John Robert Wiltgen used light fixtures covered with hand-dyed Indian silk throughout the lobby of the Emerald. The wooden chairs and tables were designed by Jill Salisbury for EL: Environmental Language.  Photo Gallery:::

For Chicago designer John Robert Wiltgen, using environmentally conscious products is a given. "Clients don’t usually insist on them, but we’ve always brought green options," he says. "It’s just a matter of doing the right thing." His firm has been in practice for 27 years, but until very recently, the demand for a green approach has not been huge. "A lot of that has to do with education," Wiltgen notes. "I’ll show clients a recycled polyester fabric and tell them that their kids can spill grape juice on it, it’s not going to stain or tear, plus it’s great for the planet. Chances are they’ll say, ‘Oh wow, maybe we will go with that.’"

Many eco-friendly products cost more than traditional materials, but that’s slowly changing with supply and demand. "Think about what a computer cost 20 years ago," Wiltgen says. "They were exorbitantly expensive and the technology was obsolete in a year. Now you can get one fully loaded for $600—that’s what’s going to happen to eco-friendly products as people demand, buy, and use them." In two local projects—an 8,000-square-foot lobby in the West Loop’s Emerald residential development and a model unit for Bucktown’s EcoLogic Lofts—Wiltgen went green all the way, providing inspirational lessons in style for any budget.

Next: The Emerald

The Emerald: Luxe Living

The Emerald’s Club Room, a circular motif unites the terrazzo flooring, the banquette seating, and the alder-log cocktail tables.  Photo Gallery:::

In the Emerald’s Club Room, a circular motif enhances the nightclub vibe and glamorous trappings. "It started with these patterned circles we made in the Compac quartz tile floor with Enviroglas recycled-glass terrazzo," Wiltgen says. "We played that theme up with similar fabrics, circular tables, and very primitive cubes made in Canada of alder logs. It’s the dramatic mixture of textures like this that contributes greatly to the warmth and friendliness of an interior, making it inviting—or if you get it wrong, forbidding. I don’t want to install anything that people are afraid to sit on."

Graceful bar stools designed by Jill Salisbury for EL: Environmental Language line the sparkling IceStone-topped bar and conference table. Salisbury also designed the low-slung, intricately grained bamboo Tian tables, the metal-framed upholstered Origami lounge chairs, and an ingenious grouping of ottomans that can be easily rearranged for entertaining. Curvy light fixtures swathed with silk in different shades of green were custom made by Aqua Creations; canoe-shaped hanging fixtures delineate seating areas within the large space.

Wiltgen used sculptural panels from Seattle’s Modular Arts company on several expanses of the lobby’s walls. "They are completely composed of minerals," he says, "which means they’ll never burn, and there are no pollutants in the production process. I love the way it becomes art when you graze it with light." The tiles come in 32-inch squares in a variety of patterns, and are applied over drywall. For the Emerald, the team used the Dune style behind the bar and on the soaring two-story wall that backs the reception area, orienting the tiles horizontally for a rippling-water effect. They can also be mounted vertically, or even alternated, and painted.

To save as much energy as possible, Wiltgen commissioned Chicago-based lighting consultant Design Illuminations to come up with a computerized system that uses 75 percent less electricity than conventional lighting.

 "A computer chip controls everything," he says. "Sensors trigger lights in some areas, certain lights go on only at night, and the color of the LED lighting in the recessed shadowboxes is carefully controlled." These glowing, backlit chartreuse rectangular panels—some with mirrors—are a distinctive element of the space, and are used in both tower lobbies as well as in long hallways visible from the street.

Next: EcoLogic Lofts

EcoLogic Lofts: Creative Thrift

Army surplus camouflage netting and recycled poly sheers make an unusual window treatment in the guest bedroom.  Photo Gallery:::

For the EcoLogic model home, Wiltgen sourced his furnishings like the sophisticated scrounger he is, repurposing salvaged pieces wherever possible. "We wanted to be completely respectful of our planet by choosing eco-friendly products while also inspiring people to be stylish and current," he says.

A living-room rug was crafted from discarded bicycle inner tubes.  Photo Gallery:::

Stained bamboo flooring, which is harder than oak, is processed more conservationally, and comes from a rapid-renew source, is used throughout. Every stick of furniture was salvaged from resale stores, CraigsList, and the occasional Dumpster, then jazzed up with eco-friendly finishes and sturdy recycled fabrics. The loopy black area rug that anchors the living room is made in Italy from discarded bicycle inner tubes. "Walk on it in your bare feet, and it’s just like getting a foot massage," Wiltgen says. In the master bedroom, the same organic cotton blankets were used to fashion a headboard as to stitch up a duvet cover and pillow shams.

For a decoupaged wall treatment in the guest bathroom, Wiltgen turned to old magazines. "We spent three months cutting out 800 five-inch square black-and-white images," he says. "It took five days to arrange them on the walls, and we still didn’t have enough, so we had to find more." The collage is finished with a protective coat of water-based varnish. A Benjamin Moore low-VOC crisp blue paint is used here and in accents throughout the model home. Faucets have low-flow valves and toilets are dual flush, to conserve water. In the entryway, smart lighting choices—tracks and compact fluorescents—illuminate found-art photos and a mirror with a witty chandelier decal.

The lacy guest-bedroom curtains are fashioned from Army camouflage netting (which comes in white for clandestine winter activities) layered over recycled polyester sheers. The curtains are reflected in a wall of mirrors—27 tag sale frames painted glossy white and fitted with pieces of discarded mirrors. Wiltgen slipcovered three queen-size mattresses in recycled poly vinyl and stacked them for an arty bed that references the triple-drawered resale bureaus that flank it.

For resource information, see Buyer’s Guide.


Photography: Christopher Barrett, Hedrich Blessing