In response to the city's request for proposals to redesign Cabrini-Green, Landon Architects drew up a plan. But it never really thought it had a chance to win part of a $50 million grant to develop 9.3 acres of the north-side property. Still, for months the firm met regularly with officials, made presentations, and participated in weekly town meetings. Landon Architects advocated working with residents to give them a sense of ownership and a voice in their future. Though the jury's still out, the city may make boosting its tax base a priority, offering no guarantee that current residents will have a home there in the future.
Landon Architects' proposal was cited as one of the best by the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. Eighty-five percent of the firm's business comes from its alignment with community development corporations. The other 15 percent comes from work in the private sector, mostly designing not-so-affordable summer homes for the more well-heeled.
Designing for two radically different economic classes doesn't create a schizophrenic effect, however, because Peter Landon takes the same simple approach to both. "Poor people and rich people essentially live the same way. In terms of what they actually do, it's no different. They basically hang out and eat. That's what we all do." The firm calls its approach "carpenter-built" or "simply built" design--functional and structurally sound, with an emphasis on playfulness.
Through the years, Landon Architects has taken this one-size-fits-all approach to Humboldt Park and Roseland and to grassroots SRO housing throughout the city. The firm deals with residents directly, discussing ideas. The residents' reaction is the same as a North Shore attorney's might be, says Landon, except low-income people are more appreciative because they don't expect the attention. And like the attorney, they tend to eschew the experimental in favor of designs that fit into the surrounding neighborhood.
As a small, seven-person operation, Landon Architects may have never had the resources or the clout to win a piece of the Cabrini pie. But that doesn't stop Landon from feeling disappointed. "It would have been nice to at least get a thank you. I mean, sure it's the city, but they should know better."
That earnestness is also reflected in Landon's and partner Jeff Bone's latest endeavor, Knothead, their new line of furniture. Landon says it's "a natural outgrowth of the design philosophy that came out of our work in affordable housing." And if the furniture should ever become collectors' items, there's an eight-flat in Lakeview occupied by some young folks who are sitting on a trove: the Night Ministry Open Door Shelter for teens, where each room is furnished with its own armoire, dresser, and table. But just because the pieces are functional doesn't mean they can't be a little festive. Some of the shelter's closet doors stand out for their quirky star and crescent-moon cutouts. The bunk beds at first appear to feature a spattering of oval carvings. Squint and look again, though, and you'll find the cutouts form the shape of a face.
With names like Good Chair, Wide Dresser, and Shelves on Legs, the pieces are studies in Shaker-like simplicity without ascetic self-restraint. Each piece, built to order and constructed from 12-ply birch, features a straightforward, functional design in which the cutouts become pulls, or handles--no added elements. The pieces are solid, the chairs ergonomically correct, and everything is surprisingly comfortable. For those with affordability in mind, the 16-piece line falls within the range of $95 to $750.
Knothead Furniture is on view at Landon Architects, 314 W. Institute. Call 312-988-9100 to set up an appointment. --Rose Spinelli
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Landon photo by Cynthia Howe/ assorted chair photos.