Freehand Chicago . Chicago


Created by Sydell Group in collaboration with design firm Roman and Williams, Freehand Chicago is a second incarnation of the groundbreaking Freehand concept, reimagining the former Tokyo Hotel as a place to stay as much as it is a state of mind. 

Located in the heart of the lively River North arts and entertainment district, Freehand Chicago is an extension of the Freehand brand that was born in Miami in 2012.  Conceived as a hotel with the spirit of a hostel - communal, aspirational and inviting - this twenty-first century model creates an evocative setting in which travelers can converge to share ideas, stories and dreams.

Roman and Williams was tasked with transforming the derelict Tokyo Hotel through innovative design that acknowledged the history of the hotel, albeit a humble one. They set about layering on top of that past, rather than erasing it, employing handmade craftsmanship and the optimism of workshops and groups of people from the turn of the century onward that treated art, work, family and social life as interwoven, overlapping threads in one big fabric. Roman and Williams embraced the full scope of the hotel’s checkered past and it’s honest American history of real people and real situations.

As the second location for the brand, the DNA of Freehand Miami was the genesis of the design, with new cues taken from Midwestern culture and surroundings. The Arcadian spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, with their focus on communal living and sharing, was referenced in design details, such as a playful use of fabric and textures that reflect the tones of Chicago’s four distinct seasons. Roman and Williams also welcomed the opportunity to reinvigorate the “noir” aspects of the hotel, awakening the dormant soul of the 1920’s-era building, constructed during a period of growth and optimism before the Great Depression. Thus, the original sign on the front of the building has not been discarded, it has been re-activated and layered with the ‘hand-written’ Freehand sign above the old marquee, creating a new and spontaneous exterior experience and beginning a dialogue with the past that continues inside.

In the lobby, with its inherited and updated terrazzo floors, a second edition of the celebrated Broken Shaker mixology bar recalls the relaxed mindset of Miami but with a coziness befitting the Midwestern climate. Here evocative ephemera, such as a vintage pine wallpaper from the 1940s, grace the walls, a reference to the tropical wallpaper of the Broken Shaker Miami. Layered directly on top of the wallpaper by Alpha Workshops, a hand-painted octopus from a design found on a Japanese matchbook cover is a scheme devised by Roman and Williams to serve as an enduring mascot for the space and a tribute to the traditional Japanese restaurant that previously occupied it.

With direct access off of East Ohio Street, Café Integral is a new feature for the Freehand brand. Its painterly tile mural, by local artist Carol Payne, evokes traditional mid-century crafts and embodies a beautiful fusion of the disciplines of art and architecture at Freehand Chicago. Full of dynamic pattern and texture, this piece sparks a conversation with the similar mural above reception, creating an immediate resonance upon entering the hotel.


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Inspired by the communal ethos of historically female Midwestern traditions such as quilting bees and sewing circles, Roman and Williams collaborated with local artisan Sally England to create boldly geometric fabric-driven art pieces, framed by dowels and executed in different textiles. A totemic carving by Crazy Al Evans from Tikimania features animals of the region, and is a focal point in the lobby, invoking the Native American past of area as well as the traditions of great craftsmanship and woodwork.

Focused on the pursuit of exploration, Freehand Chicago’s Living Room in-the-round features fireplaces and books for fomenting further adventures, tucked into its intimate corners. The Living Room is lined in a warm African Sapele, a resonant wood sometimes used in guitars. The architecture of the room combined with the thoughtful placement of its built-in wood furniture form a comforting geometry. Inspired by an original work of art by Stephen Alesch, the ombré murals on the walls capture a subtle gradient in shades of blue. The lobby, café and living room are all enhanced by chandeliers custom designed by Roman and Williams, which punctuate and complete the public spaces. Although a major metropolitan hub, Chicago, with its connection to Lake Michigan, is still strongly connected to nature, and Freehand Chicago successfully blends these two sides of the city.

In the guest rooms, bunk beds are made in Sapele, with hints of deep red, and adorned with tactile, textural, custom pillows by Dee Clements at Herron Clothier. In Miami, the bunk beds were painted bright, glossy colors and inspired by lifeguard stands; at Freehand Chicago, Roman and Williams was inspired by woodworking and honest craftsmanship. The palette and materials are different, but the DNA is the same. The rooms draw inspiration from nearby Lake Michigan in the bathroom tile’s deep blue and green hues, offset by continuous shiplap in Sapele. The firm chose to leave the old windows in place, in the spirit of layering on top of the inherited history of the building. Area rugs designed by Vanderhurd and custom commissioned wall hangings by Sally England and New Factories – following a brief generated by Roman and Williams specifically for artwork on the property - complete the guest rooms.

By combining the building’s colorful past with the communal spirit that gave rise to some of America’s greatest arts and craft movements, Roman and Williams have activated at Freehand Chicago the same sense of community and camaraderie that animated the area for centuries. Thoughtful and imaginative, the handmade craftsmanship combined with an earthy bonhomie create a space and an experience that is at once evocative and invigorating.