Conventional wisdom for an extensive build-out of an urban luxury property would dictate hiring an interior designer to, in the broadest terms, master plan the aesthetic and make the trains run on time. The new owner of an unfinished 40th-floor Chicago penthouse apartment, however, had other ideas. “Given the level of perfection I need, and how personal a project it was for my husband and me, it would have been very hard to delegate,” she explains. “When I take on something I like to know every little facet about it—tear everything apart to its lowest form to understand it completely. I could not imagine handing off that degree of research and oversight to someone else.”
The wife doesn’t pretend to be a professional designer, but having previously done the interiors of their other properties, including a residence in Hawaii, she’s earned her stripes in the field. Acting as designer and project manager, she assembled a team that could realize her vision. Architect Joe Sperti and builder Brandon Rogalski were the linchpins, with kitchen (and beyond) designer Mick De Giulio playing an integral role from the beginning.
To call the completed residence a renovation is a misnomer. “Building out a raw space is similar to building a house from the ground up,” says Sperti. “It’s new construction, an entirely different animal from a renovation.” In fact, there was no plumbing, no electrical, no walls—“It was absolutely bare, like an unused basement,” recalls the wife. What resulted were state-of-the-art systems servicing sublimely outfitted, supremely livable volumes—and gutsy firsts. Take the skylight on the second level of the penthouse. The company had never done an installation of this motorized model at this size and elevation (with corresponding wind loads). And while many might scoff at the idea of installing a wood-burning fireplace 40 stories in the air, the team made it happen and the fireplace is now thought to be the highest in Chicago. “Our thinking at every stage and for every aspect was that anything can be done; we just have to figure out how to do it,” the wife says.
They started with the shell. Iceberg Quartzite—167 slabs sourced by De Giulio and quarried in Brazil—was used for all the flooring and counter surfaces. “Going with that one material had a huge impact on the overall look as a seamless series of spaces,” Rogalski observes. As an added benefit, it does not stain and is as durable as granite but with a light effect. Contrasting with the quartzite and the white walls throughout—and adding an important layer of warmth—is the interplay of various woods, including a special hybrid finish that blends dark and pale shades.
The most commanding wood element in the home is a rectangular pair of fluted sucupira columns that divide the living and dining rooms. Inside one are two HVAC units; the other encloses a base building structural column and roof drain. “We wanted it to look intentional, not like it was hiding anything,” says Sperti. “Architecture takes what has to be there and makes it a desirable and integrated part of the composition.” On the other hand, he regards as a triumph the fact that nowhere in the main living spaces were soffits necessary to conceal ductwork, nor are there visible wall or ceiling grilles.
Scale was a critical factor in the furniture selection, given the proportions of the rooms and ceilings that rise to almost 18 feet. Some 85 percent of the pieces were made to order, there being, says the wife, no other option. “The dining table had to be 11 1/2 feet, not 11, to be right for that room,” she notes. At various turns, custom pieces necessitated custom solutions. Delivery of the tremendous dining table and a library console—both too large for the building’s elevator—was an event: a two-month planning process culminating in a 4:30 a.m. green light for weather had the furniture hoisted by helicopter to the apartment’s south terrace (“the kind of thing you don’t envision when starting out,” the wife laughs”).
But each challenge brought its own reward. “This project was massive and involved gaining expertise in areas new to me,” the wife says. “It represents the knowledge I’ve acquired along the way, upping it a little bit each time, and finally getting it just about right.”