Ace Hotel Chicago Uses Art to Channel Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus
What would it look like if Mies van der Rohe designed a hotel today? This was the head-scratcher that Kelly Sawdon, partner and chief brand officer of Ace Hotel/Atelier Ace, and her team posed for the design of the new Ace Hotel Chicago.
The task of physically realizing it fell upon Los Angeles–based Commune Design. Though the studio had previously worked on three Ace properties, the Chicago outpost offered a clean slate: For the brand’s first ground-up build, there was no need to work around existing architecture.
“We wanted to connect the new building to Chicago’s architectural legacy,” says Roman Alonso, cofounder of Commune Design. “Van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology was a source of inspiration; the exterior material palette of brick and metal, the dark terrazzo floors, and some of the detailing were inspired by his buildings.” For the interiors, they looked to the Farnsworth House and the Bauhaus—particularly the work of Josef and Anni Albers and László Moholy-Nagy.
Central to the hotel’s design was its collaboration with Volume Gallery, a creative local art space with a strong emphasis on emerging designers, artists, and architects. Commune identified certain parts of the hotel for Volume’s cofounders, Sam Vinz and Claire Warner, to populate with art that fit the Bauhaus aesthetic. “We have a rich scene here in Chicago, and Ace and Commune wanted to explore that,” says Vinz. “We found mainly Chicago-based artists and designers, and each person seemed to tell a different story connected to the city.”
Behind the sleek reception desk perches a bronze ice casting by designer Steven Haulenbeek, which, aside from being a striking centerpiece, refracts light throughout the space while adding a raw materiality.
The lobby features a hanging jacquard tapestry by weaver Christy Matson, inspired by the work of Anni Albers. “Christy uses several different weaving techniques in the same piece to create small differences in details,” says Warner. “It’s something that you pass by every day, but more can be revealed each time upon closer examination.”
Artist Tanya Aguiñiga’s work also betrays Anni Albers’s influence. Aguiñiga’s textile hanging in the hotel’s City Mouse restaurant acts as an abstract, Bauhaus-inflected topographic map of Chicago. A series of scalloped shapes reference Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, while blue stripes represent the Chicago River.
“A lot of these pieces were born from the need to have them in the environment for certain prescriptions—to use fibers that absorb sound, for example,” says Warner. “To translate that into a visual artistic experience is amazing.”
In response to Commune’s request for movable panels, Vinz and Warner tapped local artist Chad Kouri. His series of indigo-dyed canvas and batik pivoting panels can be adapted to alter the interior architecture of the ground-floor public space. Kouri’s series of drawings on each panel are driven by the Chicago free jazz he listens to while creating.
The multipurpose event space Mahoney features another series of movable panels, this time by designer Jojo Chuang. Similar to Aguiñiga’s hanging textiles, the panels are adorned with an abstract pattern inspired by Chicago’s urban landscape. “Jojo has a great color sensibility,” says Warner. “He completely ignores color trends, so some of the combinations we receive from him are a little strange at first—though the way they work together is beautiful.”
Upstairs in the bar Waydown sits a custom DJ booth, also designed by Haulenbeek, fashioned from sand mixed with resin. The result is a somewhat beguiling texture, evocative of both foam and velvet, that requires touch to truly comprehend its composition (to deter revelers from resting their drinks on it, the surface is intentionally craggy). The walls of Waydown feature canvas panels by Erik DeBat, who trained with Keith Haring at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
For many of the artists involved, their custom works for Ace Chicago were their biggest and most ambitious to date, and were commissioned sight unseen. “Ace are amazing because they are absolutely fearless,” says Warner. “They really trusted the collaboration, and because of that, we felt a real ability to move freely and to choose people to work with.”
Art has been at the heart of Ace since its first hotel opened in Seattle in 1999, featuring the works of Kaws and Shepard Fairey – both emerging artists at the time. “Hotels are not museums, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create new intersections for art and community,” says Sawdon. “We love pieces that are both functional and beautiful, inviting people to relate to and interact with the space – and each other – in new and different ways.”
This story was originally published in Metropolis magazine. Image courtesy of Mike Schwartz.