Designer Forum: 800 Fulton Market’s award-winning design combines coziness and flexibility – Aug/Sept 2023

Interview by Jennifer Bardoner

Marking the gateway to one of Chicago’s dynamic neighborhoods is 800 Fulton Market, a Class A multi-tenant office building that sits on the threshold between a vibrant social streetscape and a growing commercial and residential presence. Tapping into the rapid growth of Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood as a thriving tech hub, the developer sought a modern, sustainable and healthy new workplace that would respect the history and context of the historic district.

The resulting design netted Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) the International Interior Design Association’s award for Public Spaces and Commercial Lobbies in the 2023 Interior Design Competition. Floor Focus spoke with SOM’s Julie Michiels about project highlights.

The new office building needed to welcome commercial and office tenants back to a workplace that ensured greater safety, health, wellness and flexibility to accommodate changes in use and capacity over time. As the neighborhood has expanded, combining a dynamic array of office, commercial and dining spaces, the project team was challenged with delivering a design that would complement the busy streetscape. The client sought to provide tenants and community members with flexible, healthy spaces with ample daylighting and access to outdoors. The challenge was not only to attract office tenants, but also to create a space that contributed to the hustle and bustle of the adjacent Fulton Market Street. The space needed to fit the aesthetic heritage of a previously industrial district, while conveying modernity to entice tech-focused tenants.

Q: Your award submission alluded to a collaborative process. At what point did you get involved in the design?
When I began working on the project, much of the architecture and structural design had already been influenced by its contextual surroundings; however, its interior had a lot of untapped potential. I wholeheartedly embraced the architectural team’s vision and collaborated with them closely to draw many of those concepts inside.

One of the most exciting collaborations materialized with our structural team, focusing on the cantilevered mezzanine in the lobby. The concept of bringing the external terracing of the building indoors was an alluring proposition. It presented the opportunity to craft a unique vantage point suspended above the main lobby floor, while simultaneously anchoring the space below it. With a world-class engineering team alongside us, capable of realizing some of the world’s tallest and most innovative structures, it seemed only fitting to push the boundaries! And so, we dedicated ourselves to turning this ambitious idea into a tangible reality.

The structurally experimental lobby of 800 Fulton is a testament to the capabilities of interior designers equipped with architectural resources and a collaborative mindset. It’s a highly flexible and comfortable space with materials that reflect the building’s exterior and surrounding streetscape.

Q: How did you balance the desire to create a welcoming living room-type environment with the lobby’s size, openness and modern design aesthetic?
Lighting and greenery played pivotal roles in establishing a welcoming ambiance. Soft lighting grazes the brick walls from both the top and bottom, casting a warm glow that beckons the gaze from the street. Rows of plants act as biophilic elements, complemented by comfortable seating that offers a pleasing contrast to firm materials such as brick, concrete and terrazzo.

Q: How do the historical materials used in the lobby (brick, terrazzo and marble) dovetail with today’s modern aesthetic?
The interior’s brick and steel elements were a direct translation of the building’s exterior-a result originating from the team’s earlier research of the historic district along Fulton Market.

Although this building introduced a new scale to the neighborhood, its stepped volumes and materials seek to preserve the historical essence of the area in a distinctive manner. As you enter indoors, our goal was to continue this material language while infusing a welcoming touch. The terrazzo, featuring an inlaid marble “area rug,” stands as one of our approaches to achieving this.

Q: What about the other flooring choices you selected-what did you use, where, and why? Is there a common thread that ties them all together?
Many of the public areas feature polished and sealed structural concrete. We appreciated the authenticity of leaving it uncovered, rather than opting for a potentially “cleaner” appearance. In our sizable meeting spaces, we chose carpet to enhance acoustics and comfort. Additionally, we placed area rugs over portions of the polished concrete to anchor furniture groupings, inviting users to linger and relax, particularly in areas less frequented by foot traffic.

Q: Did you employ any other tools or methods to aid with sound transfer?
In the fitness center, we opted for a built-up sports flooring system to prevent sound transmission to the retail tenants below. Across all areas, we applied a spray-on acoustical insulation overhead to enhance noise reduction within the spaces. As previously noted, the conference rooms feature carpeting and acoustical draperies. Additionally, upholstered seating is incorporated throughout, which also helps with noise reduction.

Q: What is the building’s and/or design’s greatest achievement?
The lobby is a space that meets stringent circulation demands while also conveying a sense of comfort. This is a challenging goal, especially since we were trying to keep the material palette consistent with its exterior architecture. The gray terrazzo floor, for instance, pairs well with the surrounding concrete structure, but also includes inlaid marble squares that form what we call an “area rug.” This gridded pattern visually separates the space in a way that signals respite and relaxation. Other moments, like desk locations, stairs, walkways and layered visual access, also give an overarching intuitive feel to the lobby and its various destinations.

Q: What are some of the key takeaways this project holds for the design of today’s public spaces?
Creating a space that sparks curiosity while warmly welcoming pedestrians from adjacent streets is always a challenge, and in this case, it was an important goal for the client. It needed to convey a sense of being an integral part of Fulton Market. We achieved this by integrating private and public areas, and by ensuring a smooth transition of exterior materials to the interior. In this way, a door doesn’t act as a barrier, but rather serves as a transparent and inviting entry.

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