Chicago-area organization Designs for Dignity ( D4D ) works with non-profits to redesign existing spaces or help complete new ones.
Executive Director Jen Sobecki said it has grown tremendously since its 2000 start. "We've got a staff of three, a board of 20 and hundreds of volunteer designers that give back their time and connections with various larger firms [and] smaller independent firms that sign up to donate their time and expertise; help us leverage pricing when we can't get donated materials; and then vendors that want to provide materials," said Sobecki. "I think to date we've redeployed over $6 million of excess materials, and we really want to do more."
Organizations that think they might be candidates for a Designs for Dignity project can fill out a grant application. Sobecki said D4D's grant committee looks at what an organization's needs are and the impact D4D can have. That way, it can assemble a team with the appropriate resources and expertise. Often, D4D will work with other firms as part of a larger design effort.
Recently Designs for Dignity has undertaken two Chicago-area projects with LGBTQ connections: the TransLife Center at Chicago House, and the Town Hall senior apartments. Both were challenges: The Town Hall apartments repurposed a 100-year-old building, and the TransLife center turned a former AIDS hospice into a residential center for homeless trans individuals.
"The purpose of the house was changing so significantly," said Cary Filsinger, a designer for the TransLife center. "The first thing we did, in a meeting with Chicago House, was learn what they wanted the house to look like. They are certainly the experts, although a house for homeless transgender persons was largely unique. For instance, with nine rooms, ultimately their goal was to put two people in a room, but knowing the challenge that they'd be dealing with, they wanted to start with one person and one twin bed per room, and then grow from there once they got established."
Filsinger said regular meetings ensured that the designers were meeting Chicago House's needs. "A perfect example was that we wanted to use more colors in the house, initially. And Chicago's House's valid concern wasgiven the kind of use and probably occasional abuse that it might get, given that we're going to have to touch it up[it] really wanted to stick to two or three paint colors. We certainly understood what [Chicago House was] coming from. [The organization] definitely set the tone and it was our goal to sign on to the needs and make sure that was what we were delivering."
"Those are spaces where people lost their lives to AIDS back in the '80s and '90s," Sobecki added. "To see the transformation that that team created, to have breathed new life and to give this population the opportunity to thrive and survive, I think is awesome."
With the Town Hall apartments, D4D assumed responsibility for community spaces since a larger construction firm, Gensler, was already working on the major areas. "It's an affordable housing project, and both D4D and Gensler helped spearhead these workshops with people whoif they weren't going to necessarily live in a buildingwere embedded in the LGBTQ community, or are people who, if they don't live in public housing, are aware of what some of the challenges are when you overlay affordable housing with this particular population," designer Michael Hanley explained. "We had to be very purposeful in helping the owner ultimately determine what some of these common program would be. There was the space, there was the budget. And so these communal spaces become hugely important in capturing some of the top needs and desires of the people who would live there."
Hanley felt D4D was instrumental in creating the space. "From a design perspective, I think that what D4D had to offer with this program was exactly what our team needed and what the client needed in terms of infusing some playfulness and some attitude, frankly, in public spaces or heavily used spaces," he said. "These folks don't have big apartments. These are pretty small living units, so we knew that these communal spaces were extremely important to the overall success of the project. And so our team worked really closely with D4D what was most appropriate for these spaces, not just in terms of color palette and furniture but the overall aesthetic and attitude."
Sobecki feels that word of mouth helps both D4D and their projectsthe Town Hall project came their way through a connection with a volunteer and a housing company, and the Chicago House builders were thrilled with their collaboration. Their relationship with vendors and manufacturers often gets them donations for future projects, and will go to showrooms at the Merchandise Mart and happily collect turned-over product. "When a whole office floor is being upgraded or renovated, where does all of that stuff go?" Sobecki pointed out. "There is so much excess in the industry."
To Sobecki, D4D fills a crucial role. "Hopefully we are that go-to resource for the nonprofits when they're expanding or need simple design services," she said. "With the designers, I think everyone wants to give back in some way, and there's an immense amount of talent in the Chicago area in the design industry. How do we create that outlet for them to give back so they can give back when they have time? The biggest thing for us is really being there every step of the way and looking to advocate on behalf of the non-profit, and then stretch that budget in any capacity possible."
Designs for Dignity's 15th annual gala takes place on Thursday, May 7, 6-10 p.m., at the The Geraghty, 2520 S. Hoyne Ave. Tickets are $150 each; visit www.designsfordignity.org/ .