In the Shadows of Giants: The Overlooked Genius of Harry Weese

When we talk about the architectural giants of the Modern era, names like Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe come to mind. These masters of design have left an indelible mark on our cities and towns, and their legacies continue to inspire and influence generations of architects. But what about those talented visionaries who have been overshadowed, whose work is often overlooked in the annals of architectural history? Today we’ll take a look at one such figure, Harry Weese, a brilliant architect who made a significant impact on the world of design, yet never quite garnered the same level of recognition as his contemporaries. 

Harry Weese was born in 1915 in Evanston, Illinois. Even from a young age, he displayed a keen interest in architecture. His passion led him to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he formed lifelong friendships with renowned architects; Eero Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames. Despite this impressive educational background, Weese struggled to find his footing in the competitive world of architecture, but that didn’t stop him from garnering attention.

Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist, Chicago. Photo: Paul R. Burley, CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

His career began to gain momentum in the 1950s, as he designed several noteworthy buildings in Chicago. One of the earliest examples of his work, the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, showcased his ability to blend functionality with aesthetics, while respecting the religious context of the building. 

As the years passed, Weese gradually earned the respect of his peers and clients. He designed everything from public buildings and universities to private residences, each project showcasing his unique approach to architecture. His firm completed over 200 new buildings and renovations that span mostly across the midwest, but his commissions also took him across the globe to Ghana, India, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.

One of Weese’s most enchanting designs can be found in the idyllic town of Wilmette. Known as The Robert and Suzanne Drucker House, this private residence epitomizes Weese’s ability to harmoniously blend nature and architecture. The home features an open-plan layout, with large windows that invite the outdoors in, creating a seamless connection between the interior and exterior spaces. The Drucker House is a testament to Weese ‘s skill in crafting spaces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing, while respecting the environment and the needs of its occupants.

Chicago River Cottages
Chicago River Cottages designed by Harry Weese. Credit: Jonathan Byrne CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

Beyond residential architecture, Weese made significant contributions to the field of urban planning and revitalization. He was deeply concerned about the decline of American cities and the loss of their architectural heritage. In the 1960s and 1970s, he embarked on several ambitious projects to preserve and reinvigorate urban spaces. One of his most notable accomplishments was the restoration of the Chicago Riverfront, transforming a previously neglected area into a vibrant, bustling hub of activity.

Washington, D.C. Metro System. Photo: Sara Cottle/Unsplash

Weese’s vision extended far beyond Chicago, as he also worked on the design of the Washington, D.C. Metro system. His innovative approach to public transportation and his commitment to creating aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly stations helped to shape the face of the nation’s capital and earned him widespread acclaim.

For those who have the privilege of experiencing Harry Weese’s work firsthand, the impact of his designs is undeniable. His creations have left a lasting mark on the communities they inhabit, and at Optima®, we’re proud to be a part of a shared sensibility and set of architectural traditions.

Furniture Design Spotlight: Ara Thorose

We love being part of a long legacy of people designing in the Modernist discipline. From architects, to sculptors and artists, to furniture designers, many creators continually innovate and find new ways of exploring form and function. One such innovator is Ara Thorose, a queer Armenian American artist and designer currently based out of Brooklyn, whose cylindrical-form furniture pieces are taking the design world by storm. 

Who Is Ara Thorose?

Ara Thorose is a fresh face on the scene. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Irvine, in Sociology, with a focus on gender and sexuality. Most recently, he went on to earn his MFA in 3D Design from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Cranbrook was founded as an experimental artists academy, and has since held national acclaim as the “incubator” of mid-century modernism in recent decades. Makers who emerge from the school are often agents of change who quickly make a name for themselves, and Thorose is no exception.

Just two years after earning his MFA, Thorose debuted his inaugural work, Tubular Group 01, under his brand Soft Limits, at the Architectural Digest Design Show in 2017. His work in the show garnered critical acclaim for its innovative form and experimentation in cylindrical forms. The design world continued to take notice of Thorose: he was named Up and Coming by Surface Magazine, and Soft Limits received Interior Design magazine’s 2019 Best of Year Award for Accent Seating.

Ulu Group by Ara Thorose. Photography courtesy of Se Yoon Park, shot at Carvalho Park.
Ulu Group by Ara Thorose. Photography courtesy of Se Yoon Park, shot at Carvalho Park.

Innovative Design in Action

Under his brand, Soft Limits, Ara Thorose designed Ulu Group, a series of cylindrical-form furniture pieces “inspired by the idea of a circle trapped inside of a square.” Most notably, the cylinders in the collection got their circumference from Thorose’s own thigh circumference. Thorose describes this as a humanizing element, which serves to ground the abstract nature of his work. 

On his website, Thorose describes the theory behind Ulu Group, stating: “It represents conflict with no apparent solution. A circle is limitless, while a square is limited, so it’s inherently problematic. By adding a third dimension to it’s premise, there is potential for functional solutions. That’s the inspiration for this series. Each form is a circle traversing cube-like spaces held by furniture. Alternating between U-turns and L-turns, the cylinders push against the boundaries of familiar typologies.”

The collection includes four total pieces — Ulu Chair (orange), Ulu Duo, (mauve), Ulu Table (brown), and Un (green) — made of steel and foam and upholstered in wool and silk. Thorose begins his design process with hand building small-scale maquettes and then sketching his revisions in profile. 

Thorose is a deeply individual figure in the realm of furniture design today. He describes his perspective, stating: “I’m inspired by the notion of autonomy. I view the self as fluid and dynamic. My work explores the creative potential of self awareness without conforming to surroundings. Singular and succinct unto itself. An individual sense of being and order.” 

We look forward to seeing how this point of view develops and grows as Thorose continues to inspire the industry.

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