhibitions from the last couple of months, introducing friends, brainstorming new ideas, developing exhibitions and reaching out to vendors and retailers. Clusters of designers across the city are starting to light up their campfires, or at least their grills, closer together. After all, it's summer and they too want to enjoy the weather, whether its at a campsite in the distance or in one's very own backyard.