By Belinda Lanks
Chicago-based Boka Restaurant Group’s new steakhouse Swift & Sons, couldn’t be in a more fitting location. Housed in a cold-storage facility built in the 1920s in the city’s West Loop, it originally served as the way station for tons of raw meat from the surrounding stockyards for more than 90 years. Now, renovated by developers Sterling Bay and renamed 1K Fulton, the former Fulton Market Cold Storage, as it was known, is home to the lavishly styled restaurant, conceived by New York–based design studio AvroKO as the fictitious headquarters of the very real 19th-century meatpacking titan Gustavus Franklin Swift.
But while the design harkens to the past, it also nods to the future, with contemporary fixtures, LED technology, and a sophisticated lighting control system. “We wanted to have this feeling that the restaurant’s been there, but that it’s been updated,” says Avraham Mor, a partner at Lightswitch Architectural, the lighting design firm on the project. AvroKO achieved that feel in large part with custom, vintage-inspired light fixtures that set different scenes in the 10,000-square-foot space.
The mix of new and old begins at the concierge, where the throwback feel of mosaic-tile flooring and vintage banker’s lamps is offset by a custom pair of ceiling-mounted brass-plated pendants supporting decorative globes outfitted with 40W incandescent lamps. “They set the tone right out of the gate,” says AvroKO principal Kristina O’Neal. “They have the same kind of grandeur we are used to in similar spaces but are done in a very tasteful, almost futuristic way.”
The fixtures’ elongated shape references the piping that once ran along the ceiling and walls of the old warehouse. Lightswitch selected a 3W 2700K LED light tape to install install behind the stained-glass ceiling and up and down the ceiling cove to cast a glow and accentuate the architectural detailing. “Illuminating the distinctive arches and cove ceilings was akin to drawing in space with light and really guides a guest’s visual journey through the venue,” says Adam Farmerie, one of AvroKO’s four principals.
The journey continues through the entry and into the bistro, where custom dual pendants hover over the bar top. The designers based their shape and glass shades, containing 40W lamps, on a “sense of commerce or money handling in the fictional family office,” Farmerie says. Above the dining tables across from the bar, custom glass-shade pendants conceal 25W 2700K LEDs that, to the designers’ chagrin, arrived as 60 CRI, not the requisite 90 CRI; to correct the discrepancy, Lightswitch added a gel to the luminaires to approximate the warm tone of the incandescents. “The key is having a lot of red, especially at a steakhouse,” says Mor. “You want to be able to read that the steak is rare, and if there’s no red in the light source, you will not see the red in the steak.”
In the main dining room Lightswitch used 4W 3000K track-mounted downlights to highlight the mural of grazing cattle on the back wall, and 3W 2700K recess-mounted strips to illuminate the underside of the countertop, uplight the liquor risers, and accentuate the stairs leading to the two upper-level dining rooms. Reproduction vintage tasklights fitted with 40W lamps above the service stations create a lantern effect through the cubicle’s brass-mesh screens.
In both formal eating spaces, the lighting designers added ceiling coves and trimmed them with 3W 2700K recess-mounted strips, to cast a soft, ambient light as an alternative to pin-spotting. “There needed to be a general glow throughout the space that doesn’t feel like you’re living in a cocoon of light,” says Lightswitch’s Mor. A statement-making fixture designed by AvroKO anchors each cove. The main dining room’s wraps around an original concrete mushroom column, from which four antiqued brass armatures extend to hold white glass-globes outfitted with 25W incandescent lamps. “These are almost like retro-futuristic light prosthetics growing from the original building forms to bring new life to the once neglected space,” says AvroKO principal William Harris. To visually divide the sprawling room into two zones, he and his team installed a row of squat, rectilinear ceiling-mounted 40W 2700K pendants with linen shades.
In the private dining room, the focal point is a Space Age brass-plated chandelier with a constellation of glass globes concealing 25W incandescent lamps. Combined with a blood-red carpet, taupe-fabric-covered armchairs, and wood paneling, the fixture creates a more residential feel. Surface-mount 4W 3000K downlights and wall washers supplement the chandelier’s luminous output.
A smattering of surface-mounted 4W 3000K LED downlights helps achieve an even level of illumination throughout the space while keeping energy consumption down to 0.9 watts per square foot. Atop every table sits a brass weighted-base lamp with a battery-pack flicker candle under a glass domed shade—AvroKO’s response to the client’s request for a “never-before-seen” candleholder. Like the other custom fixtures, its unique character, O’Neal says, conveys a “special sense of care and attention to the guest, and ultimately helps mold a memorable dining experience.”
The experience—and the carefully attuned light levels—extends to the bathrooms which are outfitted with bank-vault stall doors, each weighing a hundred pounds. Here, the armatures of a custom brass fixture swoop up the center of the mirror and fall on both sides of the vanity, accented by a 25W glass globe at each end. “We like the light source at the sides in this case,” Farmerie says. “It adds a little bit of drama without being too clinical.”
To keep the lighting consistent from day-to-day, Lightswitch developed an elaborate lighting system with five settings, or “scenes”: on, early evening, mid-evening, late evening, and off. The system uses the DALI protocol to ensures that the LEDs dim slowly and without flickering. “We believe strongly that lighting can affect the mood and feel of a restaurant and the experience of the diners,” Boka co-founder Rob Katz recalls. “In the old days, I’d have all the lights on these manual toggle-switch dimmers, and I’d be running around to get them just right.” Now, switching from, say, early to mid-evening involves pushing a button on a wall-mounted touchscreen or handheld iPad.
To Katz, the lighting system is a welcome technological innovation, but the custom fixtures are what set the restaurant apart from the competition. “When you have these extraordinary fixtures that nobody else has, that’s a special thing,” he says. “For us, they are like art—and some of the best money we’ve spent.” •