How many of us can say we still apply—or even remember—the skills we learned in school to our careers now? For artist Zak Rose, the classes and coursework he took at Kenyon College still drive the design work he does today—even though his degree is in English.
“Near the end of my time at Kenyon, I discovered the school’s sculpture program,” says Rose. “I clung right to it.”
A North Shore native who had never spent time in California, Rose headed West to San Francisco post-graduation with his then-girlfriend—now wife—Emily following soon after.
While there, Rose became an owner in the worker-owned cooperative Woodshanti, specializing in design, fabrication, finishing, and installation of custom cabinetry and millwork using responsibly harvested lumber and natural finishes. Its mission was to set high standards for environmentally responsible craftsmanship in the Bay Area.
Rose describes the experience as “formative,” in terms of learning how to run a business with more than one voice involved and in understanding the power of collective action.
“I was ready to see something else, and it seemed as far away as I could get,” says Rose. “Moving to the city felt romantic and like a place you go to be free.”
That said, his North Shore roots tethered Rose to the Midwest, and he eventually moved back to Chicago to launch his eponymous design/build firm zakrose and start a family with Emily— the couple has three young children and two years ago, they moved to Rose’s hometown of Wilmette.
The firm specializes in furniture fabrication and custom millwork for residential clients, architects, and interior designers. Rose designs in an approachable style, creating pieces with light forms, clean lines, beautiful materials, and functional considerations.
“My work is grounded in a sort of Midwestern sensibility in that I am cognizant of creating pieces that will stand the test of time,” he says. “I always consider function in my designs and like those that are clean, light, and modern with subtle details and highlights. Chicago has an audience that is looking for brightness.”
Take, for example, the designs Rose licenses to Chicago-based home furnishings retailer CB2, like the Paterson lacquered nightstand, dresser, and chest with mixed ivory and walnut materials that nod to heirlooms and history or the modern Ray Marquetry Headboard with deco-inspired embellishments.
“When I started working with CB2, it was eye-opening and made me think that maybe my designs were more universal than I originally thought they were,” says Rose. “When a company like that validates and recognizes you, it is really affirming and makes you take a step back and have some pride.”
Or the limited-edition Dock 6 Collection furniture designs Rose is debuting with Dock 6—a collective of independent designers and fabricators based out of a shared 50,000-square-foot workshop in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood of Chicago—this fall. Rose, along with Seth Deysach, Andrew Kephart, Carson Maddox, Scott Patterson, and Dan Sullivan, has been a principal in the Collective for more than ten years.
Their first-ever furniture line is meant to be a resource for unique and hard-to-find home furnishings that are both thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed. The Collection takes pieces from the designers’ solo lines and recasts them in a cohesive compilation across a rich aesthetic range.
To create the collection, each designer chose pieces that best represented his individual aesthetic as well as his clients’ favorites. With many pieces pared down to just two basic elements, like wood and metal or metal and fiber, the results embody a refined minimalism.
“We made the decision to keep ourselves within a certain palette with a few wood and metal choices,” explains Rose. “This helped us create a true collection versus a bunch of disparate pieces. We have worked under the same roof together for the past 13 years, so this experience pushed us. We respect each other and, in some sense, wanted to impress one another.”
Think a mid-century modern credenza by Rose crafted with a show stopping domestic walnut wood finish and strategic cutouts to showcase a milky teal powder coated steel frame or his pill-shaped bench with bleached maple and powder coated steel.
“Blackened steel and maple is the combination for me at the moment,” says Rose. “I appreciate the contrast. Inspiration often comes from what I feel we are missing in the market. The challenge is matching the need with the aesthetic language I work within.” That language easily translates to a variety of projects, however. Rose recently finished custom millwork in a private residence above contemporary West Loop art gallery Kavi Gupta and also completed the millwork fabrication and installation for famed artist couple Nick Cave and Bob Faust in a 1920s Irving Park industrial building.
Now he’s preparing to prototype a small home bar that has been in the works for a few months. The design started as a sideboard but then Rose refined the drawing to make it smaller and a fit for a variety of different spaces. He imagines the wooden cabinet will hold liquor with a smooth top for serving and mixing drinks.
Every spring Rose and the Dock 6 Collective host their annual Design & Art show, which started as a barbecue for family and friends but has evolved over the past 12 years to become a showcase of Midwest artists and designers. This year’s event was hosted via Instagram as a series of videos that are still available to watch on @dock6collective IGTV.
At their Chicago workshop, Dock 6 employs more than 40 team members, providing skills and job training to the city’s craftspeople. They also rent out space to artists in an effort to create a community of makers.
“It is powerful for us to use our collective energy to enable other artists who need a forum for their work,” says Rose. “It feels uniquely Midwestern. We all found our way here, put our egos aside, and were open to working together. We would not have been able to buy a 50,000-square-foot building in, say, Brooklyn.”
Though, Rose does have family ties to New York. In 2016, his brother Daniel, a chef and restaurateur, debuted Le Coucou restaurant in Manhattan after successfully opening numerous restaurants in Paris. Le Coucou later won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant in the nation and was named to the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
“Daniel took a giant leap of faith when he first started and while he achieved a lot of success, he initially had no idea that would happen,” says Rose. “I take a lot of inspiration from him.”
Family is important to Rose, who says he and his wife and kids love to ride bikes, try new restaurants, enjoy art, travel, and cook together. He just designed and fabricated a slatted wall system for the entry of their home to allow light to travel through the front door and into the space without sacrificing privacy.
“I want to figure out how to build things rather than just create a pretty picture of something,” muses Rose. “I love the way we put things together. The more thought you put into something, the longer it’ll last. I want my work to endure.”
For more information about Zak Rose, visit zakrose.com.