Office Buildings Bring Art to the Masses: 181 West Madison

Chicago, IL | September 15, 2022

Large-scale art in an office building lobby creates a sense of accessibility, engages visitors, and welcomes tenants. Take 181 West Madison, for example. As people stream through the downtown building's lobby every day, all they need to do is look up and left or right to absorb massive pieces by contemporary artist Frank Stella. 181 West Madison is not alone in its investment in large-scale visual art: among 30 West Monroe's numerous notable art pieces is Anish Kapoor's intriguingly surreal "Blood Mirror" sculpture, and 1 North Dearborn's front facade has been transformed into a light-art, infinity-effect installation. The art in the lobbies and throughways of these buildings marks a transition for visitors and establishes a sense of place—181 West Madison’s lobby art is a superb example of this.

In 1990, Frank Stella's large-scale pieces "Loomings" and "Knights and Squires" were installed in the lobby of 181 West Madison to coincide with the building's completion. Architect Cesar Pelli intentionally designed 181's five-story marble lobby as a gallery for Stella's pieces. Today, the art pieces look at home affixed to the stark East and West walls. Though Stella considers his work paintings, most who look at the abstract pieces see sculptures. Composed of etched aluminum and magnesium, the surfaces of "Loomings" and "Knights and Squires" were painted with a slew of distinctive colors. Both "Loomings" and "Knights and Squires" were named after and influenced by specific chapters in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale."

181 West Madison General Manager Krystal Kurinsky believes pieces by artists like Frank Stella are a boon for office buildings.

“You can spot when an employee of a 181 West Madison tenant enters the building and notices ‘Loomings’ or ‘Knights and Squires’ for the first time,” said Kurinsky. “When you see someone pause and do that head tilt up, you know you’ve witnessed a moment that will stick with that person for the rest of the day.”

Art has long been woven into Chicago's eclectic downtown architecture. Even before art-deco-style buildings added panache to Chicago's downtown in the 1920s, mosaics created by Louis C. Tiffany—notably the Tiffany mosaic commissioned in 1895 by architectural planner Own F. Aldis for the Marquette Building—were inspiring a larger visual awareness among building owners and developers. (By the way, you can walk into the Chicago Cultural Center and see the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, which was built in 1897.)

Art living in office buildings became more abstract in the late 1950s and beyond. In 1958, Inland Steel's 30 West Monroe added Richard Lippold's ''Radiant I" rod-and-wire sculpture in the lobby, further inspiring real estate moguls to invest in art. There’s also the 1964 unveiling of Chicago Picasso in the Richard J. Daley Center’s Plaza. A departure from the historical statues that had previously lived in the public art world, it’s possible that the 50-foot sculpture influenced building owners and developers as modern and postmodern art trends continued into the 1970s. One example is Alexander Calder’s sheet-metal-and-paint sculpture “Universe,” erected in the lobby of the Willis (née Sears) Tower in 1974, the year the building opened. (“Universe” left Willis Tower in 2017, and Jacob Hashimoto’s “In the Heart of this Infinite Particle of Galactic Dust” was installed in the lobby after a significant redevelopment in 2019.)

An emphasis on art in the commercial real estate world re-emerged in the 1990s, with 181 West Madison co-developers (and MB Real Estate founders) J. Paul Beitler and Lee Miglin being vocal proponents of art in the world of the average office worker. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1990, Beitler explained why art in public places like office lobbies is vital.

''(We) spend 8 to 10, even more, hours a day, five, even six days a week in our offices, not our homes. In our current culture, we've transplanted the importance of the home and its security and pleasure to the work environment. You would never go home to a sterile, unfamiliar, foreboding place with no character or creativity; we feel the same holds true for the workplace.''

Beitler and business partner Lee Miglin dedicated large amounts to ensuring art existed tastefully in the properties they developed throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. They were eager to showcase living artists; Beitler told the Chicago Tribune that he and Miglin hoped they could inspire young artists "to go forward and create."

At the very least, Beitler and Miglin increased the amount of art the average downtown worker—who may rarely step foot into an art museum—can see throughout their day.

Today, even with the advent of remote and hybrid work, the office lobby is more than just a throughway that sometimes has art. Lobbies are now designed to have an impact upon employees that enter the space in a way that cannot be replicated.

“These days, building lobbies are tuned in to ‘experiences’—which is why many landlords have added video screens and other media,” explained MBRE Executive Vice President and Leasing Managing Director Mark Buth highlighted how. “Most 181 West Madison tenants are focused on what we are running on the media walls in addition to the art pieces.”

Aside from cozy seating and the conspicuous “Loomings” and “Knights and Squires,” 181 West Madison has a notably large video screen above the lobby desks that spans 55 feet wide by 15 feet tall. In the future, while lobby art will not disappear, Buth imagines lobbies will be designed to draw individuals’ attention in several ways.

“I do feel art can make a lobby feel more welcoming compared to sterile, blank walls,” Buth said. “Art adds a richness—you feel like you’re in a special place. Though in the future, I think art will remain part of the lobby environment, maybe on a smaller scale, as casual seating and video screens are added or expanded.”

Still, referencing Frank Stella’s paintings, Buth highlighted how “Tenants and guests are always drawn to them to engage.”