Looking for the Perfect Night Out
Monday, October 22nd, 2012
By John Dugan
Photos by Brian Willette
It's not often that we come across a photographer/brand building creative professional who willingly makes the leap into interior design. But for Chicago's Brian Willette, venturing into restaurant and nightlife aesthetics was somewhat inevitable. "I've always been a design geek and hospitality nutcase," he tells us.
Willette's background includes showing work at NYC galleries like White Columns, shooting for brands like Bumble & Bumble and Brooklyn Industries, and most notably photographing for Wallpaper's pocket guide to Chicago. The latter gig (shooting over 90 locations) offered "the keys to the kingdom," as he says: more access to the movers and shakers in Chicago nightlife.
While he ran his own creative agency for a time, Willette now shoots what he likes, works full-time in liquor branding and selects design projects based on his own passion for them. He studied the successful concepts in both Chicago and New York—folks like NYC hospitality designers AvroKO and Chicago restaurateurs Donnie Madia and Terry Alexander.
His design for Old Town Social, a popular, multifaceted (and rather large) Chicago spot, had him jumping into the hospitality fray for the first time. Years later, with the new La Sirena Clandestina, he's found his comfort zone: creating the kind of small, hip place where he'd actually spend his own evenings.
Designing La Sirena, in Chicago's Fulton Market area, was a collaborative process. "We take everybody's input," says Willette of his like-minded in-house crew. The design aesthetic is a kind of rustic, reclaimed chic that makes a terrific amount of sense in the Midwest. The vast majority of the building materials were sourced from the Rebuilding Exchange (look for an upcoming story on it in our print edition), and the seating (Toledo school stools from the 1940s and vintage rugged metal chairs sourced from Eastern Indiana) has a rust belt toughness as well as dramatic historic edge.
With builder Daniel Boyd as a partner in the restaurant (officially Willette, chef John Manion, Boyd and Kim Dalton are the partners), the construction project was a DIY effort. Lime House Design & Construction millworker Sean Kranik's talents were instrumental in turning the reclaimed materials into a chic space. La Sirena's charming patchwork flooring, of various wood types and hardnesses, had its risks. Kranik used a wood hardener to make it work, and a whey-based polyurethane to get the matte, waxy look the space needed. The steel encased bar was Willette's idea, while the back bar liquor shelving is a massive reclaimed wood construction that required eight men to lift into place.
Willette's branding experience did come in handy, however. His team wheatpasted the city with an image that Willette talks about as if it still haunts his dreams: the '60s French bombshell Brigitte Bardot as a mermaid. The guerilla marketing effort worked in concert with La Sirena's low-key, no-PR soft opening. Brigitte poster lives on the wall of the newly opened restaurant, as an image on the menu and at Willette's own pad—this is a labor of love, evidently, that he doesn't just leave at the office.