Mod and Zen

River North has become a veritable playground for design junkies over the past few years. For those on the hunt for modern classics and ethnographic treasures, the selection just keeps getting deeper . . . and deeper

Photography by Matthew Gilson

modern room

You don’t have to be a pro to shop like one in River North. Long known for its concentration of art galleries, the neighborhood now gets as much attention for its home decor stores, with new specialty showrooms and national names like Design Within Reach continuing to sprout up among the more well-established shops. While you’ll find all manner of lighting, tile, furniture, linens, tableware, and antiques along these streets, two categories of merchandise have become particularly prevalent of late: modern furniture and ethnic (particularly Asian) design.

Two of the best-known (and largest) modern furniture emporiums are near neighbors. Luminaire is a three-story collection of cool, with everything from home office equipment and storage systems to of-the-moment dinnerware, as well as finds from the latest European furniture shows. Manifesto is filled with cleanly designed pieces that walk the fine line between traditional and modern, mostly from European designers (it’s the only authorized dealer in the Midwest for Giorgio Armani’s furniture line).

Three more furniture stores are located within a few blocks of each other along Franklin Street. Strolling through The Ambiente Collection is like walking around the loft of a sophisticated world traveler, with low-slung couches, chairs, and beds-mostly Italian and German-arranged in roomlike settings. Form-meets-function finds include a white leather sectional sofa from De Sede with headrests that fold up and down and a Draenert side table with a glass shelf that swivels out of the way when not in use.

If Ambiente looks like the home of a jet-set sophisticate, Orange Skin, a block south, belongs to that person’s trend-happy younger sibling. The store, which started in a cramped Wicker Park storefront, now extends across two floors, with an eye-catching mix of iconic modern pieces (Philippe Starck’s translucent acrylic La Marie chair) and items that can only be described as fun (colorful kids’ chairs made of heavy-duty Styrofoam; bright red molded-plastic dog houses). Also appealing: the broad price range, and the selection of unusual gift items downstairs (a good place to shop for hip friends).

Nearby Modernica offers reproductions of mid-century modern classics, such as Case Study shelving and fiberglass Shell chairs in a variety of colors. A bonus: many of the pieces (such as the Bubble lamp, designed by George Nelson in 1947) are manufactured using the same tools and equipment that were used to produce the originals.

For a modern look on a bargain-basement budget, head south to White. Tucked into an unassuming, no-frills space opposite the Merchandise Mart, the shop sells affordable pieces inspired by iconic mid-century furniture. If you’ve been looking for your very own, low-priced version of an Egg chair, this is the place to get it.

For cutting-edge lighting and other stylish accouterments, head back north to Lightology. Chicago’s heavyweight when it comes to contemporary lighting, with about 350 manufacturers represented, the store carries everything from chic, minimalist desk lamps to floor lamps that look like giant glow sticks and chandeliers that could pass for abstract sculpture. Less overwhelming is nearby Artemide, a tranquil, gallerylike space where lamps, sconces, and ceiling fixtures are displayed like works of art.

When you’ve had your fill of modernism, get out and see the world without leaving the neighborhood. Well-established Asian design stores include Michaelian & Kohlberg (formerly Material Culture), which also carries a lot of Indian and African pieces and has a particularly wide selection of rugs and other textiles; The Golden Triangle, a must-hit spot for beautifully displayed antique furniture; and Asian House of Chicago, which brings together about 30 different dealers for a jaw-dropping selection of furniture and decorative accessories.

East on Kinzie Street are two newcomers well worth a look. First impressions are deceiving at Bizen Home, where a narrow, unassuming entryway barely prepares you for the dazzling merchandise on the lower level. Antique furniture and accessories from China, India, and Thailand are arranged in gorgeous settings against a background of rich red walls. The store also has a collection of reproduction pieces and takes custom orders.

Across the street, P. A. Larkin has a mix of intricately detailed antiques and modern reproductions, many made from vintage wood (such as the massive dining table in the center of the shop, made from an antique Chinese door). The space has the carefully edited feel of a gallery rather than a furniture store; many of the pieces are merely jumping-off points for the custom designs that are this shop’s specialty.

A few blocks north is another compact gem: Chen & Chen, a new outpost from the owners of the Highland Park shop with the same name. While the store stocks some small pieces of furniture (mostly side tables), its real draw is an extensive collection of antique porcelain and carved ivory and jade figurines. For a wider range of global decorative accents, visit Cassiopeia. This small gallery specializes in one-of-a-kind items from Africa and Asia-you’ll see everything from a three-legged Ethiopian stool to a Thai statue of Buddha. The objects are identified not only by country but also by the indigenous peoples who made them. Each handcrafted piece is a reminder that all great design is a product of one person’s creativity.


modern room
Thirsty? Quenchers are colorful at F212.

Take A Break

River North is chock-a-block with big-deal restaurants, but for a quick liquid pick-me-up, stop by F212, a tiny, colorful take on a traditional café, with Jetsons-esque green-and-orange decor courtesy of local designer Suhail. Specialty iced tea lattes make for a good mid-morning snack (in flavors such as Masala Chai and Pineapple Passion Fruit), or you can fill up on panini and desserts such as chocolate sushi. Another local favorite is Brett’s Kitchen, where art-gallery insiders flock at lunch-time to pick up homemade sandwiches, soup, and cookies.

  

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