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Inspired Environs

A renowned designer decks out his Loop abode in art and texture.
 

One of designer John Robert Wiltgen’s prized possessions, artist Bruno Surdo’s painting “Life”

It’s a long walk from the elevator at Metropolitan Place to designer John Robert Wiltgen’s upper-floor condo. The Loop building was originally the headquarters and manufacturing facility for Chicago-based Florsheim Shoe Co., and it was built in a sprawling U shape to allow plenty of natural light to reach the shoemakers and leather tanners who once worked there. The building’s top four stories, including the one where Wiltgen’s condo is located, were added during a late-’90s renovation by the architect George Pappageorge, and there are at least a city block’s worth of twisting hallways to traverse before you reach Wiltgen’s front door. This could be seen as either an epic trudge or a great way to build anticipation, depending on how you look at it.

Either way, the payoff is rich. Wiltgen’s two-bedroom home is a study in dramatic effect, from his striking hall of mirrors-inspired entryway to the tall bank of windows overlooking an unheard-of 1,000-square-foot terrace with views of the beaux arts Union Station and the South Loop.

“You just don’t get that in the Gold Coast,” says Wiltgen, who previously lived on one of the original, more loft-like lower floors in the same building for 13 years. “The terrace is the reason I moved to this unit. I never thought I had a green thumb, but I spent every weekend last summer planting and weeding.”

When Wiltgen and his partner bought the condo, much of the floor plan was devoted to a large kitchen in what is now the living room. “There was nowhere to entertain,” says Wiltgen. “We ripped it all out.” The space is now filled with plush sofas and chairs in Wiltgen’s warm, military-green-and-mustard color palette, and a new, smaller kitchen is tucked away on the other side of a wall that now showcases Wiltgen’s pride and joy: “Life,” a 17-foot painting by the artist Bruno Surdo. The work is a provocative meditation on the human condition, and it’s such a showstopper that party guests—including, recently, the burlesque queen Dita Von Teese—often pose for photos in front of it. Wiltgen stumbled across the work while browsing a West Loop gallery with a client one day. “It was between a new car or the painting,” he says. “I got the painting.”

A hall of mirrors-inspired entryway

Inspired by historic homes filled with great collections, art has become so much the focus of Wiltgen’s aesthetic that, whether in a client’s home or his own, he hangs and carefully lights paintings, sculptures and prints before he even thinks about furniture. (Wiltgen has designed no fewer than 21 units in Chicago’s Trump Tower, and one of his current projects is the interior of a massive compound on Africa’s Ivory Coast.) He’s not a shy collector: Elsewhere in the condo, there’s everything from elaborately framed Picasso sketches to a huge, glossy photograph of two nudes partially painted in an artist’s blood. “I once heard a bit of art advice: ‘Buy the piece that disturbs you the most,’’’ says Wiltgen.

Wherever there is not art in Wiltgen’s home, there is texture, like the custom embossed Italian leather in the kitchen that handily covers such mundane details as the refrigerator and cabinets. Nearly the entire ceiling of a small hallway powder room is taken over by an unapologetically glamorous crystal light fixture, and in the master bedroom, upholstered walls and generous floor-to-ceiling curtains create a soft, dark cocoon for sleeping. Even an electric panel near the front door would totally escape notice if Wiltgen didn’t point out that he has cleverly disguised it with yet another perfectly sized piece of art. “I’m big on hiding stuff,” he says. “I prefer to make things pretty.”