Category Archives: Designer Exhibit

Something Old, Something New

Stepping across the threshold of the BKE Designs workshop, I had the sense of entering another world.  The building stretches in front of the visitor, long and narrow, and the raw materials and ancient machinery of bygone professions hang overhead. The scent and sight of sawdust invades the senses.  In this tribute to physical craftsmanship lies memorials to craftsmen of a different kind; Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix oversee the space. Joining them is your guide through this world, Brian K. Ellison, owner of bke designs.

Brian’s pride of the past is apparent as he details the history of the factory, which has been in operation since 1923.  The shop remains in full-scale operation to this day, and aside from producing bke designs pieces, is a regular manufacturer of camera parts for Deardorff Camera and xylophone frames.  This is fitting; in Greek, xylophone means “wood sound”, and few words could better describe the symphony of construction that takes place at the workshop.

In a weaving pattern reminiscent of many bke designs pieces, Brian seamlessly moves from discussing the purpose and proper uses of the surrounding machinery to the inspiration, conception, and execution of his own work.  Laws of physics, flow, and perceived irregular pattern are all concepts that play into the bke designs collection.

A sense of experimentation and discovery pervades the shop.  Although the workshop is a woodworker’s playground, Brian does not limit his pieces to just one material.  Metal and glass are central to many installations, particularly lighting projects.  Inspiration can be found anywhere: Brian has even experimented with a wall insulation material he came across in Germany.  These creations take many forms: media displays, headboards with built in light, and hand crafted wine boxes. Destinations for his work include museums, restaurants, art collectors, and even custom home projects.

This eclectic mix of material, structure, and purpose is a reflection of its creator: Brian himself is a jack of many trades.  He has training and expertise in architecture, real estate development, and… fire dancing.  In 1993, he received his first patent for use in large-scale production, a CD holder.  Needing to recharge his creative batteries, in 2006 Brian took a sabbatical from both corporate and American life – relocating to Amsterdam to focus on design.  Upon his return from the Netherlands in 2008, Brian returned to real estate development part time, all the while planning his exit so that he could work full time on his true passion;  designing – not the fire… although he does manage to fit in quite a bit of fire dancing on the weekends.

In the upcoming months, Brian’s grand plan will be finally realized; the operation of bke designs will be his full time commitment.  Not only will Unbranded Designs be featuring many bke designs furnishings, we have partnered with Brian to manufacture our first pilot furniture piece.  The Isa Chair by designer Adele Cuartelon has officially joined the orchestra of creations that have taken form in this studio.  Unbranded Designs is proud to be partnering with Brian, and we are excited to see what bke designs does next!

Recent Accomplishments Include but Not Limited to:


  • Tavernita Restaurant, Design and Fabrication of Custom Wood Wall Clading, Chicago, Illinois
  • Falafill Restaurants, Fabrication of Millwork for 3 locations, Chicago/Oak Park, Illinois
  • Guerilla Truck Show, Particpant, Chicago, Illinois


  • Distinctly South Shore, Furniture Store Display, Chicago, Illinois
  • Black Creativity Exhibition, Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago Illinois


  • Participant in “Not Just Another Pretty Face” Exhibition at the Hyde Park Arts Center, Chicago, Illinois
  • La Remise, Partner in Design of Bed & Breakfast, Amsterdam, The Netherlands


  • Featured Artist at Heir Gallery, Chicago, Illinois

bke designs workshop.  Inspiration on the wall.

Machines machines machines.

Xylophone frames.

CD holder.

Headboard with built in lighting.

Wine box and coasters.

Cosmos lamp.

Rosewood mirror.

Exception lamp.

The shade on these light fixtures is made out of industrial insulation material!

50 inch pedestal lamp.

Custom media installation.

Arington table.

Tavernita restaurant.  All wood paneling designed and crafted by bke designs.

Falafill restaurant, Oak Park Illinois.  All wood work fabricated by bke designs.

Brian – fire dancer.


Keys to Custom Furniture – And A Festival! posted a great article in anticipation for the Design Harvest festival going on this weekend.  First, check out some excerpts from the article below.  It’s all about what to know when having custom furniture designed for your home.  We were most excited to see Unbranded Designs friend Dan Sullivan, of Navillus WoodWorks, featured in the piece!  Stay tuned for Unbranded’s own interview with Dan, which we will be sharing right here on the blog very soon!  As a sneak peak, take a look at Dan’s beautiful custom media cabinet pictured above.

Second, make sure to check out the Design Harvest festival!  It is being held this weekend, September 29&30, on Grand Avenue between Damen and Wood.

“Commissioning a custom piece is similar to having a suit custom-tailored versus buying off the rack,” says Carson Maddox, who will be showing work at the fest. “The one off the rack may work just fine, but nothing can compare to the fit, finish and feel of something crafted just for you.”

Commissioning your own special snowflake can be daunting for first-timers, so we talked to some artisans, dealers and designers to demystify the process.

1. The price might be right. Custom furniture isn’t necessarily more costly than ready-made pieces from a showroom or chain store, and can even be less expensive. “A large furniture manufacturer has a lot of invisible factors involved in its pricing structure,” say Jordan Mozer of Jordan Mozer Associates. “It has to pay a designer a flat fee and often a percentage of sales, and a factory to make the merchandise. Then there are taxes, shipping, advertising and overhead costs for the retail outlets, such as rent, insurance and even air conditioning. All these costs are rolled into the final sticker price.”

2. Is time on your side? It takes a while to design and build custom furniture, obviously, so it’s crucial to establish a time frame. “Once the project has been defined and designed, I tell my clients it will take eight weeks, give or take,” says Dan Sullivan of Chicago-based Navillus WoodWorks. “It’s not unusual to go through a few revisions before finding exactly the right size, materials and forms.”

3. Size matters. An experienced craftsman can make Goldilocks a bed that’s neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. “I designed a dining room table with eight chairs for a couple who were dramatically different in size,” says Lee Weitzman, owner of Lee Weitzman Furniture in River North. “The husband’s a big guy and his wife is much smaller, so we made one of the chairs shorter with a smaller seat. All the backs are the same height, though, so no one can tell.”

4. Knock off the knockoffs. If you like something you’ve seen in a showroom, on an episode of “Real Housewives” or on the pages of a shelter magazine, buy it and don’t expect anyone to make a discount doppelgänger for you. “Designers specializing in custom pieces already have a signature look and use of materials,” says Arrin Williams, proprietor of The Haymaker Shop, an Andersonville shop that focuses on local independent artisans. “They don’t want to be ripping off or borrowing from other folks’ designs.”

5. Pictures? Perfect. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t feel free to stockpile your smartphone with inspirational images and share them with a designer. “Showing clippings is an excellent way of sharing abstract concepts and visual experiences,” Mr. Mozer says. “I see the world differently than everyone else and don’t always have words to express it; clients are the same way at times.”

6. Go green. Custom gives you a way to control what your piece is made of. Rocky Levy of Chicago-based Icon Modern solely uses sustainable and recycled materials in his furniture, and says reclaimed urban wood is “the only way to go.” His company upcycles trees that have been torn down to make way for new construction, felled in storms, or axed because of age or disease, slicing and dicing them into handsome countertops, conference tables, and stools.

7. Invested interests. Custom furniture can enhance the portfolio as well as the pad. Wright, the Chicago-based auction house, recently put a collection of early-1990s Mozer-designed furniture from a Glencoe residence on the block, and nearly everything dramatically exceeded its high estimate. A sofa estimated at $3,000-$5,000 sold for $25,000. “It was thrilling for us,” Mr. Mozer says, “and I’m sure our clients were pleased that they had a chance to enjoy it for 15 years and then make that kind of profit.”

8. Singular sensation.Perhaps the most obvious reason for having a bespoke headboard or a one-off ottoman is that it’s going to be made just for you. “You will own something that no one else does,” Mr. Williams says.

9. Local options. “There are philosophical issues at hand when you buy locally made furniture,” says Mr. Mozer. “You’re supporting America, and the people that live and work around you.”

10. Payment plan. “Paying in steps allows for a client to maintain control over the commission,” says Mr. Mozer. Expect to put down a small deposit after the initial consultation, with the balance doled out over two or three additional stages, typically after approving designs and then upon final review.

11. Presto change-o. Many people turn to custom design because they have a space that’s oddly proportioned, or they want to turn design lemons into lemonade. Weitzman designed a television mounting system and cabinets to go around unwieldy circular support columns that run through the space of a new condo building, and disguised the sink an Orthodox Jewish family wanted in their dining room. If you’ve got something to hide, a good furniture designer can work magic.

Dwell on Design

Here is a great video showcasing some innovative plastic furniture design spotted at the 2012 Dwell on Design conference in L.A. this past June.  The video is brought to us by Plastics Make It Possible.  Created by the American Chemistry Council, Plastics Make It Possible is an online resource dedicated to providing the most current information on how plastic materials can be used to improve our every day lives.

Check out some of the highlights from Dwell on Design here.  The three day event featured all the latest in modern home creation.  Below are a few stills from the designers featured in the above video.  Enjoy!

This is the Flux Junior Chair by Dutch designers Douwe Jacobs and Tom Schouten.  It is brought to us by Cool Kids Company which distributes innovative children’s furniture from Europe to the U.S.  An adult version of the Flux Chair is also available.  As explained in the video above, this is made of one single sheet of durable polypropylene and can be folded up for easy storage or transportation.  We especially like how this picture is channeling our beloved Linus.  Even better, the back of the chair acts as the perfect shield from that pesky Lucy.

Next we have Loll Designs, which makes 100% recycled furniture entirely out of milk cartons.   These pieces are bright, colorful, fresh, and perfect for outdoor spaces!  Also, their website is having a September sale!  Nearly everything is 15% off!

Deck Chair

Alfresco Table

This is the 111 Navy Chair, or “Coke Chair” by Emeco.  Founded in 1944 as the Electrical Machine and Equipment Company (Emeco), they were commissioned by the U.S. government during WWII to build “chairs that could withstand water, salt air and sailors. Make chairs lightweight and make them strong, build them for a lifetime.”  The 1006, or Navy chair, was born.  In 2006, Coca Cola approached Emeco to make a recycled, Coke version of their iconic piece.  Each chair is made up of 111 recycled Coke bottles, which accounts for about 65% of the total materials used.  Always Coca-Cola, indeed.

Enjoying the Whimsical with Hubert Le Gall

Today we are posting a delightful interview with french artist Hubert Le Gall.

Watch for yourself!

Le Gall elegantly describes his love of making furniture that is art.  Le Gall says art is often taken too seriously.  By making furniture, his creations becomes intimate and functional.

Browse through some of his playful designs below and check out his gallery here.  You can also read this piece on Le Gall from a 2005 feature in the New York Times.

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