It’s been decades since Chicago was considered a global manufacturing hub. The city’s steel mills are almost gone. Products invented by Chicago minds actually get built in Asia and Africa. And it seems the only thing that actually gets “made in Chicago” these days are cupcakes.
That trend is changing. In places like the West Loop, Bridgeport, and Ravenswood there is a quiet renaissance going on: a renaissance in small-scale manufacturing. New factories are opening inside of old buildings. Instead of hundreds of sweaty, burly laborers, the face of this new industrial revolution is more likely to be six guys and a Mac. But that doesn’t mean they don’t compete in the global marketplace.
In this first part of our Made in Chicago series, we look at IconModern, a furniture maker for the Fortune 500 that doesn’t even have its own factory.
We first discovered IconModern through chance. When the new Starbucks opened at 8 South Michigan Avenue, it contained a great piece of furniture — a wooden table with an inlay of the Chicago flag. We thought it was a nice local nod from the Seattle caffeinator, and posted a quick photo on the Chicago Architecture Blog’s Facebook page. People loved it. Soon we heard from the man responsible for it, Rock Levy.
Levy’s business card lists his profession as “Lover, not Fighter” and he is an adept lover of wood. Recently he rolled out a dolly loaded with cross-sections of various trees and not only could identify them on sight, but opined about the furniture-worthiness of each.
In addition to being a lover, not a fighter, Levy is also a designer, not a builder. The people in his small company design furniture, then send those designs to even smaller craftsmen to turn into reality, though his company does have a metalworking facility in Bridgeport. Not investing in lots of heavy machinery keeps his company nimble, and his hands clean, while still being able to put a “Made in Chicago” badge on his wares.
The reason he has his designs made in Chicago isn’t because he’s not big enough to outsource overseas. It’s for sustainability. As large companies like Starbucks, Whole Foods, State Farm and Macy’s come under increasing pressure to be eco-sensitive, they trumpet checklist-friendly terms like “locally-sourced” to boost their green cred. And when it comes time to turn buzzwords into buzzsaws, that’s when Levy gets the call.
By using his company for their furniture and other woodworking needs, big brands can list their stores as being kitted out with “locally-sourced” materials. That means they came from within 500 miles of the store. But Levy does better than that. His materials are “urban-sourced.”
Forests have nothing to fear from IconModern. Its wood comes from such diverse sources as used wine barrels, the beams of torn down buildings, and even old furniture. And on those occasions when IconModern uses trees, most of those trees come from within, and immediately surrounding, the city of Chicago. These are trees that get cut down for construction projects, fall down because of storms, or are otherwise removed because of their age or condition. That means the wood has character. A stray bullet that got embedded in a tree during a 1920s mobster gunfight could end up as a visible streak in one of IconModern’s pieces today. The mark left behind by a nail banged into a trunk decades ago for a neighborhood yard sale sign adds to a tabletop today. There are any number of things that can happen to a tree in the city that give its wood extra character: car crashes, rope swings, power line pruning, road signs. All these insults are celebrated by IconModern when it expresses them in finished woodwork.
The biggest insult in recent years as been the arrival of the emerald ash borer. The insect is described as an ecological disaster for its ability to quickly and silently kill acres of ash trees, seemingly overnight. For Levy, it turns out this is a lemons-to-lemonade moment. He finds ash is a great wood to work with, and as the city and suburbs cut down thousands of the trees, they find their way to three urban lumber mills in the area and eventually into his products.
Naturally, there are some companies that try to game the system. They keep their furniture “locally sourced” by having trees from their area shipped to Chicago to be made into stuff, then shipped back. But the majority of the big-name players are making an honest effort, and in turn, are refueling America’s small industries. And if you go into a Starbucks within its nine-state Midwest region, there’s a good chance you’ll see a table, a chair, or a deconstructed espresso machine turned into art, made right here in Chicago.