In a city known for its architecture, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart stands out. Occupying 4 million square feet and nearly two city blocks — once the largest building in the world — the commanding Art Deco structure sits prominently on the Chicago River, making it a staple of architectural boat tours and easily recognizable to locals and tourists alike.
But what many may not know is that inside, it holds the world's largest resource for custom home furnishings and interior design. And even if you were aware that the Mart is a veritable city of home design experts, you might assume it was only accessible the pros, but you would be wrong!
The Design Center at the Merchandise Mart is home to 125 showrooms and thousands of brands — furniture, fabric, lighting, wallpaper, rugs, and more. (LuxeHome, a group of bath and kitchen boutiques, is conveniently located in the same building.) The Design Center is technically to-the-trade, meaning that they’re not able to handle purchases from the public.
But, there’s a trick to skirting the system: By shopping with a designer, anyone can get access to custom furnishings that can’t be found anywhere else. You don’t even have to bring your own—you can book a free consultation through the Center’s complimentary design consultation program.
How the consultation works
When you schedule a one-hour consultation, the Center pairs you with one of their partner designers like Janet Shiff, who has an office in the Mart. “We’ve been here over 50 years,” says Shiff, who helms Blutter/Shiff Design, the firm started by her mother Joan Blutter. “The Mart has always been my home, since I was a kid.”
These designers know the Mart better than anyone—”I can close my eyes and name every single showroom on every floor,” says Shiff—and they can assist shoppers with any design-related task, whether it’s buying a single item, plotting out the furniture in your living room, or helping you decide which home to buy (something Shiff has actually done).
The 60-minute consultation can take any form. “In one hour, you can learn so much about what a person wants, as well as help that person achieve the goal of what they want to purchase,” says Shiff.
What the shopping experience is like
Shopping the showrooms is how many people choose to spend their one-hour consultation. Shiff explains that some people come in knowing they want to buy a particular table from a specific showroom, while others need more guidance.
For example, if someone wants to buy a 9-foot sofa, Shiff will ask questions such as: Do you have an elevator building? Do you have hallways that make short turns? Will it fit through the door? “There are so many things that we know to ask for that people sometimes just don’t visualize,” explains Shiff.
But Shiff also loves when people simply want a tour of the building. “It’s really fun,” she says. “I will get some idea of their budget and what they like, if they’re contemporary or traditional or in-between, and know what showrooms to take them to. They may have never been in the Mart before, so they get to see things they will love.”
Without a designer, a shopper could pass by a piece on the showroom floor, assuming that it's not to their taste. “They don't know that there are 10 different ways you could design it,” says Shiff. “But if someone is showing you the piece and explaining the finishes—this table could have a glass top instead of wood, a light finish instead of dark—you might like it.”
Why it’s beneficial
If you’re intimidated by the design process, or by the Mart itself, the free design session is the perfect introduction. A one-hour consultation can also be extremely helpful to anyone who just bought a new home, or moved, or had a child.
“If you have a lot of questions before you dive into a design project, and you have a building that has everything you could need, plus a professional for one free hour, why wouldn't you do it?” Shiff says, adding that a little bit of research ahead of time can go a long way toward making the most of the 60 minutes.
After the meeting, the customer can always decide to extend by hiring the designer. The consultation is often the start of a great professional relationship, even if, right now, it’s just about deciding where to place a sofa.
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