July 1, 2011

Fire, Air, Water: An Historic Chicago Factory Turned Futuristic Whirlpool Showroom

To proclaim its status as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of kitchen and laundry appliances, the Whirlpool Corporation looked beyond its headquarters in small-town Benton Harbor, Michigan. Chicago would be the location of a company-wide mega-showroom where the Whirlpool brand as well as Jenn-Air, KitchenAid, and Maytag divisions could present their freshest faces to a broad clientele. But not just any Chicago site would do. Whirlpool signed on as the first tenant of a new level built on the roof of a 1914 redbrick factory and warehouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Joe Valerio of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates came over to take a look at the half-finished rooftop addition, it was January. “The structural steel framing was in. Otherwise, it was open,” he recalls. “Winds were howling through.”

Nevertheless, the property already boasted abundant assets. Its long front faced the Chicago River, while the other three sides offered an impressive cityscape panorama. A wraparound terrace added 5,200 square feet to the 14,800-square-foot addition. And, best of all, the building’s signature feature, a clock tower originally constructed to conceal a water tank, would now become part of the Whirlpool space, contributing another 3,200 square feet. 

Speaking of the clock ticking, the job entailed one nonnegotiable condition. Valerio’s team signed on to a?strict nine-month timeline, from initial strategy meetings to the final punch list. Whirlpool had already set the dates for the opening festivities to coincide with the board’s annual meeting—to take place in the boardroom in the clock tower. 

The conceptual design challenge was, at its most basic, one of reconciling opposites: macro versus micro, consistent corporate identity versus brand differentiation. On the strictly pragmatic side, Valerio adds, “We needed to fit in 135 models without making it look like an appliance store.” Some kitchens would be display vignettes; others would be hooked up for demonstrations. 

In a heartbeat, he realized that circulation should hug three sides of the perimeter. The kitchen divisions would occupy different stretches along that promenade, with the necessary support and service areas clustered inside the U. Jenn-Air and KitchenAid would also get setups on the terrace, another venue for chefs to show off their talents.

Handed a mandate to push the envelope in terms of outdoor and indoor furnishings, he just as quickly chose a gas fire pit for the terrace outside the reception area’s window wall. And could reception itself have a nightclub vibe? Sure—anything but corporate. So gray angular sectionals by Patricia Urquiola and electric-blue round lounge chairs and ottomans by Pierre Paulin gather beneath a white canopy bathed in a color-changing glow by LED fixtures concealed in a cove. 

That canopy is part of a continuous ribbon that hovers over the kitchen environments, tying them together. Meanwhile, flooring bridges the consistency-diversity divide. Valerio used different colors and patterns of the same large porcelain rectangles to anchor the various kitchens. 

To determine which materials, finishes, and furnishings embodied which division, Valerio played with word associations. Precise corresponded to top-of-the-line Jenn-Air. Convivial referred to Kitchen­Aid’s appeal to aspiring chefs. Whirlpool, targeted at the demographic of young urban families, got innovative. Maytag’s durable was apt for a suburban audience. Guided by those adjectives, he chose wood or lacquer for cabinetry, stone or solid-surfacing for counters, and stone, steel, or glass tile for backsplashes. Fittings, lighting, and seating tell the story, too.

Even more compelling is the saga of the clock tower. After Valerio enclosed the base of the stairway leading to the three levels above and simultaneously installed an elevator, he transformed them into a boardroom, a lounge, and an event space, stacked one on top of the other. At the apex, right below the event space’s nearly 50-foot ceiling, he sandblasted the steel trusses and painted them black. He also cleaned the tower’s brick walls and concrete framing-but not entirely. “We left part of the residue of almost a century of age,” he explains. That’s entirely appropriate for Whirlpool, which turns 100 in 2011.


Norr Architects Engineers Planners: Building Architect. Lighting Design Alliance: Lighting Consultant. Ellen Cheever & Associates; S20 Consultants: Kitchen Consultants. Searl Lamaster Howe Architects: Furniture Consultant. Avteg Consulting Engineers: Audiovisual Consultant. TGRWA: Structural Engineer. WMA Consulting Engineers: MEP. Herner-Geissler Woodworking: Woodwork. Maron Electric Company: Electrical Contractor. Leopardo Companies: General Contractor. Jones Lang LaSalle: Project Manager. 

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