Is it our imagination, or does the city seem more polished these days? Perhaps it's because designers seem to be everywhere-not only prowling the streets in the city's hipper quadrants, but populating stores with their unique goods, from cutting-edge clothing to furniture. We profile five independent designers we think you should know about and highlight some of our favorite new Chicago creations, from Bridgette Buckley's elegantly modern Crab Table to Casey Gunschel's decorative wallpaper. But nothing measures a city's style quotient better than the quality of its boutiques, as their inventories display the taste of the people who put the world's finest goods within arm's reach. In our search for Chicago's very best, we excluded stores-such as Active Endeavors and Paper Source-that, though we love them, have grown to a size that puts them in a bigger league. Even so, we whittled down our list to a spectacular range of independently owned specialty stores, bolstered by the retail explosion that's still happening on Damen Avenue in Bucktown (see our timeline of how the neighborhood has transformed over the past three decades). If there's a more enjoyable way to shop, please let us know.