The design scene is hopping, not least because Chicago is famously proud of its own and welcoming to entrepreneurs. Each of the designers featured here—all in some stage of trying to turn a passion into a livelihood—might just be the next big thing.
by Gina Bazer
Basia Frossard, 42, is not shy about how much she loves her designs. Holding up a black charmeuse blouse with a delicate ruffle going down the front, she feels the soft imported fabric, sort of purrs, and declares, “I love that. I have to make that in white!”
It’s hard not to be charmed by her enthusiasm, or become equally smitten by her clothes. Her looks—all custom-made from limited yardage of fabrics imported from all over Europe—run the gamut from a three-quarter-length-sleeved worsted-wool pea-coat-style jacket with a baby-doll swing (“Everyone has this jacket,” she says of her 50 or so private clients) to a Renaissance-inspired blouse with ruffles out to there. “I make things that are feminine, but not too sexy,” she explains.
It’s been a long road for Frossard, who grew up in a small textile town in Communist Poland, where, she recalls, “you’d go to the store and find 10,000 of the same coat.” To be different—and Frossard always was—you had to design and make your own clothes. After earning her tailoring degree, she followed her dream of becoming a fashion designer all the way to Vienna and then Tampa, Florida, working as a seamstress along the way. Eventually she ended up in Chicago, where she graduated from the International Academy of Merchandising and Design in 1991. Her subsequent job at a local women’s knitwear manufacturer dissolved when the company did, after which a lousy job market found her working in sales for a local light fixture manufacturer. Later, after meeting several architects whose clients needed window treatments, she returned to her sewing machine. But it was only in the past year that she began to pursue her true calling.
Today, her fashion business is eclipsing the upholstery business, and the trendy West Loop boutique Koros carries several of her pieces. Frossard intends to open her own shop as soon as she can sell the East Village work studio she currently occupies. “Do you know anyone who’s interested in buying it?” she asks.
Hughes N’Cho-Allepot, 38, is a Parisian to the core, from his tailored suit and gleaming wingtips to his confident air and café philosopher’s cadence. “I hate moldings,” he says dismissively, his French accent suavely deleting the h sound. “They are making something out of nothing.”
Not that he’s strictly opposed to making something out of nothing: he had nothing when he arrived in Brooklyn from Paris in 1999, so, despite his lack of carpentry skills, he built himself a simple platform bed. A few years later, he made an extra-high tufted headboard (a design that he still offers today in more exotic woods) that ultimately led to a namesake furniture line that made him a favorite among wealthy, minimalist-leaning Manhattanites. Now that he has relocated with his Wisconsin-born wife, Meghan, and their two young children to Oak Park, you might say he’s making something out of nothing again: relaunching his business in a city where he doesn’t have the name recognition he enjoyed in New York. This fall he and Meghan—his muse and business partner—will open a children’s furniture store together in Oak Park, and he plans
to open a store in downtown Chicago within the following year.
What N’Cho-Allepot does have is a strong, almost rebellious design sense—and moldings aren’t his only pet peeve. He has no love for end tables or armrests, either. He also makes chairs with backs that are strikingly low or irreverently high. These days, however, he’s playing with updating classical styles, such as the curvy-legged modern cabinet currently on his drawing board. “I don’t want to be known as that modern guy,” he says. Living in an old Victorian in Oak Park will do that to you.
Annie Mohaupt, Mohop Shoes
When Annie Mohaupt made herself a skateboard a few years ago, it was purely for amusement. “I was this dorky architect, dressed in a black turtleneck, riding a skateboard to work,” she recalls. But when the architecture career lost its luster for Mohaupt, 31, she turned her former mode of transportation into the soul—and sole—of a budding shoe business.
After a friend invited her to participate in the Renegade Craft Fair in the fall of 2005, Mohaupt had a vision of “a shoe that looked like a skateboard,” and “all summer, I was like a mad scientist, making prototypes out of plywood,” she recalls. Adding various heel heights was a no-brainer; the problem was the tops. (Shoemakers normally build shoes on molds, or “lasts,” in every size, but such an investment was out of the question for Mohaupt.) One glorious May day, Mohaupt hit upon her unique make-your-own-sundae version of shoe-shopping—letting her customers create their own strappy sandals by weaving ribbons of their choice through elastic loops attached below the top layer of plywood—and from there, Mohop was born. Taking another cue from the skateboard culture, Mohaupt screen-prints her own graphic designs on the soles.
After her success at Renegade, Mohaupt started selling at shows and online. Last year, she was named one of Gen Art’s Fresh Faces in Fashion, and her line, under the name Mohop, is carried at Wolfbait & B-girls in Logan Square. These days, the humble Mohaupt, who makes an average of eight pairs of shoes
a day out of her basement studio, is on to the next challenge: closed toes. This is Chicago, after all.
Noah Singer & Mike Andrews, Imperfect Articles
“Somewhere between a curatorial project and a company” is how these two artists with day jobs see their company. Noah Singer, 43, is a painter and secretarial supervisor at a law firm; Mike Andrews, 30, is a sculptor who teaches fiber and material arts at the School of the Art Institute. They founded the operation three years ago after suffering what they felt was a dearth of good T-shirt options. After commissioning artist friends to create a bunch of designs, the partners silk-screened them onto American Apparel T-shirts that they had personally hand-dyed in the basement of the Humboldt Park apartment they share. Thus, a “siteless gallery” was born.
They started by selling ten designs in several sizes at the Renegade Craft Fair in 2003. Today, they sell about 1,200 shirts a year, mainly through their Web site. They also showcase 60 or so artists—both those they’ve sought out and people who have come to them with ideas. “One of our artists actually got a show at a gallery in Boston because the owner had seen his work on one of our shirts,” says Andrews.
Despite their company’s growth, however, Singer and Andrews are still making their shirts by hand and selling them in limited editions—for any given design only about 50 to 100 are made. Designs range from the quirky (Seth Scriver’s image of a cat in shoes; Hilary Meehan’s colander) to the political (Royal Art Lodge’s sketch of a sad man holding a shovel, accompanied by the words, “Well, my brother had to go fight in the war. So now I wait by the airport with my shovel.”). All look decidedly indie and prices start at a reasonable $30.
Peter Dunham, Linnea Gits, and Suzanna Bierwirth, Binth
If you were to choose one word to describe Binth paper products, it would not be “cute.” “Dreamy,” “funny,” “quirky,” “beautiful,” “a little dark,” yes. Definitely not “cute.” And yet, the item that launched the business two years ago is the very definition of preciousness: a baby book.
But Binth’s take on this mommy must is no requisite pastel gumdrop of a thing: it’s a cool-yet-endearing mix of chartreuse, pale blue, and brown, and the front features a minimalist silhouette of a wild rabbit—hardly a cuddly bunny. Binth—a made-up word, according to the owners—also has a line of cards and stationery featuring illustrations by both Gits, an artist, and Bierwirth, a photographer and marketing creative director, with artistic guidance from Dunham, a furniture designer, graphic designer, and all-around design whiz, who also happens to be Gits’s husband.
This like-minded group are attracted to all things that, in Gits’s words, are “attractive, but weird,” like German children’s books, Edward Gorey illustrations, Soviet advertisements, and dark comedy. But while their wry humor appears (visually, that is, they’re not big on “cute little sayings”) in collections like “Bear Country”—which depicts men hunting in a way that pokes gently at male bonding—most of their graphics, whether featuring botanical, woodland, or simple figurative themes, are just plain beautiful. After all, Gits points out, “when people buy a thank-you card, they just want a nice thank-you card.”
Binth products are available at Greer and other fine paper stores; check binth.com for retailers.
Photography by Anna Knott