Studio K Creative, Karen Herold, Principal ; Lightswitch, Avraham Mor, Partner
Photography by Anthony Tahlier
by Camille LeFevre
Giuseppe Tentori, the long-time visionary chef of the Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago, saw the space’s potential. On the ground floor of a new brick and concrete high rise in the bustling River North neighborhood sat a bland, empty box hemmed in by a parking ramp. Tentori realized the site, located in Chicago’s steakhouse district, was perfect for launching a bold new restaurant concept: GT Prime. He called his go-to design team, the Chicago-based Studio K Creative, to transform the box into what Karen Herold, Principal, calls an “enchanted cabin.”
“I’ve done so many restaurants for Giuseppe and Boka,” says Herold, who teamed with Lightswitch’s Chicago office on the project. “They’re the ideal client. Giuseppe explains what he wants, describes the concept, shows me the menu and location, and we sit down and taste the food. Then he gives me creative freedom.” The result is “a space that’s different every time you go in,” she adds, “with the hope that there’s always something new to discover.”
The design isn’t GT Prime’s only innovative aspect. Forget the traditional steakhouse, with its relish tray, shrimp cocktail and slabs of beef beside loaded baked potatoes. GT Prime’s menu is a sophisticated take on that American classic. The restaurant offers a half-dozen meats, ranging from prime beef tenderloin to A5 Miyazaki Wagyu, in four- and eight-ounce portions skillfully arranged on cast-iron serviceware, pre-sliced and free of bone and fat. The menu also includes seared foie gras, black-truffle tagliatelle, and an array of cooked, raw and chilled seafood selections.
Herold previously designed Tentori’s GT Fish and Oyster. She’s also delivered timeless, eclectic and fanciful designs for such popular restaurants, bars and luxury multifamily residences as Girl & the Goat, Maple & Ash, Monteverde, BLVD, Bellemore and The Aurelien. For GT Prime, she based her vision on the food and Tentori’s descriptions of the future restaurant.
“Black or charred wood, a feeling of warmth,” she says of her design. “A lot of hidden surprises, like make-believe animals above the host stand and wall niches holding random birds. There’s a crazy crystal chandelier that normally would have no place in a cabin unless that space was enchanted. We used lots of jewel tones, including a dark red the color of dried blood on floors and glass restroom doors.”
The drama begins on the exterior, where the sleek GT Prime logo lights up against a background of rugged wood planks, with massive dark wood doors opening into the restaurant below. Inside, the space is cavernous yet intimate; the décor rugged and elegant, painterly and fantastical. Above the black wood and brass-trimmed host desk are custom taxidermy antelope heads festooned with feathers. Rough black-stained oak planking lines the wall above the walnut-wood bar. Open black-steel cabinets are stacked with firewood. Between square concrete pillars are the bar’s walnut high-top tables; the leather stools are draped with faux fur.
The bar leads into a dining room with rough, black timber walls that conjure the charred-wood or Japanese shou sugi ban affect. In the bar and dining room are large, photorealistic still-life artworks in the Dutch Masters style, featuring an octopus, ham hocks or grapes. Blackened niches enclose diorama-like installations of taxidermy birds, moths and woodland greenery. An open copper staircase leads to the mezzanine and 16-seat private dining area, which has been dubbed the Owl Room for its bird’s-eye view—through glass walls—of the activity below.
At the top of the stairs, Tentori glowers from beneath the hood of his black robe in a ninja-like portrait. Royal purples add a luxe touch in juxtaposition with the rough-hewn stacked wood. Tree-like light fixtures provide another example of fairytale nature meeting chic urban design. “With Karen’s design, we had to showcase the materiality, mood and concept in the right light,” says Avraham Mor, Partner, Lightswitch. “You can’t just put in fluorescents and call it a day.”
“Our job is to make sure what Karen has done is actually seen and seen appropriately,” he continues. “Ultimately, there’s the challenge of being able to read a menu, and we don’t want the experience to change based on the time of day, the month or the season. So the lighting palette for GT Prime is warm, with high-color-rendering LEDs. Dimmable controls allow subtle changes to occur smoothly, to make the setting, the food and the customers look good.”
Lightswitch is known internationally for its innovative theatrical lighting and dazzling immersive experiences. A consortium of lighting, media and visual designers, Lightswitch’s client roster includes such corporations as Virgin Galactic, Porsche, Heineken and Infiniti; bands like Imagine Dragons; museums from the Kennedy Space Center to the John G. Shedd Aquarium; and collaborations with Wrap Architecture, Aedas, Studio Gang and Perkins + Will on hotels, theaters, healthcare and technology offices.
“Designing a restaurant means creating a theatrical experience,” Mor continues. “The first time you walk in should be a wow moment. We don’t want anyone looking at their watch—or their cell phone. Illuminating the environments Karen designs means bringing mood and emotion into the lighting palette, by making sure materiality pops in certain places, by lighting the artwork to draw the eye in. The decorative lighting works in tandem with the distinctive interior design strategy in order to emphasize comfort and warmth, and accent lavish finishes and rich tones.”
>Down lights use visually pleasing warm-dim technology, which allows light to warm in color as it dims, echoing the familiar characteristics of incandescent lighting. Fixtures are wirelessly controlled and color tunable, which allowed Mor and his team to balance the space and feature multiple finishes while managing and controlling every lamp independently. User friendly and flexible controls allow the restaurant staff to preset multiple lighting settings, each carefully programmed with slow, smooth transitions to minimize distraction to restaurant patrons.
The result is a project “that’s absolutely one of the most gorgeous spaces I’ve ever worked on,” Mor says. Adds Herold: “Every one of our restaurant designs are completely different, but the one thing that is consistent is that they are emotion-based designs. We always start by thinking about the way people want to feel or need to feel in the spaces we create. My client is my muse. With every single choice made for Giuseppe’s GT Prime, my hope was that he’d walk in and say, ‘This is exactly the restaurant I’ve always wanted.’ And he has.”