A lifetime of collecting art and an unerring eye for design make this North Shore home as special as it is unique.
Photographs by Tony Soluri
(See more photos in the gallery below)
Sunlight streams through French doors, splashing across wide plank oak floors and ricocheting across the rich whiteness of the space, the luminosity giving a stunning crispness to the treasures arrayed within this welcoming room: wildly elongated Mackintosh dining chairs, the chrome and leather luxe of Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort sofa, a 19th century English secretary. While the furnishings here are utterly diverse, there’s nothing miscellaneous about this Winnetka living room; the composition holds, picture perfect. And no wonder…it’s the home of designer Chris Robb.
Thirty-five years ago, Chris launched a career as a dealer in contemporary fine prints; when she segued to interiors, she christened her business Artists Concepts. Although that moniker might make one wonder just what line of work she’s in, a stroll through her own residence reveals just how artful her own way with design really is.
Built in 1966, the house looked like something out of the North Woods when she and her husband, Bill Robb, Chairman of Orthopedic Surgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, acquired it in 1996. “It was all wood paneling inside, with a fieldstone fireplace and board and batten on the outside,” recalls Chris. “We took it down to the studs and started over.”
Working with architect Paul Konstant, the couple opened the second story hallway so that it overlooks the living room below, made a formal dining room in what was once a family room, relocated the staircase from the living room to a sensibly scaled foyer, and added a cozy family room to the expanded kitchen. The result is a bright, inviting home, elegant but not overdone—a place that projects unmistakable comfort filtered through an aesthetic sensibility characterized by a keen attention to detail and proportion. For example, the geometry of a Mackintosh settee in the foyer is echoed in the grid detail of the balusters of the staircase just steps away. “I didn’t want to do an Arts and Crafts house,” says Chris, “but I like including some elements of it.”
The suite of spaces that forms the heart of the home—kitchen, eating area, and family room—exemplifies Chris’ approach. Spun from an open plan, yet discretely fashioned for each function, these most livable of spaces combine a contemporary scheme with traditional furnishings to achieve a reassuring domesticity. “I think if you have straight, clean lines you can put antiques and contemporary things together,” states Chris.
Anchored by an early 20th century oriental rug, the family room is outfitted with a sofa and chairs that encourage sprawling out, and a hutch displaying ceramic pieces by artist Claudia Reese. When it’s time to eat, the family gathers around a country table paired with wing and ladder-back chairs, all from Sawbridge Studios. And while relatively compact by today’s standards, the kitchen offers plenty of storage and workspace.
The range of furniture styles in the home finds a parallel in the art that adorns the house, from an almost lurid Ed Paschke in the master bedroom to the Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly prints that grace the paprika-colored walls of a guest room. In the living room—where the art ranges from figurative work by regionalist Grant Wood to a large, dynamic abstraction by Chicagoan William Conger—Chris has ornamented the fireplace with andirons and hearth tools by renowned metal artist Albert Paley. “I started the American Craft Exposition,” notes Chris, “and that gave me a whole new perspective. Instead of just looking at art as paintings to put on a wall, I became more interested in sculptural pieces. Even things I use every day, I like them to have some sculptural or design interest. A lot of the objects are related to the crafts world. And I know most of the people I purchased these from.” Letting her gaze sweep the living room, Chris spots an orb by Vermont glassblower Josh Simpson. “As I walk around the house, I’ll see that piece and think, ‘Here’s Josh, I wonder what he’s doing?’”
While Chris has clearly refined a look that fits her home and lifestyle, when it comes to her clients, she starts with a clean slate. “All our projects look different. We do from 18th century up to contemporary. We’re facilitators. We help people understand what they’re looking for. Almost everybody we work with has a pretty good idea of what they want, but they have no idea of how to put it all together.”
“We” is Chris and her daughter, Heather, who joined the business in 2005. “I was living in San Francisco, doing office management—and not loving it,” relates Heather. “I always loved design—when I came home to visit, my room was right next to my Mom’s office—and I thought maybe I should explore it. And I decided the best way for me to do that was to learn the back of the business: finishes, fabrics, how furniture is made.” She did just that, at De Sousa Hughes in the San Francisco Design Center, before returning to Chicago and testing the waters with her mother while taking a degree at the Harrington College of Design.
“I think because of our ages, we look at things differently,” suggests Chris, “which has been a great combination.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
As any husband or brother will attest, the mother/daughter dynamic doesn’t always make for smooth sailing (well, neither does the father/son relationship, but that’s another story). Yet for Chris and Heather Robb, working together at what they love has proven to be a rewarding experience, for themselves and their clients. “We’re a team,” explains Heather. “We share clients. And they get both of our opinions and design sensibilities. Lots of times, we’ll each do our own interpretations and then come together and bounce ideas off each other.”
That said, the two aren’t interested in creating an identifiable look. “Our philosophy,” stresses Chris, “has always been that when you come to a home we’ve designed, it’s not a Heather and Chris Robb design, the same thing repeated in different versions. It’s all about the client, so our houses all look different. And we do everything, from floor plans and electrical to finishing up with accessories.”
When asked if she has particular strengths, Heather laughs, “Billing and accounting.” And adds Chris, “The computer.”
“Even after two or three years of working together, Mom would say, ‘Let’s go down to the Mart,’ and I’d say, ‘Everything’s online!’” But as Heather admits, many customers still need to see and touch what they’re thinking of buying before cutting a check.
“Nobody’s willing to give their money away as fast as they were, so they want to make sure they’re making the right choice at the right time,” observes Heather. “We had a client who said, ‘I don’t want to invest $15,000 in a sofa, I have two young kids and I know it’s going to get ruined.’ So we went to Room & Board and found a great solution. We charged her design time instead of the markup. We made it work.”