A Landmark’s New Neighbor

“1950 was a bad vintage year,” Stanley Tigerman explained. The architect was addressing a crowd that had gathered last Friday at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to hear about the new Seminary Co-op Bookstore, the interior of which his firm had designed. He gestured to the squarish, uninspiring brick building next door, visible through the Robie House’s delicately patterned stain glass windows. Tigerman McCurry was clearly not given much to work with. But Tigerman explained, with an air of unshakeable confidence, that he and McCurry had not been “skeptical” despite the project’s challenges. His determination to bring to fruition an establishment worthy of existence next to the elegant Robie House was unshakable.

Thankfully for those who loved the cramped and labyrinthine outlet on University Avenue, Tigerman, a longtime Co-op member himself, also sought to stay true to the bookstore’s original charm. In designing the shelves, he tried to evoke that same labyrinthine quality “without being mimetic of it.” He emphasized Co-op patrons’ desire to “get lost in books,” explaining that he tried to convey that same sensation in an environment slightly more open than the famously cramped basement of the old bookstore. To that end, some of the shelves are laid out in a pinwheel, guiding browsers through the environment at strange, “purposefully confounding” angles.

McCurry noted specific details of the design that were included because of its proximity to the Robie House: the welcoming fireplace just inside the entrance evokes Wright’s love for hearths; the rectangular pattern on the carpet, in addition to echoing the rectangles in the Robie House’s design, also mimics the look of a bookshelf. Eagerly anticipated, too, was the debut of the Plein Air Café. Tigerman compared the delays to its completion to “Waiting for Godot”, but he seemed confident that the café would be an integral addition to the establishment once it finally got off the ground.

This move certainly signals a new era for the bookstore, but even in its new surroundings, the Seminary Co-op is not so far removed from its intellectual and architectural roots. From inside a bastion of Prairie School beauty, Tigerman and McCurry assured their audience that they took the utmost care reincarnating this campus treasure, promising that its soul was going to remain the same. As someone who has visited the new Seminary Co-op, it seems to me that Tigerman McCurry has given it a refreshing update we didn’t even know it needed.