Photography by Kate Roth
Styling by Arden Nelson
In 2003, photographer and gallery owner Susan Aurinko was looking for a house.
Her Flatfile Galleries, a showroom for contemporary photography, painting, and sculpture, had thrived in the West Loop art district since opening in 2000, and she hoped to find something in the neighborhood that would work as a home for herself, her husband, and (occasionally) their two grown daughters.
To help find and redesign a suitable building, she enlisted the help of her longtime friend Claudia Skylar-a partner, with husband James Mastro, in the architectural firm Mastro & Skylar. When a nearly 100-year-old two-story brick building on Carpenter Street (originally home to Wilson sporting goods manufacturers, and later to a Christmas tree flocking factory) became available, they jumped at the chance to buy it.
Its size opened up another opportunity-moving Flatfile Galleries from its quarters on Peoria Street to the 8,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the new building.
A separate, unobtrusive entrance leads to the residential space. Visitors ascend a handsome metal staircase past curved glass sconces (“They’re upside down-I just liked them better that way,” Aurinko says) and emerge into a vast, basketball-court-sized living room, itself much like a gallery. Carefully curated art abounds, splashes of color and form standing out against the neutral hues and geometric lines of the home’s large spaces.
Directly over the stairs hangs a Bob Emser construction with a story. “I left the gallery catalog out for my husband to see, and without a word from me, he thumbed through it and singled out this piece-my favorite,” Aurinko says. “That was my birthday present last year.” The Illinois artist, represented by Flatfile, personally installed the piece and supervised its lighting.
In the living room, a vibrant Michiko Itatani diptych in blazing orange hangs on an interior wall that was constructed specifically to hold it. A powerful Matthew Schaefer canvas in black and white and a figurative Robert Barnes oil painting of coral harvesters punctuate the dining area.
Enormous windows frame urban views and flood the rooms with light. “We worked with a very minimal palette for the walls and furniture, preferring to let the artwork provide the color,” says Aurinko. “Because of all the sunlight in here, it was difficult to pick wall colors, as they change depending on the time of day.”
Furnishings are as austerely modern as their surroundings. A cluster of sleek interlocking upholstered benches and cubes, configured around two columns, can be rearranged to accommodate seating needs for guests and pets. It’s a popular hangout for Pawson, the couple’s standard poodle, named after minimalist-design proponent John Pawson.
Anchoring a fireside seating arrangement is a large silk and wool rug designed by local textile artist Lynn Basa and woven in Nepal. It incorporates (in French and Italian) some of Aurinko’s favorite sayings, including “How sweet it is to do nothing” and “To want is to have,” while touches of blue reference the Roger Brown canvas that hangs nearby. An original Verner Panton chandelier purchased from Casati Gallery is suspended over the baby grand piano. A bold Niedermaier chair cast from an African carving provides ethnographic contrast.
Carving a comfortable living environment out of a cavernous old industrial space posed unique challenges for the architect. “The owners entertain a great deal,” Skylar says, “so we paid careful attention to designating public versus private spaces and creating intimate, cozy areas in contrast to the big open spaces. We planned for all the ‘stuff’ and created a place for everything.”
There are two adjacent state-of-the-art kitchens-a compact, efficient one for preparation and storage, and a more visible one for presentation and conversation. Since guests inevitably convene there, the “clean” kitchen is a focal point of the main floor, with its enormous polished cast-concrete counter, which had to be hoisted up from the street with a crane. The only immediately visible workhorses are the chicly outfitted sink and the shimmering hooded stove-other appliances masquerade as cabinets below the countertop.
Tableware plays hide-and-seek behind frosted-glass cabinets, and ingenious metal louvers roll down like garage doors to conceal cookbooks and a television set. The backsplash is composed of tiny square shimmering tiles, a design element that pops up around the house in variations of Italian glass and marble. Aurinko likens this recurring theme to “a musical passage throughout a symphony.”
The northern wall is the site of a plush home theatre-the owners are big film buffs. An adjacent powder room contains unexpected plot twists of its own, including a sinuous figurative mural by artist Morey Curtis Dunbar, a friend. Bedrooms and bathrooms are down a hall; upstairs is a glassed-in rooftop room (with a half bath) surrounded by a deck.
Throughout the home, spindly support columns were beefed up to provide architectural substance, and the varying ceiling heights required careful navigation. “The shower curtain in my daughters’ bathroom is actually four standard curtains sewn together,” Aurinko says. “And the vent over the kitchen stove had to be custom-made.” Mounting sections of additional oak doors as transoms above the eight-foot portals, all stained in a rich, dark tone, visually extended several dramatic doorways.
For the two distinctly different outdoor areas-a sprawling, multilevel roof deck and an enclosed Japanese garden abutting the dining and entertaining area-Aurinko and Skylar called on landscape architect Maria Smithburg to set the stage. “The relationship between the indoor and outdoor areas was very important on this project,” emphasizes Skylar. “And we wanted to utilize every inch of space. Maria made it happen.”
In the Japanese garden, the yin elements of weeping katsura trees, bamboo, and trickling water complement the yang of a stepped stainless steel water feature, original brickwork, and concrete flooring in a contemplative spot where the owners like to breakfast and read. Rather than entirely bricking up the factory windows on the exterior wall, Aurinko opted to leave high, horizontal openings that frame neighborhood tableaux that are decidedly more Ashcan school than the abstract art on display inside.
On the upper deck, accessed from the rooftop room, jaw-dropping 360-degree cityscape views are cleanly complemented by the linear forms of the architecture and low-level seating. Texture plays off texture in rectilinear benches that surround a field of beach stones. Another streamlined Bob Emser sculpture, this one freestanding, makes a bold statement in the open air.
For such a major rehab, Aurinko and Skylar say, the project went smoothly and without major setbacks or surprises. It even managed to turn Aurinko’s husband into a big design fan along the way. “We’d buy every architecture magazine from around the world every month, and spend time poring over them and tearing out pages of what we liked,” she says. “He’s the one who insisted on naming our new puppy Pawson.”
The collaboration between architects, designers, artists, master craftsmen, and good friends resulted in a showcase for contemporary art that can accommodate hundreds of guests at lavish cocktail parties yet still manages to be a comfortable sanctuary for busy urbanites.
Aurinko couldn’t be more pleased. “One of my favorite moments of the day is when I walk into my house in the evening and turn on the lights,” she says. “It’s the most calming place I can imagine, and I immediately relax and breathe more slowly. Sort of the same effect as meditating, but instantaneous.”
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