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Fine Dining

Modern and traditional meet in the new cafe located in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago

01/29/2014 By Adam Moore
Photography by Charlie Young

The 2009 unveiling of the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago changed the city’s expectations of what its landmark museum could be. The beautiful, airy space brings a renewed sense of transparency to the institution, and has since inspired renovations throughout the rest of the museum’s facilities, including a little-known café tucked into the basement of the historic building.

Re-envisioned by architect of record Interactive Design Architects and interior design firm EDG, the new café follows the precedent set by Piano’s addition, melding minimal, modern aesthetics with traditional materials like wood and glass. Visitors now follow a bold red ribbon on the walls of the basement corridor into the café, where they are greeted by abundant levels of natural light, courtesy of the adjacent courtyard. A decentralized layout mixes foodservice stations in among the seating (as opposed to traditional cafeteria concepts that separate servery and dining areas), providing the Institute with more flexibility in operating the cafe and “activating the space” for users, said Rachel Maloney, senior designer with EDG.

The color and materials palette has been kept deliberately simple to match the Modern Wing’s aesthetic and to avoid the encroachment of design in a fine art-focused space. The café features natural woods, shades of white, and the occasional pop of bright red (a reference to the Institute’s signature color), as well as the Cloud system of felt tiles from Kvadrat, which are also part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“We wanted to bring in some elements that were artful and playful, but not representing art,” Maloney said of the tiles. “We were not only bringing in something playful, but something that acts as a guide for people to follow as well.”