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Chicago Tribune Magazine
April 11, 1999
Home Design
One manís search for maximum space took on heroic proportions

Sticking His Neck Out
Home means something different at each stage of life, and there is a place for every time. For Chicago designer Lee Allison, the place for this time is a loft.

Not one of those swank places that has been sanitized, partitioned off, shined up and decorated.

And not a newly build loft with the essentials all enclosed. Allisonís is a gargantuan space that was literally down and dirty when he found it.

Situated in one of those little industrial pockets on the cityís North Side, itís in a no manís land wedged between two chic neighborhoods.

Also at a crossroads is Allison, a graduate of Williams College and Harvard Business School, who left a successful advertising career and all its trappings in 1995 to start a business designing and producing ties and now his company is really beginning to take off. This venture was what prompted his move to a loft.

ĎI literally started from scratch," Allison says, "and couldnít afford rent on two separate spaces. So I did it out of my home."

But home--a vintage Victorian walk-up in Old Town--was too small.

"Everything was so overrun with ties, boxes and designs that I didnít even have room for a computer and printer," he says. "It was a real mess."

A loft sounded like the solution, and in his quest Allison did "all the standard stuff, like scouring the real estate ads." But he didnít stop there.

"I figured I was going to be cooped up in his place all the time, so I really had to find a space with exceptional light and acceptable view," he says. "It was way too important to me to rely on the papers alone."

Allison hit the streets by car and on foot, nosing around any industrial building he could find. He methodically assessed their exteriors to see if other building could block the light or the view. The heíd track down the building manager and ask about vacancies. The loft he eventually decided on passed his exterior analysis, but the interior failed miserably.

Run-down from years of neglect, the 5,000-square-foot loft, which the buildingís owner used for storage, was crammed with junk and scattered with debris. So Allison worked out a sliding rent arrangement: "I paid less for the first two years, and as the rent went up more of the landlords stuff went out," he says. "Not much is left at this point."

Allison went to work on the space and his business at the same time, but he didnít make real headway on the loft until fall of 1997.

"I could finally afford an assistant, and it gave me the manpower to transform it," he says. They painted walls, plugged leaks and moved around major pieces-such as the huge industrial shelving system he uses to store his stock.

The space finally started to take shape, but not from elbow grease alone. Allison found all sorts of odds and ends, left by a long line of previous tenants, which he put to good use, such as silk-screened, billboard-size cloth panels he speculates were once some sort of advertisement, a few boat sails and some office furnishings.

The panels, all of which were warped and filthy until Allison attacked them with detergent and fixed the frames, became the vehicle to give the space scale and definition.

Two were hung between support beams to become Allisonís "magic wall that separated the living space from the office," and two were hung from the rafters to become a dropped ceiling over the living space. A fifth was used to wall in an open balcony at one end of the loft.

Once they were hung, daylight filtered though the panels and lent them an ethereal translucence that lightened up the space.

And the ceiling panels also "caught all the debris that sifts though the roof when itís really windy outside, something no one ever tells you about living in a loft," says Allison. "It tends to get dirty and dusty pretty fast."

He also suspended the sails from the ceiling for the same purpose, attaching them to the rafters with ropes in the area he uses as a living room. In the washroom space, he anchored a spinnaker to the ceiling. The sail fabric cascades as a kind of tent over the three-quarter-height bathroom walls to contain the "room" completely. Itís the only totally enclosed space in the loft.

As for all those odds and ends, theyíre interspersed throughout the loft and mingled with his own furniture-which, Allison points out, "is also collected from a variety of sources."

Some pieces, such as the sofas, were bought for his apartment. Others were salvaged from the streets or from thrift stores.

An industrial trolley found in an alley, for example, was turned into a table with a glass top. And from a thrift store Allison bought home a coffee table that was hideous until he refurbished it. He calls his tactics "adaptive reuse."

Itís this healthy respect for

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