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By Rebecca Taras | Photo: Portrait by Anthony Tahlier; Thompson photo by Fogelson/Jetel; Bernie's photo by Eric Kleinberg | May 27, 2016
The work of James Geier’s 555 International—at Balena, the CAA Hotel, Nico Osteria and elsewhere—gives the city’s coolest spaces their of-the-moment look. Here are a few words from the man who’s building this city.
James Geier and his team at 555 International have turned ordinary office spaces into comfortable workplaces, stores into true shopping excursions and restaurants into respites. You could say he’s a silent partner in the residential and retail landscape of Chicago. We caught up with the visionary at his restored event venue, Morgan’s on Fulton.
What inspired you to open Morgan’s on Fulton?
I’ve been designing buildings and spaces for clients in this area for nearly 30 years, so it’s great to finally have an office nearby. When I bought the building—a cold storage meatpacking facility from the ’20s—about six years ago, I saw opportunities beyond being just a landlord: I saw the future of the neighborhood. One day, I wound up on the roof looking at the spectacular view and the brand-new CTA platform bringing everyone to the West Loop. I thought: If I can figure out a way to build a ridiculous rooftop, this will be the best place to throw parties and events. I could have spent time figuring out a full-time F&B concept here, but I don’t want to be in competition with all my friends. I prefer it be part of a support system instead.
What makes 555 different from a custom fixture business?
We handle everything from start to finish: initial concept, design, creation of ideas, environment, food and beverage operations, and retail structure. I’ve been renovating buildings for a long time, so I know a lot about construction. We also manufacture all of the specialty lighting, wood, metal and custom features for every project at our facility on the South Side, so we’re able to deliver exactly what we’re drawing.
What’s the creative process like behind the scenes?
I tell our staff that we have to design without running to the computer. We have to think about all the elements and how each one affects the space and the person using it. With this process, you really have a grasp on the design in every decision you’re making. Sure, we gather inspiration through photos and magazines—but then we draw it, sketch it and ultimately create things that are unique.
How do you balance business with creativity?
We try to work deep down into the reason we’re doing the project, who we are doing it for, who is the customer and what is the client trying to sell, while being open-minded. Everything should be coming back to that core, so if it gets off base, then we have to figure out why.
What is the scale of projects you work on?
For nearly 30 years, we’ve been designing sports merchandising spaces. Currently, we’re working for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys on developing their retail environments. The 25,000-square-foot Packer pro shop is arguably one of the most beautiful retail sports shops. We’ve also developed Dallas Cowboys stores all over Texas.
How do you source all the varied materials?
From woods to metals to glass, we manufacture everything, and our materials come from all over the world. With clients like Gucci and Hermès, we try to handle everything in-house and ship to the location because it can be hard to get great craftsmanship and quality. We created everything in Chicago for a Donna Karan DKNY concept store in Saudi Arabia, for example.
I’m working on opening an arts center and foundation in rural Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park: The Wapiti Arts Center. It will be a sponsored summer art camp for creative sophomores and juniors in high school from all over the country to get them thinking about their next steps in life. Our arts and education support isn’t that great, so I want to provide the resources to help them look beyond being a starving artist.