Arts & Culture » Holiday Gift Guide

Chicago gifts that should be on your 2015 shopping list

This year, give local—from a custom pet portrait to artsy pot pipes to a box of midwestern delicacies.

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PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Picture purrfect

Remember when you were a kid and the best present you could give your parents was a nice picture of you and your siblings? This is like that—except for pet owners and actually a thousand times cooler. Artist Melissa Smith creates vibrant hand-painted portraits of furry friends that capture all of the animals' personality quirks: the guilty (but irresistible) eyes of a dog named Buddy, the smug mien of a cat named Holden, the true love between Doberman pinschers Atticus and Czar. Just send her a photo—she'll do the rest. And the best part is that Smith really cares about the well-being of animals: she donates 10 percent of the cost of the portraits to the nonprofit pet rescue of your choice, itself a nice holiday gift. —Brianna Wellen $250-$700, Melissa Smith Art, melissasmithart.com.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Coffee on display

Craighton Berman, the Chicago designer responsible for the pour-over jug and domestic art object known as the Manual Coffee Maker No. 1, spent part of his early career consulting for Starbucks and, as he puts it, "major coffee brands that make the garbage your grandfather drinks."

"It forced me to dig in deeper to think about what I cared about," Berman says now. "I felt like, screw Starbucks, but didn't know what the alternative was."

It turned out to be carefully made pour-over coffee, preferably single origin, which Berman sees as an experience to be savored and perfected with each morning cup.

Manual's at-home pour-over setup—funded with more than $100,000 in Kickstarter backing—is made from a bamboo base and lab-grade glass. It's a highly functional appliance, but it also looks like an assiduously selected decoration.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time you're not using it," Berman says, "so it should be beautiful if it just sits there." —Robin Amer $99.95 at Fleur, 2651 N. Milwaukee, 773-395-2770 or through Manual Goods at manual.is.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

The Wright stuff

For friends and family outside the city who'd appreciate something quintessentially "Chicago" for a holiday gift, these elegant old-fashioned glass tumblers, featuring details of Frank Lloyd Wright's Chicago-area buildings—the Avery Coonley Playhouse window in Riverside and the art-glass skylight in the Oak Park Home and Studio, for example—are less obvious than, say, a framed city skyline photo and considerably classier than a Chicago shot glass from Walgreens. —Laura Pearson $13.95 each at Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan, 312-322-1132, shoparchitecture.org.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Get Tan & Loose

Clay Hickson runs Tan & Loose Press—a publishing company that specializes in limited edition artist prints, zines, and ephemera "for the tasteless art collector"—out of a former funeral home in Pilsen. Inspired by postmodern design and a 70s-rock sensibility, Hickson and guest artists use a Risograph (a digital printer that's like a mashup of a copy machine and a screen-printing press) to pump out visually exciting, brightly colored posters at reasonable prices. In the range of five to ten bucks, you can get your loved ones flowery, immaculately printed posters, hilarious books, neon patches, or, you know, a bright-pink lapel pin of a bong. —Luca Cimarusti Order online at tlpress.bigcartel.com.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Food for thought

Local Foods, Chicago's new market/food hub in West Town devoted to all things midwest made, doesn't believe in gift baskets. "They're wasteful and needlessly expensive," says Darin Latimer, Local Foods' self-titled "direttore" and floor manager. "The basket and the 'excelsior' (softwood shavings used in packaging) usually go straight into the garbage." Instead, Local Foods is offering hand-stenciled gift boxes and totes to fill with unique goods from the market: Colonel Pabst worcestershire; American Spoon whole-seed mustard ("the best mustard possible," Latimer says); Brownwood Farms Famous Kream Mustard ("Do not open this jar near a pretzel unless you're willing to commit to finishing the contents"); McClary Brothers drinking vinegars; Westside Bee Boyz raw honeycomb; fermented garlic ("a magical ingredient . . . put it under the skin of a whole roasted chicken"); "PK" spice blend from La Boîte, inspired by Paul Kahan and his restaurants; and Lillie's Q Carolina Dirt, a beloved barbecue spice rub. The product mix also includes Butcher & Larder T-shirts and "Locally Grown" shirts. Admit it: that sounds way better than your usual Hickory Farms fare. Your foodie friends and family will love it. —Laura Pearson $30-$100 at Local Foods, 1427 W. Willow, 312-432-6575, localfoods.com.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Bitchin' stitches

Stephanie Rohr draws inspiration for her "cheeky" cross-stitch wall art from media old and new. Her delicate floral and geometric designs are based on vintage cross-stitch patterns archived amid the dusty tomes of the Harold Washington Library (on the eighth floor, near the sheet music). But the phrases hand-sewn on woven cotton and meticulously framed in wooden hoops are pure Internet fodder: "Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren" is her best seller. "Home is where no pants is," "Boo you whore," and "Please don't do coke in my bathroom" are up there too. Handmade items with this degree of craftsmanship are rarely also this funny. "Part of the humor is they look very old-fashioned," Rohr says. "There are a lot of awesome fiber arts designers who do modern-looking ones. But I wanted mine to look like it was made in the 50s—until you read it and you're like, oh!" —Robin Amer Patterns $5 and up, finished pieces $30 and up at etsy.com/shop/stephXstitch.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Doggy style

Despite a lifelong love of animals, Colleen Wasilewski never imagined the skills she gleaned in the accessory-design world would one day go to the dogs. But years of corporate fashion experience—as well as an inspiring trip to Iceland where she learned rope-splicing techniques from some local fishermen—eventually led to her pet project: crafting eye-catching, brightly colored leashes for furry friends. Made under the name Notyers and featuring beautiful finishes including brass hardware and leather trim, these luxe leashes are not your usual Petsmart variety. "They're truly handmade," Wasilewski says. "I am hand-splicing the rope, weaving the lacing, dyeing, and cutting all by hand." A perfect gift for dogs, cats, bunnies, weasels (etc) and the humans who love them. —Laura Pearson $40, notyers.com.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Sparkling T-shirt

It's easy to love LaCroix, the sugar-free, sodium-free, calorie-free sparkling water: its design is straight out of the 90s; its cans are colored like Easter eggs; and, despite originating in Wisconsin, it boasts odd, faux-Euro flourishes (the grapefruit flavor isn't "grapefruit," it's "pamplemousse"). A friend of mine and her boyfriend drink so much of it that they simply call it "water." ("Babe, can you grab me a water?" "Sorry, babe, I drank the last water," ad nauseam). LaCroix's rising popularity has produced skyrocketing shares for the brand's parent company, National Beverage Corp., but this isn't just another millennial-focused trend, as initially characterized by New York Times Magazine writer/LaCroix drinker Mary H. K. Choi ("one of those food-­as-­personality things, where otherwise dull people develop an 'obsession' with something ostensibly exotic . . . and pass it off as a quirk"). No way. The reverence is real. And any serious LaCroix consumer will want to dress appropriately. This "fav bev tee," designed by Edwin Menacho and available via Solid State Goods, should do the trick. —Laura Pearson $25 at solidstategoods.bigcartel.com


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Pot pride

With medical marijuana now legal and police issuing just tickets for possession, there's not as much need to hide your pipes away these days. So why not retire those ugly-ass psychedelic hippie bowls and acquire something a bit more tasteful that you can display proudly? Artisan Leah Ball's unique marbling technique creates pipes that double as art objects, so you can keep them out as decor instead of hurrying to put them away every time your family comes over. Made of porcelain, they'll make you feel like you're smoking a standard glass one, but these have a lot more panache. And great news for the one-hitter quitters out there: Leah Ball's midcentury-inspired pieces have large chambers, so you can get a pretty hefty hit off of them. Plus they're easy to clean—there are complete care instructions on her website. Follow @leah_ball_handmade on Instagram to find out about her special deals and you may wind up with more dough for your meds. —Isa Giallorenzo $55-$110, leah-ball.com.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Coming clean

Natural handmade soaps are a dime a dozen these days. Well, not exactly a dime—more like $5 to $9. And even if you find that perfect cedar/sage/shea-butter blend (or what have you), giving a beautiful bar of soap could still send the recipient a not-so-subtle "You need a bath, buddy" message. (Unless, of course, that is your message.) Scratch Goods, a Roscoe Village skin-care salon and producer of food-grade bath and body products, offers a solution in the form of "bundles": thoughtfully grouped goods that register more as indulgence than admonishment. The "clean" bundle, for example, includes a choice of three bars of all-natural soap—peppermint- lime, charcoal, clay, or Baker Miller cornmeal- clove—made with the Lincoln Square bakery's seasonal corn grits—plus a cedar rack; the "smooth" bundle features a bar of soap, a scrub, and a cedar rack; and the "detox" bundle combines an Epsom salt "soaking tea," a clay mask, and an all-over moisturizing butter. Bonus: a portion of every Scratch Goods purchase goes toward providing hand-washing education and supplies for Sharing Hope Preschool in Licilo, Mozambique. —Laura Pearson $27-$41 from Scratch Goods, 3551 N. Damen, 773-857-3551, scratchgoods.com.


KATE VOGEL
  • Kate Vogel

Music Box VIP status

While its selling point might be the free refills on any size popcorn, the recently implemented Music Box membership offers an impressive bundle of other amenities—and at a reasonable price tag. In addition to a complimentary ticket to any regular-priced screening, there are discounts on subsequent screenings and some special events, access to free screenings for members only, and advanced-purchase privileges for special screenings, plus discounts on glasses and bottles of wine. Because you know you want to be at least a little lit during The Sound of Music sing-along. Participating restaurants, like the Butcher's Tap and Mystic Celt, also offer a 15 to 20 percent discount when you flash 'em your membership card. As if you needed more reasons to visit the city's best-programmed indie movie theater. Purchase online or at the box office. —Kevin Warwick $50 per year, musicboxtheatre.com.


Founder Amanda Scotese guides a tour. - COURTESY CHICAGO DETOURS
  • Courtesy Chicago Detours
  • Founder Amanda Scotese guides a tour.

Drunk history

At first the venues on Chicago Detours' walking tour of historic bars—Michael Jordan's Steak House, 437 Rush, Lawry's—might seem like head-scratchers. Where's the history in a Phil Stefani joint? But this tour is less about these particular spots than it is about the secret history their buildings contain; delightfully, it's a modern bar crawl designed with us architecture and history nerds in mind. Founder Amanda Scotese says that one of these spaces was once a jazz club and speakeasy; another holds a theater once dedicated to puppet opera, while a third surprises tourgoers with an opulent interior straight out of the roaring 20s. (To say which venue is which would spoil the magic of the reveal.) The two-and-a-half-hour tour is mostly indoors, making it a good choice for a boozy winter afternoon. —Robin Amer $34 per person or $52 per person including drinks, 312-350-1131, chicagodetours.com.


COURTESY KING SPA
  • Courtesy King Spa

Pool queue

Spending time at King Spa, the behemoth bathhouse in suburban Niles, is a bracingly communal experience. Meander through 34,000 square feet of soaking pools, hot saunas, and chill-out rooms and you'll see couples on dates, girlfriends looking for an alternative to bachelorette-party hysterics, teenagers seeking refuge from the mall, and multigenerational families relaxing together in baggy cotton pajamas. That's because King Spa, as unusual as it may seem to Westerners, is a traditional jjim-jil-bang, a kind of public bathhouse so popular in South Korea that, as journalist Choe Sang-hun put it, "going to one became as much a part of Korean social life as going to the movies." Prepare to get naked in the men's- and women's-only bathing sections, where you can also order a variety of a la carte scrub downs. Then throw on those PJs to check out the dry saunas, each heated to a different temperature and each more wildly decorated than the last. (One resembles a golden pyramid; another is lined with thousands of individual amethyst crystals.) The cafe serves traditional Korean fare, including roasted eggs that are to jjim-jil-bangs what peanuts are to baseball games. And if all that deep relaxation and comfort food makes you a little, well, too comfortable, don't worry: King Spa is open 24 hours, and for a few extra bucks you can snooze overnight on a leather recliner. —Robin Amer $35 for a 24-hour pass, $1,800 for a 12-month membership. 809 Civic Center, Niles, 847-972-2540, kingspa.com.


COURTESY FIELD NOTES
  • Courtesy Field Notes

Think inside the box

Field Notes—those simple, durable, unfussy little notebooks modeled after old-school pocket ledgers—make for a great stocking stuffer. Created by Chicago-based design and advertising studio Coudal Partners in conjunction with Portland's Draplin Design Co., they come in several equally classic-looking editions—all gorgeous, some with gilded covers! Know someone who's already a Field Notes fanatic? Help that person step up his or her organizational game with the Field Notes archival box. This wooden box o' wonders is made from cabinet-grade American birch, holds more than 60 memo books, and comes with a dozen letterpressed divider tabs for putting said notebooks in ridiculously meticulous order—"sketches," "ideas," "recipes," etc—like some kinda maniac from a Wes Anderson movie or an impersonator of Gay Talese. —Laura Pearson $34.95 at fieldnotesbrand.com/shop. In-person pickups at Coudal Partners, 400 N. May, 312-243-1107.


COURTESY NUMERO GROUP
  • Courtesy Numero Group

Superior satchel

The folks behind the excellent archival label Numero Group know how to find the best music—and play it to boot. The label's employees and honchos frequently hit the decks at bars all around Chicago and take the time to bust out their rare soul records at scattered locales around the globe. So we'll leave it to these pros to release not only lovely sounding reissues but also a smart-looking bag to safely tote those records on the road. Numero enlisted decades-old Nashville bag crafts-company Tucker & Bloom to create a travel bag worthy of Numero's logo. This black, waterproof nylon bag comes with a shearling-wool-padded strap, a leather handle, and pouches with room for your DJ gear; the burgundy interior fits up to 100 seven-inches. The bag's got a lifetime warranty, which makes a great, um, case for its $180 price tag. If you've got money to spare, you don't need to go through the extra trouble of (partially) filling the bag. The "oversized edition" costs $300 but also includes every Numero seven-inch that's still in print. That's roughly three-dozen releases ranging from Ned Doheny's "marina pop" gold to the tender, heartbreaking Penny & the Quarters soul number "You and Me," which enhanced the gut punch of the 2010 indie drama Blue Valentine. —Leor Galil $180 or $300 for the oversize edition, numerogroup.com.  v

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