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Boutique Designers Discuss How to Make a Local Impact

July 8, 2019

During the April 2019 panel discussion event Designers and Architects Talk, presented by IIDA and AIA Chicago, four designers described what inspired them to start their own practices.

(Speakers in order from left to right: Deon Lucas, Ami Kahalekulu, Jason Hall, Sarah Kuchar. Photo by Christopher Dilts Photography​.)

Sarah Kuchar

When interior designer Sarah Kuchar left Perkins+Will after 11 years, she had a precise vision of what operating her own firm could look like.

Ready to take on unique and unexpected projects within all market segments, Kuchar opened Sarah Kuchar Studio in 2016, and has been managing a boutique design practice since.

“What we are trying to be known for is taking the most basic design problem and making it into something truly special,” Kuchar explained during the panel discussion “New, Bold and Entrepreneurial,” part of the three-part Designers and Architects Talk series held at IIDA Headquarters in Chicago.

Sarah Kuchar Studio, run by an all-woman staff of eight designers, takes on “almost every design challenge that comes our way,” from educational projects, like the futuristic interiors of children’s coding school Codeverse, to residential rehabs and NeoCon showrooms.

Deon Lucas

For many designers in the Chicago area who have started firms, the fear of the unknown is often superseded by the desire to work on unique, underrepresented projects and have closer, beneficial relationships with their local communities and clients. 

After a career as a business consultant and a stint in New York with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Deon Lucas, a former Chicago resident realized that while working on high-profile commercial design projects was creatively and monetarily fulfilling, he missed connecting with the community, in particular, the Chicago community he left behind.

This inspired Lucas to create Beehyyve, a collaborative design and architecture firm comprised of independent architects who take on revitalization projects, like the recent redesign of the Safer Foundation offices, a Chicago organization that serves as a resource for formerly incarcerated individuals. 

(Photo credit: Christopher Dilts Photography​)

Lucas has also become involved with E.G. Woode, a creative collective of like-minded entrepreneurs that serves as an incubator for minority-run businesses and aids in the business and real estate development of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood (after which E.G. Woode was named).

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“The work we do is deeply rooted in the community,” Lucas said. “It started out with me just volunteering and contributing my time and finding ways to serve the community, and as a result, [E.G. Woode] has gotten the opportunity to create a vision for neighborhood transformation.” 

Ami Kahalekulu

Ami was interested in clients with start-ups that weren’t a fit for the firm she was working for, so she started Twofold Studio, which takes on corporate, hospitality and residential assignments. “We’ve done everything: birdhouses, meditation studios, salad bars,” she said.

(Photo credit: Christopher Dilts Photography​)

One of her firm’s most whimsical projects was the redesign of the Chicago Magic Lounge, a 120-seat cabaret theater in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. 

Though Kahalekulu thinks of herself as “serious” when it comes to design, the interiors of the local staple are playfully kitschy, with homages to sleight-of-hand tricks and a bathroom equipped with an optical illusion.

Jason Hall

Jason Hall also felt that he could contribute to design in ways that were specific to his personal vision of design.

Though he didn’t intend of starting his own business, after working for large firms for 18 years, Hall was ready to do what truly made him happy: create something that wasn’t there before.

Named after his grandfather, Hall’s practice, Charlie Greene Studio, believes that “every space has a story to tell.”

“Charlie wasn’t a designer or architect, but he was an incredible storyteller, which encapsulates what we do as a studio,” said Hall.

The seven-person boutique firm is committed to approaching every project they take on with thoughtfulness, wit and delight.

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“The things I craved professionally when I was working at Gensler I still crave now, but I use the knowledge I gained there and apply it to my own vision for my firm every day.”

Boutique Firms Make a Local Impact

Making the choice to leave a lucrative position within a recognizable design or architecture firm to start a smaller practice is accompanied by many unknowns, but the decision often allows veteran designers to break new ground.

(Photo credit: Christopher Dilts Photography​)

While going off the beaten path may be daunting, through creative storytelling and plenty of hard work, boutique firms can make enormous impacts on local communities.

Learn more:
The Designers and Architects Talk series, developed by IIDA, the commercial interior design association, and AIA Chicago, offers panel discussions that address commercial interior architecture and design. For more information please visit or

About Irena Frumkin: Irena Frumkin is a copywriter and editor for IIDA. She holds degrees in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Temple University. 

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Irena Frumkin