If you’ve eaten at a restaurant designed by Chicago-based Siren Betty Design, you remember it. The firm’s principal designer and founder, Nicole Alexander, has made full-throttle, go-big-or-go-home impact a hallmark of her hospitality projects. “I tend toward a sort of lived-in maximalism — lots of layers, textures and colors, a sprinkling of vintage, and one-of-a-kind art,” says Alexander from her West Town studio where she works with a tight team of six, all-female designers. The Pink Squirrel, Giant, Tortello… What do they all have in common? Smart functional spaces, an unrestrained use of color and, most importantly, an unmistakable command of cool.
Alexander’s residential projects emote her frondeur attitude, too. “Sometimes you see a sofa with the pillows fluffed and arranged just so and you think, ‘Yeah, I can’t sit there, I don’t want to mess it up,’” she shares matter-of-factly. “That’s not me. I don’t want to live in a museum. I want our spaces to say, ‘Come sit down, settle in, get comfy… Let’s hang out and drink rye Manhattans and talk about music.”
From industrial lofts in the West Loop to bungalows in the burbs, she cites fashion and art as constant sources of inspiration for her creative edge — think wallpaper patterns reminiscent of Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s latest runway prints for Rodarte, or sconces that resemble Carlson Garcia sculptures. “I’m a firm believer in being a sponge, soaking up virtuosity from a diverse mix of artists,” says Alexander, who often selects her family travel destinations based on outsider art exhibits and niche cultures she’s hip to learning more about. “Meeting new people, opening my mind up to other prolific thinkers, helps me grow as an artist, and opens up the channels to a world of creative possibilities.”
With the majority of the country sheltering in place, Alexander has taken to social media in support of her favorite artists and craftspeople whose businesses critically depend on e-commerce to weather this storm. Below, she breaks down the American artisans currently fueling her genius — and whose work she’s peppering into her upcoming projects, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s yet-to-be-named, coming-soon restaurant in Chicago and a restaurant in the historic Massey Hotel building in Bentonville, Arkansas. “Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we support artists and vintage furniture dealers by shopping their wares online,” adds Alexander. “Etsy is a great place to find artists, makers and dealers near you. Most have robust Instagram accounts — they’re posting daily and offering curbside delivery.” Get ready to take notes.
Mod Creation on Etsy (Columbus, Ohio)
“Mod Creation is an independent maker of beautiful light fixtures based in Columbus, Ohio. Their aesthetic works in so many kinds of spaces, but we especially appreciate their ability to customize pieces. Sometimes a little extra length on a chandelier or a slightly wider base on a sconce makes a huge design difference.”
Dial M for Modern (Chicago, Illinois)
“This Chicago shop is probably best known for their mid-century modern furniture, but they also have beautiful hand-hewn primitive chairs, Bauhaus pieces, vintage rugs and incredible modern art. They sell their own finds as well as consign pieces for other furniture/art dealers, so there’s always an incredible variety. Plus, they’ll do no-contact, curbside delivery.”
Farnsworth Modern (San Francisco, California)
“When we’re designing a space, we always think about the kind of story we want it to tell. Often, it’s the details that tell the story, which is why we love this shop’s selection of decorative pieces — beautiful ceramic bowls, wooden sculptures, textile art. Rare and one-of-a-kind pieces create a narrative like nothing else.”
EllemennoPegBoard on Etsy (Ammon, Idaho)
“When you think of pegboards, you might think of the old-fashioned brown variety that your grandpa had in his toolshed. But Idaho-based Ellemenno produces some of the prettiest pegboards we’ve ever seen. Siren Betty Design commissioned them to make a custom pegboard to hang fresh pasta from at Tortello restaurant, our client in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. They are such a genius storage solution for all kinds of spaces. A lot of people are probably trying to spruce up their home offices right about now, so this would be a great Etsy shop to check out.”
Modern Manor (Phoenix, Arizona)
“It can be hard to find intact sets of vintage furniture. You’re lucky if you find more than two matching dining room chairs. But Modern Manor seems to do that really well. They also have great art books, vintage posters and billboard signs.”
Antiques on Pierce (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
“This three-story space is jam-packed with amazing finds from more than 175 antique dealers. One day you might find a set of mint-condition Bertoia chairs, another day you might find a red lacquer peacock. It’s not particularly curated, which makes it fun — I always love ‘the hunt.’ And they offer worldwide shipping.”
Elise Hofer Shaw cut her teeth working her way up the ranks at Modern Luxury magazines, including positions as senior editor of CS magazine, founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Men’s Book, and editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Weddings. From 2014 to 2019, she curated content for Sophisticated Living Chicago magazine as editor-in-chief, as well as managing the content for slmagchicago.com. Today, Hofer Shaw runs her own content creation biz, WordSmyth Chicago, and contributes frequently to publications that, er, make life better.