Review: Chatter – Architecture Talks Back / The Art Institute of Chicago

There is something slightly foreboding about capital-A architecture. The forces that create it—the archetypal genius designer working in solitude, the shadowy machinations of the means of production—remain silent and opaque. Buildings themselves tend to be stoic fixtures of the human experience, shaping it without much comment. They invite individuals to step inside with the indifferent, windmill gestures of revolving doors—except when they’re desperate, resorting to the shameless hawking of a circus sideshow with brightly colored banners and slick marketing slogans. Their shapes, expressions, massing and programs impact us to our bones, yet we have little understanding of how to push back against granite, stone, glass and steel. At least, this is one narrative. Another is that urban design is just one big lovefest: shiny, happy people holding plans. But it’s the first story that has gripped the profession with the too-firm touch of a doctor with a poor bedside manner. The diagnostician has identified the Problem with Architecture: “the public” just doesn’t “understand.” In response, “Chatter: Architecture Talks Back” offers not an antidote, but talk therapy.

Click here to read my review of the exhibition in Newcity.


Preview: Sensing and Sensibility – Politics and Technology in the Contemporary City

We have been told that, like our minds and memories, our computers’ hard drives are palimpsests—that even when we delete files, traces of our activities remain as encoded fragments of personal data digitally persisting unto posterity. The Internet is similarly awash in the ripples created by our surfing, with search history, purchase history and various personal histories all entwined in the comet-like trails of our virtual movements. These data, which we are continually producing, are mined by government entities and private corporations for a variety of purposes, ranging from law enforcement to marketing.

And what of our physical movements, from home to work to play? Of course, they, too, are tracked, monitored and archived, by surveillance video in the public realm and our own smartphones glowing benignly in our pockets—making the built environment a social palimpsest writ large. Individuals’ movements become mass motion, whittling dirt pathways into park greenery and carving underground transit tunnels beneath our cities. Infrastructure, hardscape and greenscape change with the tides of human movement, and buildings reflect generational shifts in taste, fashion, and technology. Meanwhile, data is constantly being generated and collected.

The stuff of many a dystopian nightmare, these facts are also the subject of much intellectual debate. Join the conversation at a panel talk co-organized by MAS Context and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago on Thursday, April 23.

Click here to read my preview of the talk.

Review: JNL Studio Visit

The JNL graphic design and its founder, Jason Pickleman, have achieved a certain level of notoriety in the Chicago design community, though Pickleman insists “people don’t know us north of Addison.” Whether or not that’s true, the people who do know JNL are many and varied, as evidenced at a recent studio visit organized by Mas Context. JNL’s prolific output over its twenty-three-year history has included branding, logos, books, brochures, newsletters and other collateral for practically every cultural institution in Chicago—and then some. JNL has branded small nonprofits like Hyde Park Art Center, international cultural events like EXPO Chicago, many of Chicago’s finest restaurants and major venues like Millennium Park, whose tenth anniversary mark Pickleman designed last year, as profiled in the pages of this magazine. The studio also designed the logo and packaging for national snacking sensation Skinny Pop. No big deal.

Click here to read my writeup about JNL in Newcity.

Preview: The Midcentury Mood / The Art Institute of Chicago

Architect Milton Schwartz is perhaps most well-known for being underappreciated. That he was a developer as well as an architect marked Schwartz as an outsider in the design field. The architecture industry has traditionally frowned upon such hybrids, preferring that architects work separately from the mercantile aspects of the building business. This reality was compounded by the fact that Schwartz rarely vied for architecture awards and “never had critical good press,” as Stanley Tigerman—who worked as a draftsman at Schwartz’s firm in the fifties—stated in Schwartz’s 2007 obituary. Yet Schwartz’s buildings, with their modern forms, advanced engineering and surprising materials, suggest the architect can claim pride of place in helping define America’s midcentury architectural legacy.

Click here to read my preview of the Schwartz exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Converse + Expand: Increasing a project’s scope gives a client the brand messaging he needs

Sal Misseri is an award-winning stylist, colorist, and photographer who experienced a meteoric rise to success: he went from graduating from Brown Aveda Institutes in Ohio to running them just a couple years later.

Misseri, now Creative Director of the Institutes and their associated Ladies & Gentlemen salons in Cleveland and Chicago, asked me to write a bio for a new website he was developing. Having known Sal for about three years (full disclosure: Sal styles my hair), I met with him for a couple hours to talk about his upbringing, education, and work.

Sal’s multifaceted work led me to realize he needed more than just a bio. He needed branding language for every page of his website that would capture his passion, approach, style, personality, and range of talents.

Below are some mockups using quotes I pulled from our conversation. To see all the copy in action, visit




Hair by Sal Misseri. Photography by Babak.