Creating a New Lobby Making the Most of Your Building’s Front Room

The lobby of your building is the first thing residents see when they come home, and the first part of the building any guest (or prospective buyer) sees when they visit your condo or HOA. In light of that, it's important for your lobby, whether it be a sprawling expanse with acres of marble, or a modest vestibule with an armchair and some potted ferns—to be more than just a bare, transitional space. It should be comfortable and welcoming, with appropriate furnishings, attractive lighting, and a tasteful color scheme.

“The ideal lobby has to perform as a multi-functional space,” says Alex Estill, a senior designer with Gooch Design Studio in Chicago. “It has to represent the building, it has to be comforting for residents and appealing for potential new owners. It also serves as the security point for the building and an interaction point for residents and guests and building staff, so it has to do a lot of things.”

Getting Started 

Just getting started on a lobby redesign can seem like a huge, unwieldy task. Before paint chips and carpet swatches even enter the picture, a designer must be selected. Since most people fancy themselves experts when it comes to interior design, everyone's got an opinion—not just on what they personally like, but on what they really don't like. “The selection process can be brutal, because everyone has a friend or a decorator who they recommend,” says one design pro. “It can turn into a contest between fifty people who are all trying out to design the same lobby.”

Other than an interior design death match—which would make good HGTV but probably not result in much progress on your actual lobby renovation—how does one whittle down possible candidates? Most pros recommend forming a design committee to research potential designers, narrow the field down to a handful of professionals whose past projects and aesthetic are in line with your own community's scale and personality, and then bid out the job as you would any other service contract. 

“Communities all have different needs and wants,” says Sandra Dicus, an interior designer with Home Services Direct, a full service remodeling company based in Rolling Meadows. “I think a design committee is a good idea because it separates the details a little more. The board may not be so concerned with the details, so the committee will help everyone get on the same page.” 

This doesn't have to be ironclad, of course; boards in smaller buildings can make design decisions themselves rather than forming a committee. However, if your community is more than a dozen units or so and you do appoint or assemble a committee of volunteers to steer the lobby design process, it's to your benefit to keep the committee on the small side—three or four people, tops.  

“I recommend keeping the committee down to three people,” says one designer. “If you have too many people, it can turn into a catfight.”

Ann Marie Del Monico, ASID, the owner of Chicago-based AM Interiors, was selected as one of two people to serve on the design committee in her Streeterville condo when the building was planning a massive hallway renovation project in 2014. “The board decided it would be too much work for the design committee to make all the choices, and it also would be a question of ethics, so the design committee chose a design firm to work with, with the committee overseeing the firm’s work. We would work with them in terms of colors and choices of finishes,” she says.

“A lot of the conversation takes place before you’re even officially hired,” says Joel Ergas of Forbes-Ergas Design Associates and a Fellow at the American Society of Interior Decorators (ASID). “You have to have an agreement, in principle, on design approach, on budget, on time schedules…that’s all pre-decided before you’re even signed up with the contract…when you do go to contract, you’re following that roadmap.”

Once a design pro is brought aboard and some preliminary ideas are put together, the design committee still has to pitch those proposals to the rest of the community. Both design committees and professional firms should offer their boards and neighbors two or three options when it comes to the final plan so that the board feels like they’re still in control, says Sherry Winchester Schultz, the president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry of Greater Chicagoland.

“Most committees I have worked with worked together to give residents two or three options, and allowed residents to vote for the design they liked best,” Schultz says. “This method seems most democratic, but sometimes you don’t have the luxury of the time it takes to do so.” To help streamline the process, it’s important to have a committee chair, someone who will have a final say should there be split decisions, she adds. “That’s how the committee, designer and board can work together on the vote without stepping on each others' toes and holding the project back.”

Aesthetic Decisions 

Lobby design is a little bit like legislation; when everyone is a little unhappy, you know you're doing it right. “If you’re pleasing everybody, then something is wrong,” Ergas says. “That’s a bad place to start, trying to please everyone. Most of the people we work with are savvy enough to know this. And they very often know up front who the troublemakers are going to be, so they’re ready for it.”

And while aesthetic aspects like paint color and carpet versus rugs are highly subjective and differ between communities based on each building or association's overall personality, there is some consensus among designers about what a lobby should be, existentially. For the most part, the refrain echoed by the pros we spoke to is 'clean and functional,' followed by 'comfortable'—but not too comfortable. 

According to Ergas, “You don’t want deep lounge furniture in a public area, because a lot of people will sit in them and then can’t get out of them. Lobby furniture has got to be built for what they call ‘contract use.’ It’s not residential furniture. It’s proportioned and it’s constructed for heavy-duty use. The biggest giveaway on a do-it-yourself lobby is residential furniture that came from someplace like Ikea,” he laughs. “It’s got about six months to live.” 

When a design pro comes onto a lobby job, Ergas continues, he or she usually starts from the bottom. “You start with the floors, obviously,” he says. “We have done carpeted lobbies, but most of the time the lobby is stone or porcelain tile or some sort of a hard surface that’s easy to maintain and isn’t so fragile.” Carpets do look nice and muffle the noise of foot traffic…but you could have an office pool about when the first impossible-to-remove stain will appear on that nice new rug. Whether your building is willing to foot the cost of regular deep cleaning on carpets and rugs is one of the questions a professional designer will bring up and answer. 

Walls, too, are extremely important. “You’re always looking for where the public comes in contact with the walls,” Ergas says, “and that’s pretty much on outside corners. So if you see that that’s a vulnerable spot, you start your design A: with a choice of materials, and B: with how you can protect those corners and still have it look like it was meant to be. Not like something that the super put up.”

Even buildings with limited budgets can make it all work if the money is spent in the right places (for more on this, see our article on 'Design on a Dime' elsewhere in this edition of The Chicagoland Cooperator.) One of those high-value elements in lighting. “You have to be very concerned about the lighting and the flooring,” says one pro. “You can use paint effectively for a lower priced lobby and can get very good effects. But if you don’t have good lighting, you’re finished. Lighting is number one on my hit parade list.”

As for the actual look of the lobby, that varies depending on the building. While it's probably a mistake to go with something eye-poppingly trendy, “It’s a big mistake to be totally safe and traditionally boring,” Ergas says. “A lobby has got to have some things that grab you. That may come with decorative lighting, or some of the detailing on some of the materials. I pass some buildings and I say, ‘This looks like twenty others I’ve seen this week.’ You want to give your space some identity… something that differentiates it. Maybe there’s a feature wall that no other building has. We’re doing a building now that has a two-story lobby. We’re using great stone material on one feature wall and a very large, overscaled LED chandelier. And that will be an iconic element in that building. Most buildings couldn’t have it because it’s so large, and it’s filling up a two-volume space.”

At the end of the day, remember that while the lobby may be your building's 'front room,' it’s not the same as the living room in your apartment “You're designing a public space or a semi-public space that has to have a residential feel,” says Estill, “And they don’t always go together. It’s a matter of coming up with finishes and details that convey a residential look while being able to hold up to circulation and pets and heavy use. That’s the trick.”                                           

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Freelance writer Christy Smith Sloman contributed to this article.

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