Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape

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By Tim McKeough / Photos by Mike Schwartz
Can a home that encourages creativity, exploration, and fun still look grown-up?

When Brian Littleton set out to combine two apartments into a 3,000-square-foot triplex in Chicago’s Wicker Park in 2014, he had some unusual ideas—an indoor tree house, a "rocket room," and an electric model train track suspended from the ceiling, to name a few. At the time, he was both a young-at-heart bachelor and an enthusiastic uncle with a niece and nephew, now five and six, who live about a mile away. "I thought, why don’t we build some fun stuff to convince them to come over more," says Brian, who owns a digital marketing company.

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 1 of 8 - Brian Littleton isn’t a dad, but he may be the world’s coolest uncle. His brother’s kids come over to play in the indoor tree house, take his model trains for a spin, or just curl up on the Fatboy beanbag chairs.

Brian Littleton isn’t a dad, but he may be the world’s coolest uncle. His brother’s kids come over to play in the indoor tree house, take his model trains for a spin, or just curl up on the Fatboy beanbag chairs.

But he didn’t want the interior to feel like a funhouse. So he tasked Studio Gild and Perimeter Architects with creating brilliant play spaces while also making the home elegant enough for grown-ups. "Brian is about ten years old inside even though he’s technically forty-two," says Studio Gild’s Jennie Bishop. "We were excited to be playful, but our goal was to keep it sophisticated so it didn’t come off as a joke."

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 2 of 8 - In the cockpit of their imaginary rocket ship, the kids tinker with a dashboard of dials, levers, and knobs assembled by artist Christophe Gauspohl.

In the cockpit of their imaginary rocket ship, the kids tinker with a dashboard of dials, levers, and knobs assembled by artist Christophe Gauspohl.

"We were excited to be playful, but our goal was to keep it sophisticated so it didn’t come off as a joke." Jennie Bishop, designer

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 3 of 8 - John Issa of Perimeter Architects oversaw the creation of the rope room. "It posed tons of challenges," he recalls. "Designing with a material that has slack is more math than I care to tackle."

John Issa of Perimeter Architects oversaw the creation of the rope room. "It posed tons of challenges," he recalls. "Designing with a material that has slack is more math than I care to tackle."

To create the tree house, Studio Gild, working with Bigane Construction, designed a curvaceous loft clad in reclaimed cedar, elevated on metal legs. Inside, the flooring is synthetic turf and the walls are coated in chalkboard paint for scribbling. Behind it is the rocket room, with climbing nets to simulate zero gravity and a control center loaded with retro buttons and dials. This play area can be accessed by a small children’s door installed within a larger grown-up door.

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 4 of 8 - An electric train set from Chicagoland Hobby travels an elevated track designed by Studio Gild. The 35-foot loop passes through the indoor tree house and around the theater room. A Serge Mouille Two-Arm sconce is surrounded by graphic Mylar wallpaper.

An electric train set from Chicagoland Hobby travels an elevated track designed by Studio Gild. The 35-foot loop passes through the indoor tree house and around the theater room. A Serge Mouille Two-Arm sconce is surrounded by graphic Mylar wallpaper.

To finish things off, Studio Gild chose upscale materials that are simple to maintain. "A bachelor and a kid are kind of the same," jokes Bishop. "You want to make it all durable." Their choices included a custom sofa and ottomans upholstered in easy-to-clean felted wool, washable Mylar wallpaper, and, for the new spiraling stairwell, a mottled Venetian plaster that hides scuffs and fingerprints. The  floor is wire-brushed oak with a matte oil finish. "People can traipse in with shoes, roller skates, or Tonka trucks, and it just gets better with age," says Bishop.

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 5 of 8 - In certain places, the scale of the home is adjusted for children. A standard door, covered in chalk-board paint, has a 48-inch-tall door set inside it. 

In certain places, the scale of the home is adjusted for children. A standard door, covered in chalk-board paint, has a 48-inch-tall door set inside it. 

"The design subverts a very standard condominium layout and balances utilitarian and fun moments." Bill Bigane, builder

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 6 of 8 - The space under the staircase houses a Lego version of the John Hancock Center by New York artist Sean Kenney. 

The space under the staircase houses a Lego version of the John Hancock Center by New York artist Sean Kenney. 

The result is far from a typical bachelor pad, which now appears prophetic—Brian got married last September, after construc- tion was completed earlier in the year. His wife, Breanne, has four-year-old triplet nieces who also love the indoor tree house. "It works out well," says Brian. "The adults can plant themselves and watch a movie, and the kids can run around like crazy."

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 7 of 8 - In addition to the triplex’s first-floor movie room, there is a rooftop theater with a miniature golf course. A custom sofa and ottomans are upholstered in felted wool by Maharam.

In addition to the triplex’s first-floor movie room, there is a rooftop theater with a miniature golf course. A custom sofa and ottomans are upholstered in felted wool by Maharam.

Child’s Play: Designing a Polished, All-Ages Playscape - Photo 8 of 8 -

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