And the Award Goes to …

Marshall Erb Design is recognized by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) for its contemporary-yet-timeless take on the offices of Sweeney Scharkey & Blanchard in Chicago.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

On October 1, 2020, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) hosted its annual design awards ceremony—the Celebration of Design: Design Excellence Awards—to honor this year’s esteemed winners. Joined virtually by clients, friends and family, Chicagoan Marshall Erb, chief interior designer and interior architect at Marshall Erb Design, graciously accepted the ASID Illinois award for Contract by Small Firm. “It’s always wonderful to be recognized by your peers for doing good design,” says Erb modestly, whose gut rehab, design and build of the Sweeney, Scharkey & Blanchard offices was selected for the top honor. “While we [Marshall Erb Design] specialize in both residential and commercial design, we are best known for our residential work. To be entrusted with this major project over a larger commercial firm, and then to have the finished project recognized by ASID… We are beyond honored.”

For Sweeney, Scharkey & Blanchard’s new, expanded footprint at 230 West Monroe Street in the historic Loop district, inside a 29-story tower that was originally designed and erected by Perkins & Will in 1971, partner Jay Scharkey wanted to take an aggressively modern tack. “We wanted to get away from the traditional notions of what a law firm should look like, all that heavy-looking mahogany and brass,” says Scharkey. “At Sweeney, Scharkey & Blanchard, we represent a very sophisticated clientele, so presentation is important. The final design had to not only be a comfortable environment to work in, but also one that projects our foothold in the space.”

Having designed Scharkey’s Hinsdale home in 2017, as well as a prototype office in the firm’s previous location on Washington Street, Erb’s plan for the award-winning law firm was years in the making. “For years we had been laying the foundation for the aesthetic and branding for their future headquarters,” says Erb. “From the custom leather upholstery in the lobby down to the stock of the stationary, we took our time to edit, hone and source.” And, according to Erb, there was no shortage of inspiration to tap. “Scharkey has an extensive art collection that includes significant paintings by Michael Lentz and Michael T. Boyle,” adds Erb. “He’s also an astute sartorialist who’s no stranger to Saville Row. Like a custom suit, we wanted to layer in tony textures—think top-stitched Herman Miller chairs in a camel-colored leather, curvaceous marble-topped accent tables designed by Steve Leung for Theodore Alexander, and steely gray carpeting by Milliken featuring a pattern that was inspired by Japanese shibori fabrics.”

Starting with the layout, Erb incorporated a luxe lounge for breakout meetings and mingling, and made sure to allow for ample, gallery-like wall space for the firm’s ever-evolving art collection. He also carried the subtly veined Atlas Concorde porcelain tile from the building’s common hallways into the reception area for visual continuity. “At the time, a new, more modern common aesthetic for the entire building was being rolled out,” shares Erb. “We sourced the same tile and now there’s continuous flow between the public space and the law firm. It was important to us that the suite’s look harmoniously align with the flavor of the building instead of fighting it. I sought a look that was coordinated yet elevated.”

Set on an elegant and airy vibe that would continue throughout, Marshall Erb Design prioritized the firm’s independent workspaces. To give the partners’ offices extra personality and posh, Erb collaborated with Gianni to custom design and develop a system of rift-cut white oak floating desks and credenzas. “The Gianni pieces are at once modern and elegant, refined and tailored—and conducive to productivity,” says Erb, who carried the system into the conference room and “war rooms” (smaller meeting spaces), too. “Floating cantilevers, contrasting materials and intersecting planes drove the designs for the furniture. Our ‘Silver Birch’-finished system for Gianni is unobtrusive and boasts beautiful waterfall edges. The collection would have been launched at NeoCon had that happened this year.” For the coordinating chairs, Erb opted for first-in-its-class ergonomic seating from Herman Miller in the offices and stately Steelcase chairs in a quilted gray wool for the conference room.

“Marshall has a heightened understanding for the interplay of materials from the floor to the ceiling and everything in-between—things most of us aren’t organically mindful of,” says Scharkey. “The layperson can look at inspiration pictures all day long, but in the end you have to trust your designer—and with Marshall, it always comes out right. He has the vision to see the intangibles and pull all of the elements together, building in contrasts to add depth, texture and meaning to a space. I never in a million years would have chosen the carpet he selected. I couldn’t envision it. But Marshall could see it in his mind across all 6,000 square feet. I had to trust him and he was spot on. It looks like this vintage, woven Japanese tapestry. Everyone comments on it because it’s just so unexpected.”

As for final polish, Erb selected silk throw pillows in traditional Thai woven patterns from Jim Thompson Fabrics and burnished satin nickel floor lamps with Carrara marble accents from Flow Décor before peppering in an elegant mix of case goods from Bernhardt, Theodore Alexander and Modloft. “I love doing commercial work because it's a totally different methodology than residential,” says Erb. “The decision-making process tends to be more practical and less emotional. But in this case, I already had the client’s eye trained in my brain. The partners gave me carte blanche and trusted in my vision to take risks. The end result is a thoughtful, artful and welcoming workplace that skews more residential than commercial.” Adding, “As a design firm, we’re always looking for new ways to stretch our wings, to prove that we have multiple songs in our repertoire, and this project allowed us to do just that. And to be acknowledged for our hard work by a panel of judges from across the United States and members of ASID International, well, that’s just icing on the cake.”