Donald Powell and 860 Lake Shore Drive

By Philip Berger

Donald Powell may not be well-known outside of architectural circles, but his CV is teeming with connections to many of the great figures of mid-century design. The furnishings he designed for his apartment at the landmark Mies van der Rohe-designed 860 Lake Shore Drive clearly reflect their influence.

Powell arrived in Chicago in 1961 from Minneapolis, as no stranger to modernism. He had served in the Air Force and received a traveling Fulbright fellowship, but his career as an architect began in earnest when, as president of the student AIA at University of Minnesota, he met Walter Netsch, who suggested he come to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office for a meeting which culminated in an on-the-spot job offer.


Image courtesy of Jon Miller (c) Hedrich Blessing

Scrambling to find a place to live, Powell got a tip that the developers of the newly-completed Mies-designed 2400 Lakeview tower were renting the furnished model apartments - the furnishings for which had been selected by the Knoll Planning Unit. Powell says he was happy to live with a Saarinen table and stools that were like those at the Four Seasons bar, but he brought his own sofa bed, Eames lounge chair and ottoman.

Powell matured professionally at Skidmore Owings & Merrill during its emergence as the world’s most successful purveyor of Miesian design [more successful at it, actually, than the master himself], and he was instrumental in the emergence of the interiors practice as a distinct discipline in the field of architecture. In addition to Netsch, Powell was mentored at SOM by partners Myron Goldsmith, Bruce Graham, Fazlur Khan and Davis Allan. But his design sensibility was equally influenced by close collaborations with designers like Gene Summers, Jack Lenor Larsen, Gretchen Bellinger and Nicos Zographo, and manufacturers like Woodwork Corporation and Interior Crafts.

At SOM and - perhaps more significantly, in his practice at Powell/Kleinschmidt - Powell’s approach to interiors evolved into a sumptuous variation on Miesian minimalism, expressed in quality materials, rich textures and painstaking craftsmanship: the very details where - according to the oft-repeated aphorism attributed to Mies - one should expect to find God.


Image courtesy of Jon Miller (c) Hedrich Blessing

Powell’s own apartment at 860 Lake Shore Drive, where he moved in1983, best illustrates his aesthetic. Its interior surfaces - travertine floors, teak room dividers, Saint Laurent marble and steel mesh wall cladding - frankly reference two of Mies’ most famous projects: the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat villa. And nearly every piece of furniture was a variation on a Mies design from his Bauhaus period. Although Mies exclusively licensed several designs to Knoll Furniture, most of his furniture designs were unprotected. Powell based most of the furniture in his apartment on various Mies designs that William Dunlap - one of Mies’ first employees who spent most of his career at SOM - had meticulously documented in a series of measured drawings. Dunlap gifted these drawings to Don Powell who in turned gave them to Phyllis Lambert for the Mies collection at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Powell/Kleinschmidt’s designs for the Powell apartment exemplify how their interpretation of Mies took his principles to an even higher level: yielding objects that significantly enhanced the physical comfort, functional utility, long-term durability and simple beauty of their progenitors.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1886–1969

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is one of the most celebrated modernist architects of the twentieth century, known for developing the International Style in Germany and abroad, which emphasized function, balance, clean lines and the use of glass and steel.

Mies van der Rohe was born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, a center of heavy industry. His father was a stonecutter and Mies, who was never formally trained in architecture, often worked with his father, developing his exceptional sensitivity to materials at a young age. At 15, he apprenticed with several architectural firms in Aachen, and in 1905 he moved to Berlin to work for architect and furniture designer Bruno Paul. He received his first independent commission in 1907, the Riehl House in Postdam, and it caught the attention of Peter Behrens, the most progressive architect of the era. Mies joined the firm, where he met Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, who were also working under Behrens. From 1915 to 1918, he served in the war and, upon returning to Berlin, became involved in the very active artistic scene of the 1920s, when Bauhaus De Stijl and Expressionism were all emerging. In 1924, Mies met Lilly Reich, whom he collaborated and was involved with for many years; together, they designed the Barcelona chair, which debuted at the Mies-designed Germany pavilion for the World’s Fair in 1929 and is now regarded as one of the most iconic designs of the modern era.

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