When you order a drink at Young American (2545 N. Kedzie Ave., Logan Square), you’ll also receive a small painting. Examine your coaster — the palm-sized mat is, in fact, a fragment of canvas, daubed with pastel colors then treated with a clear armor of beeswax.
The zany pieces are the handiwork of Noel Mercado and Kyle Genander, who go by Tired Projects. The pair, who had never before collaborated with a restaurant, are among the many Chicago artists whose works adorn the new cocktail bar. While it’s common to see local art hanging in many restaurants (Lula Cafe, for one, curates seasonal art exhibitions), Young American’s collection extends beyond walls, comprising functional objects as well as decorative works.
The latest project of Leisure Activities — the group behind spots like Ludlow Liquors, Sportsman’s Club, and Estereo — the bar was designed from the start to celebrate artists. Its name nods to the eponymous song by David Bowie (who was also a painter), and the interior by Sydello Designs is earth toned to ensure that colorful artworks stand out.
“A lot of our previous spaces have been focused on built items and not so much on art,” says Wade McElroy, one-half of Leisure Activities. “I wanted to create a really fun, creatively fueled place here. A lot of folks who pursue creative craft also work in hospitality, and my first thought was to go to these people and bring them together to create dynamic artworks.”
McElroy was introduced to Tired Projects through a friend who works at Big Star, and he initially asked the artists to create aprons for bartenders. These, too, are sturdy canvas pieces, born as large-scale abstract paintings that were then cut and fitted with lush, hand-stitched leather straps.
Given the many scraps of colorful canvas left from this project, creating coasters was a natural next step. “We liked the idea of the painting we made serving several functions, and can sort of recreate itself while scattered over the bar top,” the Tired Projects team says.
McElroy also commissioned artist Alyx Harch to create curtains for the room. Her gossamer drapes instantly draw your eye, made of fabrics quilted together to reference Young American’s logo of playful, abstracted letters. “I approach the frame of these curtains just like I would with a painting,” she says.
Harch has recently been creating a collection of wearable collages (“basically fancy T-shirts that look like paintings”), but you might recognize her work if you’ve eaten at Same Day Cafe, where her paper sculptures add colorful crinkles to the walls, or at Mott St., whose exterior mural she painted. But while those are temporary embellishments, her curtains at Young American will live in the space indefinitely.
They converse well with flags designed by Chad Kouri — pigment prints of abstract shapes on cotton twill. Pinned to walls, the trio responds to the bar’s name: Kouri envisions them as alternative American banderoles for younger generations.
“This was an exploration of symbolism and color that represent progressive values I see inherent to a contemporary America,” he says. “I made shapes or gestures to represent these — equality, sanctuary, commerce and open market, freedom, justice, security — and collided them.”
Patrons should also look out for Young American’s solid collection of ceramic vessels, which include contributions by Leah Ball, Nina Pilacoutas, and Ian Wallach. Each of these pieces, too, were created specifically for the space, so none, unfortunately, are for sale (McElroy, though, is toying with the idea of hosting temporary exhibitions in the space one day).
Which brings us back to the coasters. Customers are supposed to leave them with their glassware, but McElroy has accepted that the tiny paintings might be too pretty to resist pocketing. “People will just take them,” he says. “I just hope they make cool art out of them at their houses.”