Run, Don't Walk to This Frank Lloyd Wright-Inspired Bar in Chicago

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By Amy Dvorak / Photos by Amy Janchenko
East meets Midwest at Prairie School, a cocktail haven for architecture buffs that touts a noteworthy beverage program by mixologist Jim Meehan.

At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Frank Lloyd Wright first crossed paths with the art of Japanese woodblock printing, a little-known interest that became a lifelong passion of collecting and art dealing for Wright—and eventually led to a Tokyo office and a new philosophy of Japanese-influenced modern architecture that would endure for decades to come.

So when designer Kevin Heisner ran into mixologist Jim Meehan at Bar Radio in Tokyo, it was only natural that the Midwestern natives would conjure a project that would honor their hometown design hero: Prairie School, a lounge in Chicago’s Fulton Market. Two weeks later, Heisner was en route to Japan on a quest to properly pay tribute to Wright’s work. 

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Designer Kevin Heisner designed and fabricated the custom, stained-glass barstools.

Designer Kevin Heisner designed and fabricated the custom, stained-glass barstools.

And it didn’t stop there. From Kyoto to the Guggenheim to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail in Wisconsin, the duo did their research before embarking on a venue that melds Asian influence and Midwestern warmth. The project would be accompanied by a deliberate cocktail menu from Meehan—of Manhattan’s James Beard Award–winning speakeasy Please Don’t Tell fame. 

But to design a lounge based on the work of America’s greatest architect is one tall order. Rather than replicating Wright’s designs, Heisler Hospitality founders Heisner and Matt Eisler worked hand-in-hand with Meehan to ensure Wright’s organic architecture informed every aspect of Prairie School, from atmosphere and design to hospitality and beverage. That meant adopting a natural palette and organic materials, rooted in time and place. 

"Looking at the stained glass, I started there and scaled up," says Heisner. "I wanted to create great scale with no seam, so it doesn’t feel like a door."

"Looking at the stained glass, I started there and scaled up," says Heisner. "I wanted to create great scale with no seam, so it doesn’t feel like a door."

The inspiration for the glass entry design was a reference to the pattern of one of Wright's windows.

The inspiration for the glass entry design was a reference to the pattern of one of Wright's windows.

And that place is Chicago—a world-class city with humble, working-class roots. "We take what we’re doing seriously, but not ourselves seriously," says Prairie School bar manager Kristina Magro. "It’s still Chicago; it’s approachable. We’ve thought about everyone." That means Midwestern hospitality and a heavy dose of good design, whether you’re a tourist in for the novelty or an architecture buff relishing the many design details. 

"You experience that seamless hospitality from the beverages to the first time you look in from the outside," says Heisner. "All of those things were thought about, but it doesn’t feel contrived." Heisner—an architecture school dropout turned artist, designer, and general contractor—brought to the project a holistic perspective with his understanding of industrial design and material selection, not to mention a native knowledge base, with roots in the same zip code as Wright.

The Prairie School menu relies on Japan’s 24 short seasons, or sekkis, to influence the ever-rotating, hyper-seasonal selections.

The Prairie School menu relies on Japan’s 24 short seasons, or sekkis, to influence the ever-rotating, hyper-seasonal selections.

Prairie School-inspired insignia is branded on the ice cubes with a wood-block ice stamps.

Prairie School-inspired insignia is branded on the ice cubes with a wood-block ice stamps.

"Being on both sides helps, because I know what I’m making, how to craft it, and how to instruct the team," says Heisner, whose Prairie School’s designs span from textile selections to the custom tearoom and even fabrication of the stained-glass bar stools to complement the distinct entry. "I wanted the glass and colors to show right when you go into the lobby. It was a chance to bring color into the space, because everything else has a natural, earth-tone palette."

While the natural materials and Midwestern culture provide a warm and unpretentious experience, those who are Prairie School-savvy can access a high level of detail in a deliberately paced reveal. Sit at the live-edge oak bar, delight in a highball, feel the hand-made mug, and soak it in: one cannot fully appreciate the tenets of Prairie School design until you slowly experience it as you move throughout the space.  

Lighting was heavily considered when designing the space, from the natural light at dusk when the lounge opens to the interior lighting to transition into night.

Lighting was heavily considered when designing the space, from the natural light at dusk when the lounge opens to the interior lighting to transition into night.

"What struck me always is the way Frank Lloyd Wright used space," says Heisner. "I didn’t want to just copy the Robie house, so I just focused on things like the oak species and incorporated materials he used first-hand. We wanted to bring the outside in."

"What struck me always is the way Frank Lloyd Wright used space," says Heisner. "I didn’t want to just copy the Robie house, so I just focused on things like the oak species and incorporated materials he used first-hand. We wanted to bring the outside in."

In one corner, a Japanese shaved-ice machine pays homage to Wright’s Asian influence. And in Phill Kim’s custom-designed ceramics, you’ll find Prairie School-inspired insignia branded on the ice cubes—made from wood-block ice stamps, of course. Above, a dropped ceiling masters the art of acoustics while honoring Wright’s philosophy of the human relationship to architecture through proportion. "With the ceiling, you don’t see the design quality, but it’s important," says Heisner, who drew inspiration for the design from Wright’s Robie House. "A lot of people miss that [audio effect], because it’s not visual." Toward the rear, an elevated stage mimics a Japanese teahouse, with Joseph Albers-influenced carpet panels, and throughout, sustainability complements the design. 

With steel straws and composting in full force, Prairie School is a zero-waste bar. Even leather remnants from the custom-designed settees were repurposed to become bar staff aprons, check presenters, and branded coasters. And while visitors come for the design, the world-class bar program is why they stay. The menu relies on Japan’s 24 short seasons, or sekkis, to influence the ever-rotating, hyper-seasonal selections.  

In organic architecture, color is primarily derived from nature, with the exception of few accents. Red was Frank Lloyd Wright's favorite accent color, which has importance both in nature and in the Japanese culture he studied.

In organic architecture, color is primarily derived from nature, with the exception of few accents. Red was Frank Lloyd Wright's favorite accent color, which has importance both in nature and in the Japanese culture he studied.

"This was a good project for me, because of how I approach things and think," says Heisner. "Frank Lloyd Wright would design all the elements, including the furniture, and that’s what my construction company had already been doing. It was serendipitous." Heisner designed all the furniture elements at Chicago's Prairie School bar.

"This was a good project for me, because of how I approach things and think," says Heisner. "Frank Lloyd Wright would design all the elements, including the furniture, and that’s what my construction company had already been doing. It was serendipitous." Heisner designed all the furniture elements at Chicago's Prairie School bar.

The well-rounded menu features not only a robust collection of Japanese whisky, but also distinguished cocktails, beers, and wines—and a thoughtful collection of non-alcoholic options. "The love and attention it takes making quality non-alcoholic cocktails was one of our biggest challenges," says Magro. Yet, the results are worth noting. A drink called Rosella the Riveter features Okinawa Kokuto sugar, licorice root, and a hibiscus-forward tea, and they even made a pilsner using satsuma rinds. "You can go and have multiple experiences with multiple people," says Heisner. "It hits on all levels and doesn’t discriminate."

A Japanese ice machine serves up a shaved, Kakigori-style, iced French 75 variation.

A Japanese ice machine serves up a shaved, Kakigori-style, iced French 75 variation.

That philosophy Heisner describes goes beyond the beverages, permeating the entire space, the design, and the experience. "It’s accessible to the public, but we champion the Midwest," says Magro. It’s a simple, slow, and uncluttered approach that reserves authenticity above all. Or as Wright may have described it: wabi-sabi.

Keeping with the principles of organic architecture, few materials were used. Here, leather, brass, oak, and concrete create a natural and warm setting.

Keeping with the principles of organic architecture, few materials were used. Here, leather, brass, oak, and concrete create a natural and warm setting.