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Hearth & Home July 2015

The new 60-ft. Grand Stair between the first and second floors. (Inset) The new concierge desk at the left side of the image.

Makeover at The Mart

By Tom Lassiter

Now in its ninth decade, the Grande Dame of Chicago trade is being given the spa treatment.

Goodbye, International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market.

Hello, Casual Market Chicago.

The new name and logo for the world’s largest and best-attended casual furnishings trade show accompanies an extensive makeover at The Merchandise Mart.

Some elements of the makeover, which will transform part of the four million sq. ft. building inside and out, will be apparent to those attending the International Casual Furniture Association Preview Show (aka Premarket), July 14-16.

Outside the entrance to the Mart, a sidewalk and parking lane have been turned into the River Drive Park with casual outdoor seating.

Additional changes will be in place for September’s Casual Market Chicago, which continues to be sponsored by the International Casual Furnishings Association (ICFA). 

The name of the annual event, almost universally shortened to the Casual Show or Casual Market, now officially will be less of a mouthful. Changing the name, said Jackie Hirschhaut, ICFA executive director, “just made sense.”

The most extensive renovations to The Mart, which include remodeling the main entrance lobby and other areas of the first and second floors, will continue over the next year. The construction schedule calls for renovations to be complete for Casual Market Chicago 2016.

The renovations, Merchandise Mart executives say, will make the building more inviting and accessible for the thousands who come to work there daily, as well as for visitors. Some improvements are specifically aimed at those who come to shop the designer showrooms or attend The Mart’s trade shows. In addition to Casual Market Chicago, The Mart, since 1969, has hosted NeoCon, North America’s largest commercial interiors show.

Myron Maurer, chief operating officer.

The renovations also will benefit commuters in the area who use the Chicago Transit Authority train stop on The Mart’s east side, as well as those who come to dine at The Mart’s food court and other restaurants.

Myron Maurer, The Mart’s chief operating officer, said the upgrades will bring The Mart “into the more contemporary aesthetic of today.”

One of the most striking changes – and one that acknowledges the casual industry’s presence at The Mart – should be in place for the July Preview Show.

The area next to the riverfront, opposite the entrance to the main lobby, has been redesigned as a park with plenty of green space. An area approximately 15 ft. by 150 ft. will feature “casual outdoor seating that we’re obviously buying from our tenants,” Maurer said. The plan also includes umbrellas.

The area, called River Drive Park in early renderings, “gets great sun and has tremendous views of the skyline,” he said. Creating the green space did not alter the riverfront balustrade or the eight iconic pedestals topped with larger-than-life busts of “outstanding American merchants.”

River Drive Park takes over space occupied by the sidewalk and a parking lane, Maurer said.

Julia Chappell, managing director for the Design Center division.

Julia Chappell, The Mart’s managing director for the Design Center division (which includes the casual industry showrooms), says the park will be an amenity for everyone working in and visiting the building. With thousands of tech industry employees now employed in offices at The Mart, Chappell expects the park to see lots of use.

“The younger generation is looking for a place to relax, get fresh air, but also to continue to work,” she said. “To have the opportunity to get outside when it’s pretty and enjoy the waterfront is great.”

Maurer, who has worked for Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., for 28 years, became chief operating officer in January, 2013. He was involved in The Mart’s last major renovation 25 years ago, he said, and is enthusiastic about the updates coming over the next 18 months.

Chappell, marketing director for the Design Center for more than four years, took over responsibilities for marketing casual industry trade shows early in 2014.

Earlier in her career, Chappell was director of showrooms for Brown Jordan. “I spent a lot of time in Chicago as a tenant,” she said. “I can tell you from being a former tenant how much you appreciate (the) building investing in the look and feel” of the facility. “I see it from both sides of the coin,” she said.

Navigation Aids

Some of the first changes to be implemented include digital displays and way-finding signage to help visitors navigate the vast building and its system of dedicated elevators. Certain elevators are reserved for employees and only serve certain floors. Others elevators primarily serve trade show floors.

“The building, given its massive size, is a challenge for the average person, especially one who is new to the building,” Maurer said.

At the top of the stairs there will be a Work Bar and casual dining area.

The displays will be mounted near elevators to more easily identify the lifts reserved for trade show use, Chappell said. The new screens will be placed throughout The Mart’s first and second floors.

Printed maps now on showroom floors near elevators will be replaced with touchscreen kiosks. The new system will help trade show visitors more easily determine their location and help them navigate to specific showrooms.

Renovation plans call for new elevator interiors, Maurer said, but only a few are expected to be in place by the Preview Show.

Major Changes

The Mart’s managers had specific functional goals in mind, not just cosmetic changes, as they planned first- and second-floor renovations. 

They include:

  • More options for people entering the building and heading to the second floor, where the food court as well as other public destinations are located.
  • Creating additional locations for visitors and tenants’ employees to gather, chat, relax and work.
  • Reconfiguring of second-floor interior partitions to allow more daylight into the building.

The main lobby’s grand staircase will be even larger and provide space for seating. Chappell expects to see the building’s young tech employees there with their laptops, looking for a change of scene. The staircase seating also should be inviting to people needing a place for conversation or to simply relax.The new staircase on the east end of The Mart “will be very open and large,” Maurer said. “We feel it will be more flexible than the escalator,” which is primarily used by commuters.

Maurer said the first- and second-floor lobby changes will “complement the historical aspects of the building” while providing an environment for conversation, interaction and entertainment.

Plans call for creating a bar, a restaurant, a performance area, and a conference center in the second-floor area served by the grand staircase. That space, Maurer said, “will become kind of an amenity area for the building.”

The renovation will cause a radio station on the second floor to move its studios to another location within The Mart, Maurer said.

“We’re doing this to benefit the daily users of the building, but also to provide for show attendees,” he said. “The building clearly has a lot of energy and activity on a day-to-day basis. But we really like the activity garnered when we have events.”

During renovations, Maurer said, “Our plan is for the building to stay fully functional.”

The renovated Food Court area on the second floor.

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