A Contemporary 1970s Chicago Penthouse


When Eric R. Keune, design director of esteemed architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), purchased a 1970s Gold Coast apartment for himself, his wife and son, he sought out the original architect, John Macsai, for consultation. The Hungarian-born Macsai, now in his late 80s, had worked for several local firms including, at one time, SOM, before establishing his own practice in the Windy City and had been responsible for many of the city’s apartment high-rises, such as this building and its fraternal twin a few blocks away.

Though the younger architect had every intention of gutting the 32nd-floor penthouse, he “wanted the design to honor the good DNA of the building,” Keune explains, citing its “column-free interior and exposures on three sides.” Beyond that, however, the apartment’s Watergate era trappings: mirrored walls, pink brocaded silk and other seventies chic would have to go. It was “a napkin sketch discourse,” Keune recalls of the meeting. And though Macsai stopped short of registering ringing approval, admits Keune, who worked on the project with Kenneth Ivaska of Ivaska Builders, “he seemed interested in the idea of what was being proposed.”

What Keune desired was a more open loft-like space. “With a few strategic erasures,” he says, referring to walls he eventually demolished, “you could experience how wide the building is and see from the west-facing master bedroom window clear through to the east-facing living room.” To keep spaces versatile, he deployed sliding walls that could reconfigure rooms as needed—closing off the kitchen from the entry, for instance, or opening up the laundry area when needed. “It made such a dramatic difference,” notes Keune. “The change was so immediate and meaningful.”

Keune coyly controlled initial access to the magnificent Lake Michigan views by placing a pivoting glass door at the entry to the combined living-dining-kitchen area that is fritted at the top and bottom to closely frame the horizon. When fully opened, however, it surrenders to the entire breathtaking expanse of glistening blue water beyond the building’s floor-to-ceiling glass walls. He borrowed light to illuminate the long corridor extending from the living room to the master by installing frosted clerestory windows in the private rooms along that corridor-cum-library. And to keep everything “as light and bright as possible,” walls were painted white and a subtly variegated gallery-like wood floor installed.

During the gestation of the design—which Keune worked on at night after full workdays at SOM and was assisted by Adam Fosnaugh and Aurelie Merle, who together produced the bid documents—Keune was working with Italian companies and speaking in Milan at the furniture fair. Consequently, he says, the project “was informed by a strategic selection of contemporary Italian design.” Read: modular shelving, Poliform kitchen and closets, Lualdi doors, and Italian marble. To this he added his own collection of vintage and reissued midcentury classics—a Barcelona chair, a Florence Knoll coffee table, a Bertoia Diamond chair—some of them inherited from his father, a retired preservation architect enamored with modernism.

Keune was also careful not to update the spaces too sleekly. Natural materials “humanize what could be uncharitably interpreted as cold,” he notes of the entry’s grass-cloth wallpaper, the “obsessive-compulsive” kitchen bulletin board made by the architect using 880 recycled wine corks and a slab of unfinished amber marble in the master bath.

Opening up spaces also allows the residents to move naturally through the rhythms of the day; his family can watch the sun rise over the lake while making their morning coffee, and see it set over the lights of the city when preparing for bed.

Only one space survived unscathed: a “crazy powder room that defeats all principles of good planning because it’s on the same axis as the front door,” laughs Keune. “Every surface, including the ceiling, is mirrored, and it has black plumbing fixtures with updated hardware that brings the room into alignment with the apartment’s new palette.” Clearly, there are still some Saturday Night Fever details that were just too hard to resist.