BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
It’s not just the marvelous portfolio John Nelson has built up over time that makes him the designer many influential Chicagoans call to transform their first, second, or third homes into their modern-day castles. It is his sensitivity to every detail—the way he so easily becomes in tune with his clients’ tastes, be it relating to their art collections or other treasures they have collected over the years—and his versatility and ability in working with so many styles of design.
John commented on his varied assignments recently:
“I work with design from all eras, colonial to mid-century modern to now, but I love contemporary most for its simplicity: it represents the era in which we live and should reflect the spirit of our time. Of course, it all relates back to the classical style. I love architectural history, and each period has great buildings. When doing a period building or restoration, I think one should be sensitive to the proportions of the time.”
Formerly a founding member and President of Environ Inc. Architecture Design and Planning in Chicago, John now is a principal of Uhlir Consulting. Established by John and Edward K. Uhlir in 2009, the Lincoln Park-based offices tackle commercial, public, and residential work. Nelson prefers taking only four to five assignments at a time, really focusing on each project.
His love of architecture began as a young child in the Beverly-Morgan Park area. He started drawing buildings at six and has been doing so ever since, his talent and passion leading him all across the city, and world.
“During the course of my career I have worked on office buildings, hospitals, libraries, churches, schools, multi-family structures, office interiors, and restaurants, as well as homes. I have also done urban planning projects and the layouts of parks and gardens.
“I am convinced that the creative process is almost an aesthetic experience. Whether I am opening a wall that wasn’t open before or designing a table that only works for my client, I have always wanted to do what people couldn’t find anywhere else.”
And we love his approach to location. Having designed homes from California to Long Island, the Caribbean to Aspen, and closer to home in Wisconsin, Michigan, and here in Chicago, John stands back and assesses from the start.
“Most of my clients live in co-ops, condominiums, and homes in the city where there is more of a feeling of isolation and privacy. In the city, you make living more contextual, where the home does not stand out. When you are in a more open environment, we first look at what the environment has to offer. If there are trees around, we build in the grove of trees. If there is a magnificent mountain, we locate towards the view. You are looking outward—what happens inside is experiencing what is going on out of doors, taking advantage of the ocean, lake, or whatever nature has to offer.”
When asked if there’s a room he most likes to decorate, he laughingly says he has become known as a “kitchen architect,” since he has been so successful in the many kitchens he has tackled.
“People focus on their kitchens, and really it is the heart of homes these days. People spend more time there than in the living room. If you have a party—unless you have staff that keeps guests out—they want to wander in and out, even if you are not supposed to do so. We try to create enough space and an area where the host and hostess can work, without guests getting underfoot, and get the chow out. Also, so that pots and pans and dishes may be concealed.”
John graciously answered our pressing interior design questions.
What is the key to color? What are your recommendations in successfully using it?
The key is to be careful. Colors change with the time of day and the kind of lighting, the color of adjacent objects such as floors and rugs, even the time of year. I once had a ‘fanatical’ client who painted all the interiors of her house in one color—white. But we had to put samples of six shades of white in many rooms, and observe them all for a full year until she made the final decision.
What are some small changes that have the biggest impact in home design?
Sometimes the simplest thing is rearranging the furniture and adding a coat of paint. Depending on your budget, after you have painted you might want to go with a couple of new pieces of furniture such as a new coffee or side table or an accessory.
How can a client best work with a designer?
When I ask many clients what they are looking for they will respond ‘casual elegance,’ which can mean different things to different people. I recommend that people dig deeper.
The relationship develops in the initial meetings where the client expresses goals and objectives. It is important for us to listen carefully: often, this is the first time clients are going through this process, and don’t know how to put their dream into words. The client and designer work better together, even still, if they both listen, with an open mind, to one another. Sometimes the designer will come up with an idea that is foreign to the client’s thinking, but based on real issues that they expressed. They need to give themselves time to consider it before accepting or rejecting it. The project, ultimately, is a collaboration.
And when there is a couple, the designer frequently becomes a negotiator. A couple might think they agree but then one says: ‘we have always liked that’ and then the other replies, ‘no, we haven’t.’ It is important to hear both ideas because it is a place where they live together.
How has the Internet affected the process and the client-designer partnership?
It is really a plus. People see things they want and it helps them to formulate their ideas. Some clients really get into it and do their own research. Now all drawings are done on computers and are three-dimensional. With the old architectural drawings, many clients were unable to visualize the plan. One couple went through four meetings, nodding and smiling, before admitting that they really didn’t understand what they were looking at.
Are there special projects that have truly expanded your horizon that you can describe without compromising your relationship with your clients?
I have had several unique projects over the years. One was a former veteran’s home, an orphanage converted into a single- family residence where the owner also had an art gallery. There was one room, which was very traditional, while one of the floors was a very avant-garde loft space.
There was another co-op designed to hold a collection of Art Nouveau, as well as expressionist and contemporary, art. Another was a restoration of a large Georgian residence and gardens.
But in a way, all projects, large or small, hopefully are an expansion of one’s horizons. They each require fresh thinking.
Said to be “one of the two best tenors of the Great Lakes Dredge and Philharmonic Society,” Chicago’s famous men’s caroling choir, John devotes himself, as well, to our city’s music community. He served as President of the Guild Board of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and on the board of the Sherwood Conservancy of Music. Also a past president of the American Institute of Architects, Chicago Chapter, he currently serves as a member of the Chicago Plan Commission and the Mayor’s Landscape Advisory Task Force.
John’s life and work both reflect a celebration of beauty, music, and design, whether in the homes he creates, his contributions to the city of Chicago, or through harmony.