Deborah Berke blows into the Windy City with the chic James hotel
Bradley Lincoln -- Interior Design, 1/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
When Deborah Berke first checked out the building that would eventually become Chicago's James hotel, she had reservations. The 17-story prewar suite hotel was shabby and U-shape, with an interior yard decidedly less court than prison. "There was also a dark, square lobby you'd enter on the side street, which made no sense to me," the Interior Design Hall of Fame member recalls.
Her favorite make-it-work moment of the pricey gut rehab was relocating that entrance around the corner, to busy Ontario Street, thereby creating an interior vista that stretches to both the left and right of the revolving door. This grand lobby is now lined, on the street side, by big windows alternating with rectangular columns of sandblasted mirror and shiny zinc panels. "It seems to me," she says, "like an architectural fantasy of Chicago." Channeling such cool-cat Jameses as Bond, Cagney, and Dean, the hotel aims to provide premium services in luxe yet unstuffy environs—complete with a marquee restaurant, David Burke's Primehouse, and a nightclub, JBar. The concept was conceived by Equinox gym founder Danny Errico, who then recruited Brad Wilson from W Hotels as COO and partner of the James Hotel Group. B.R. Guest founder Stephen Hanson of New York restaurant fame was brought onboard to create a destination dining room.
Deborah Berke & Partners Architects had already designed the first James hotel, in Scottsdale, Arizona—likewise a first for Berke. She'd never designed a hotel before, and this one was a big step away from the sleekly edited interiors on which she built her reputation. (Think Calvin Klein's CK stores.) "It was a real fun-in-the-sun resort concept," Wilson says of the Arizona property, where Berke indulged in a flirtation with eye-popping purples and reds and theatrically sculpted volumes.
For Chicago, she deserted those desert tactics. Filling in a second-floor courtyard created space for, among other things, a generous skylit ballroom. The courtyard remains above. In the guest rooms surrounding it, she tore down walls to open up the spaces, then added dining alcoves, media systems, built-in desks, and handsome stained-ash platform beds.
The 297 rooms, including 106 suites, are distinguished by residential themes: apartment, loft, penthouse. A penthouse provides two bedrooms, separate living and dining rooms, and a bathroom kitted out with double sinks and soaking tub. All rooms have iPod docking stations, plasma TVs, WiFi, and Kiehl's toiletries. Plus art—lots of art.
Gene Pressman, former cochairman of Barneys New York, signed on as art consultant. "It was good fun working with Gene," Berke says. "Making intelligent artwork a priority of the hotel was an inspired idea." Public and private spaces are peppered with challenging paintings, installations, and photography. An area in the lobby hosts rotating exhibits, curated with the help of local galleries. Rising vertiginously from the lobby proper is a photomural of a birch forest. And, continually projected on a courtyard wall, a flickering video depicts urbanites going about the more mundane aspects of daily life.
An Isamu Noguchi lamp in the penthouse echoes the forms of Chicago's modernist skyline. Noguchi's curvy cocktail tables furnish loft-style guest rooms. Lounge chairs serve up a soupçon of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and other custom furniture boasts the understated lines of mid-century classics. Such singular touches as the leather straps wound around a steel stair railing in the lobby speak volumes about Berke's thoughtfulness. From dimmer switches to dog bowls, detail is deified at the James—and the effort hasn't gone unnoticed.