Meet the Designer Behind...

September 30, 2016


Meet the Designer of Elite Restaurants, Stores and New Englewood Whole Foods

The way James Geier tells it, he was just a dyslexic kid who failed in school before he found his life's work mostly by accident.


Not bad for the man behind the design of some of Chicago's most acclaimed restaurants, and retail spaces worldwide ranging from Dallas Cowboys Pro Shops to Gucci and Chanel.


The designer, whose restaurant work includes Girl and the Goat, Perennial Virant and Roister, is determined to do things differently than his peers, and he says that rebellious spirit is the root of his success.


Geier, 54, and the company he founded, 555 International, have designed for some of the most prominent chefs and hotel owners in Chicago, working not from a posh Loop office space but from a massive warehouse in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.


One of the most recent projects allowed Geier to combine his design experience with his love for the city's South Side: The Whole Foods store in Englewood, which opened a few days ago.


Geier, whose company has 140 employees, discussed some of his projects and how he works in a recent interview with the Tribune. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Click the image above to watch the full interview.


Q: How long did the Englewood Whole Foods project take?


A: From a concept development standpoint, we probably spent about nine months on it and then I'd say probably a year in totality. We were in the other day, and it's pretty impressive. Concepts and ideas brought to life: bringing in the importance of the neighborhood and the importance of Whole Foods being there. There was a lot of creativity and art and art inspiration that was part of that too.


Q: It seems like the community really got involved in the development of the store.


A: That was very important for (Whole Foods). And that was a big part of our involvement early on, making sure that we were working toward what was appropriate for the community and not just painting a pretty picture. A lot of what we looked at was the history of the community, the reasons why it was formed. It was the crossroads early on of railroad transit, both commercial and freight. That became a very important part of some of our messages as you walk throughout the space. And then as you walk around the store and then leave in the post-checkout area, you're back into today.


Q: How long does a restaurant project typically take?


A: It really varies depending on the site: ground-up construction or a renovation. A lot of it also has to do with the relationship with the client. Do they really know who their customer is or have they just said, "Hey, I want to do a restaurant." A lot of times a client might come in with an exact (plan) and say "This is where I'm at, this is the cuisine, this is a sense of who I think we are" and sometimes they don't at all.


A time frame, generally, from concept to development is a year to 18 months for most normal restaurants. Retail stores, a little less time.


Q: How did you get your start?


A: I was dyslexic in the '60s, when no one knew what dyslexia was. I wasn't very good in school. My mind was about how I could do things with my hands and how that all worked and how things are made. The ability to channel the good, and find things that are appropriate. My abilities to understand how things are made because I'm very mechanically oriented — those are the gifts I probably had, where reading, writing and arithmetic weren't the best.


Fortunately my mother sensed early that I was having problems in school, and she enrolled me in some art classes. This art instructor really gave us opportunity to work with our hands and find our voice even as a young person, in the materials or how you expressed yourself. For me, it was always dimensional, more sculptural, than it was painting.


Unfortunately being a starving artist and trying to get out of high school isn't a great quotient to success. So looking at and coming up with industrial design, engineering and manufacturing of products and furniture and things like that was a great way for me to be able to both express my wont to build physical things along with having things to sell.


Q: Are any of your sculptures in spaces you've designed?


A: The work that we do is really about a client's needs, who the customer is, whether it's a restaurant or a retail store. If there are areas where we can show a lot of sculpture or create sculptural things, yes. There is specialty lighting and chandeliers. We've worked for Hard Rock hotels and casinos. We make a lot of sculpture out of musical instruments and a lot of other things.


Q: How do you maintain passion and love for your work when you do this day in and day out?


A: I think it's internal. I'm an artist by birth and passion, but also very pragmatic in business and manufacturing, design of products that are appropriate for environments, whether they're custom-made or very utilitarian. Passion is always something that's going to keep me awake and keep me going.


The focus is on what the customer ultimately sees, so (that motivation) is never not with me. It is the beginning and the reason why we do this.


See the article on the Chicago Tribune.

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