Retrofit Transforms an Urban Storefront into a Bright Community Play Space

Young children need play to thrive, but the realities of economic disinvestment in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood mean that not all children have had access to safe and delightful places to play. Troubled by this inequality, Chicagoan Debbie Frisch founded a not-for-profit organization and set to work renovating a vacant storefront into a 1,000-square-foot indoor community play space. Described as a play desert (a neighborhood lacking in public play spaces), Woodlawn is an ideal location for the new play space Frisch calls “HelloBaby”. Architecture firm Perkins+Will, Chicago, provided pro bono design services for the retrofit as part of the firm’s Purpose initiative. The initiative seeks to maximize the impact of the firm’s volunteer efforts and transform communities by partnering with local non-profit organizations in need of design services. A participant in Public Architecture’s 1% Solution, Perkins+Will commits 1 percent of billable hours to pro bono design service.

Recognizable from a distance, HelloBaby brings a cheerful splash of color to a formerly drab business corridor dotted with vacant lots in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

Recognizable from a distance, HelloBaby brings a cheerful splash of color to a formerly drab business corridor dotted with vacant lots in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

The idea for HelloBaby,“a place for you and your baby to play,” sprung from Founder and Executive Director Frisch’s years of experience as a foster parent. She had observed a pattern of physical and social-emotional developmental delays in even the smallest of her charges
and noted how quickly their development could rebound in a play-rich environment. A mother herself, Frisch also had seen how isolating parenting can be—and how much of a difference friendship can make. Seeking to address these needs for families outside the foster-care system, Frisch envisioned HelloBaby as a community play space with socialization areas for infants, toddlers and caregivers. The space is open to the public at no charge and gives children and parents a place to play together.

INTENTIONAL COLOR

Recognizable from a distance, HelloBaby brings a cheerful splash of color to a formerly drab business corridor dotted with vacant lots. Frisch tapped longtime friend and Graphic Designer Kerry Grady of Grady Campbell Inc., Chicago, for the logo and brand identity. The color palette started with Grady’s vision for a simple and timeless brand identity. A parent himself, Grady wanted to create something “more modern and distinctive than traditional pink and blue” and says he drew inspiration from the “simple style of design designed children’s furniture: bright, clean and beautiful.”

Anchored by this identity, Pamela Steiner, a Branded Environments designer at Perkins+Will, says she developed ideas for “bringing the colors to life in dimensional and functional ways that would be engaging for children and adults (and the design team, too!).” She expanded the palette to encompass a range of tints for interior applications, including a bank of rainbow-hued laminate toy cubbies. Set against quiet whites and grays, the colors feel vibrant without overwhelming the scale of the space.

NATURE

From the beginning, the team coalesced around a nature theme. Perkins+Will Interior Designer Sunny Ao recalls, “In the visioning session, the clients focused on the importance of nature to children’s development.” Adds Frisch, “I wanted HelloBaby to be based on something real, so we used nearby Washington Park as our inspiration. HelloBaby reinforces outdoor experiences indoors. I am hopeful this will plant a seed of sustainability in all our guests.”

Steiner explains, “We didn’t want to be prescriptive in our interpretation of nature, but we did want to create an immersive environment that would be a launchpad for play.”

Ao proposed vivid green flooring to mimic grass and riff on the green in the brand logo. Incorporating natural elements without going too literal kept the design from becoming cartoonish. Although the existing embossed tin ceiling had been painted sky blue, the team opted for a fresh coat of white paint and new energy-efficient linear light fixtures for a cleaner look. The texture of the tin adds a cool vibe and respects the history of the space, and a smattering of cloud-shaped ceiling baffles modernizes the effect. Frisch describes the clouds as “a subtle but magical touch. They give a focal point for a young child lying on his back; they absorb sound; and they really are the ‘bow on top’ tying the whole space together.”

Flexible furnishings throughout have been key to making caregivers feel welcome. The cozy nook is a favorite spot to relax, chat and wave at passersby in the front window.

Flexible furnishings throughout have been key to making caregivers feel welcome. The cozy nook is a favorite spot to relax, chat and wave at passersby in the front window.

The nature theme also shaped Steiner’s concept for the donor recognition tree, which hosts a bevy of butterflies bearing the names of project supporters. “The donor tree is meant to be a signature piece—visually and emotionally grounding the space,” Steiner explains. “We wanted to create an element that was visually appealing and had flexibility as a donor element. The donor tree is meant to be a living-growing element within the space: As HelloBaby’s support network grows, so does the tree.” In support of nature conservation, the proportions of the donor tree were calibrated to use full sheets of plywood with very little waste.

COZY NOOK

The constraints of the existing space presented a challenging layout at the front, so the team explored several options for the arrangement of the functional zones. Ao came up with the concept that the client and project team universally preferred, which used this front window space in an inventive way: He envisioned a bold graphic millwork wrap featuring a multifunctional upholstered play platform and integrated toy storage.

Inspired by the idea of a glass aquarium, Ao “wanted to create a showcase in which people outside would enjoy the babies and toddlers. Moreover, it would also carry out a message to the neighborhood that this space is cared for.” The cozy nook has become one of the defining graphic elements of the space, as well as a guest and staff favorite.

At the same time, flexible furnishings throughout have been key to making caregivers feel welcome. “The cozy nook is a favorite spot to relax, chat and wave at passersby in the front window,” Frisch says. “Although first-time visitors sometimes enter a little shy and nervous, the space is designed to create connection. Stone-shaped lounge seats are easily moved, enabling caregivers to supervise their children while participating in adult conversations. Parents and their children have made friends and had fun so a caregiver, who was perhaps a little reluctant to visit, is eager to return. We are proud to report that 70 percent of our guests are repeat visitors.”

PHOTOS: Andrews Braddy Photography, Chicago

About the Author

Shannon Gedey, AIA, RELi AP, LEED AP BD+C
Shannon Gedey, AIA, RELi AP, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect in Perkins+Will’s Chicago office who employs proven strategies to design delightful, innovative and flexible environments. Gedey demonstrates her acumen in the design of HelloBaby, a play space for parents, caregivers and babies in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

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