An Interior Designer Helps His Mother Turn Her 1960s Chicago Apartment Into a Colorful Haven
From the wall of windows in Eleni Katsarou’s 33rd-floor Chicago condo, Lake Michigan looks like an ocean: flat, endless, and constantly intriguing. That view is what drew Eleni, who grew up in Athens gazing at the Aegean Sea, to purchase the two-bedroom unit in 2016. It was the 50th anniversary of her arrival in the United States. Newly retired from her job as a professor, with children grown and gone, she was ready to trade her sprawling Victorian in the historic Ravenswood neighborhood for something completely different. "I loved the building, and I loved where it was situated, right on the water," she says of the 1968 concrete tower.
The unit itself, however, left something to be desired. It had low ceilings and boxy, nondescript rooms typical of many ’60s-era apartments. To bring it more in line with her vibrant personality, Eleni enlisted her son Andreas Kokkino, a stylist and designer whose "unerring" eye she trusts even more than her own. His first suggestion was to honor the building’s vintage with a midcentury-inspired interior. This was easy. Eleni already loved the work of designers like Eero Saarinen and fellow Chicagoan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His second was tougher: get rid of her furniture. With a twinge of nostalgia, she complied (her daughter, furnishing her own house at the time, was the beneficiary of this enormous giveaway).
The condo needed more than surface changes, however, so Kokkino called Mike Shively, an old friend who had just opened his own architecture firm in Chicago. Shively came over to have a look. Right away, he was struck by the unit’s off-kilter angles: The building is shaped like a reverse C, so that every unit opens onto the lake, like a fan. "I enjoyed the idea of those radiating walls, and I wanted to emphasize that," says Shively.
The walls made him think of the midcentury Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who also had a penchant for radiating plans. In fact, the previous year, Shively had travelled to Finland to tour the architect’s major buildings. One detail from that trip that popped into his mind was an oak coat closet lined with vertical batten strips he’d seen in Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall. He decided to clad the walls in Eleni’s living area, dining area, kitchen, and foyer with white oak plywood and apply similar strips to draw attention to them.
Shively drew other ideas from Aalto as well, such as a unified white palette and an open plan. He tore down the wall boxing in the galley kitchen to create an airy living-dining-kitchen area anchored by a curved kitchen island. To improve the lighting, Shively randomly distributed 80 LED puck lights across the ceilings and covered them with a single sheet of drywall with holes cut for each light. The result resembles a starry night sky and lowers the eight-foot ceilings just five-eighths of an inch. Underfoot, he replaced carpeting with cork tiles that meet the condo association’s soundproofing requirements.
"I’ve always loved patterns on patterns. Lucky for me, my mom isn’t afraid of color." Andreas Kokkino, designer
From there, the mother-son duo took over, filling the subdued space with the bold mixture of pattern, texture, and color they both love: gold pendant lights by Aalto, blue wool dining chairs by Saarinen, Eastern rugs, fanciful wallpaper, and bright prints. "At meetings, Andreas would be in gold shorts, Eleni is in five different color florals, and the architects would be like the color of the walls," project architect Lucas Goldbach recalls.
As Eleni puts it, "It was like a clean slate. Everything that I ever wanted to do in a space came together." And that old Victorian with its lifetime of belongings? She hasn’t missed it for a minute.