Dining in Style
Chicago's mighty Merchandise Mart finally has a restaurant of equal stature, Bluprint by VOA
Bradley Lincoln -- Interior Design, 10/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
The chance to make a mark on Chicago's Merchandise Mart doesn't come along but once in a blue moon. "For anybody in the design business, the Mart is mecca. It's the go-to place," VOA Associates design principal Nick Luzietti says. Plus, considering that most of his firm's projects have been offices, tucked away in towers, the high visibility of an upscale restaurant in the Mart's lobby was a golden opportunity for the team to strut its stuff for an audience that knows a thing or two about style. As Luzietti puts it, "We had to knock the socks off this thing."
Blue Plate, the restaurant group that hired VOA to design Bluprint, had immediate applause for a mise-en-scène that drew on some unexpected sources. "I tend to get my inspiration from things that have nothing to do with a space I'm working on," Luzietti admits. He thought of Bluprint's angular central bar, accessible from two sides, as the Klaus Nomi zone—that's punk opera. The cheerful café area alongside is more Audrey Hepburn. Throughout, forms and materials pay homage to the silhouettes and contrasts of Casablanca, particularly Ingrid Bergman's huge hats and striped dresses and Humphrey Bogart's dapper fedoras and big-shouldered suits.
Of the restaurant's different areas, each sculpted in the service of distinct moods and purposes, the bar is both figuratively and literally the darkest. Planks of walnut and walnut-stained poplar slice diagonally underfoot and overhead. Stools with dark-stained oak seats, shaped like fortune cookies dipped in chocolate, line up along the bar face—the area's major light element, with its glowing panels of textured glass. A lounge behind the bar feels almost art deco in contrast, furnished with cobalt-blue leather-covered banquettes and tall round stainless-steel tables. "We put this excitement in the back of the room to lead your eye through," Luzietti explains. The view terminates at up-lit glass panels that ripple like corrugated metal, obscuring the restroom traffic beyond.
In the café, to the left of the bar, things lighten up dramatically as the walnut flooring shifts first to sparkling white terrazzo, then to zestfully grained zebrawood beneath a row of zebrawood banquettes. Swaths of the same wood race up the wall at 6-foot intervals, alternating with drywall panels illuminated by recessed fluorescents. Because the panels align perfectly with slab tabletops that are also white, the two almost seem to be emanations of each other—a 3-D version of an M.C. Escher drawing. The booth seating and the freestanding tables, paired with Vico Magistretti's stacking chairs, clearly cater to a casual crowd grabbing salade niçoise sandwiches and truffled Parmesan fries between appointments.
On the opposite side of the room, communal tables give working-lunchers enough space to spread out samples and plans. The previous burger-and-beer tenant had downplayed the 400 square feet of windows along this sidewall, which faces out of the back of the Mart, but Luzietti reoriented the room toward the natural light that he calls "the most empowering ingredient." The run of communal tables extends into a rear corner, where Luzietti pauses to add philosophically, "The challenges of solving a problem provide the opportunity." This corner represents one of those challenges: How to maximize space on a regular basis while being able to offer a private party/meeting facility on request? VOA responded with floor-to-ceiling sliding panels of clear glass, some tinted assorted shades of azure—a versatile way of closing off several tables without visually shutting down the area. It's a smart, powerful move, one that knocks those socks right off.
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