Their Home Had to Be Fashion Forward. But Above All Else, It Needed a Killer Closet. - Kanebridge News
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Their Home Had to Be Fashion Forward. But Above All Else, It Needed a Killer Closet.

Ralph Lauren meets Tom Ford inside this sleek and sophisticated Chicago house, which cost $1.8 million to build

Tue, Jan 23, 2024 9:27amGrey Clock 4 min

If Kelli and Fei Wang’s house had a soul, it would be the walk-in closet.

The house, in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighbourhood, is designed around the couple’s love for fashion and includes a 300-square-foot custom closet, with charcoal-suede wall covering and cerused-oak shelves, amplified by a vanity within a 40 x 60 inch mirror. There is a separate accessories side room, modelled after a showroom, where Kelli’s collection of designer bags and shoes sit on shelves and where she hangs out on a silver love seat.

In the couple’s previous home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, they had to change out their wardrobes every season, hauling clothes from their apartment to their storage unit in the building’s basement, because there wasn’t room for it all upstairs.

“I wanted to never do a closet swap again,” says Kelli, 42, dressed in a floaty, cream-coloured shirt dress from Sandro Paris and light pink Manolo Blahnik pumps. “The closet was the first thing I thought about for the house.”

The Wangs bought their Ukrainian Village property for $511,000 in 2016 and tore down the existing 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, old brick home on it. The new house, finished in 2021, is 5,000 square feet, has three bedrooms and cost $1.8 million, with about $100,000 of millwork, carpet and furnishings going into the primary closet alone.

To design the house, the couple hired Dan Mazzarini, the principal of New York-based BHDM Design, who was a director of store design at Ralph Lauren for six years and also worked on Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Kate Spade retail spaces.

Mazzarini knew Kelli from college, and understood the couple’s love for fashion: they’d shopped together many times in New York, where Fei had a special affinity for the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue.

“I wanted to live in the Ralph Lauren store,” says Fei, 46, dressed in a custom-made Pini Parma shirt and a Boggi sweater. “It makes you feel elegant, elevated, and classy.”

As a guide for the house’s overall aesthetic, they decided on “Ralph Lauren meets Tom Ford, a mixture of buttoned up and timeless sophistication and sexy, modern, crisp elegance,” says Mazzarini. That meant a lot of black, white and charcoal.

That mixture can be seen throughout the house. In the living room, open from the kitchen on the main floor, a Ralph Lauren influence can be seen in the classic white sofa, while the angles of the coffee table and the chairs are more Tom Ford, says Mazzarini.

Tom Ford comes out in the kitchen, where the black granite counters, black-matte open shelves and stainless-steel appliances have a “refined industrialism,” says Mazzarini. The dining room has a crafty Ralph Lauren chandelier and white leather chairs.

On the second floor, Fei’s office is “menswear-oriented” It has a modern, crisp, geometric style, with a glass coffee table, an oversize black linen sofa, and dark grey flannel curtains, like a suit, says Mazzarini. The red fox fur and brown velvet pillows, the rosewood desk and the nubby rug add more classic textures.

The primary suite, with its bathroom and the centrepiece closet, takes up the entire third floor. It is designed in part after the Bulgari Hotel Milano, where the couple stayed on one of their first trips to Italy. The furnishings include grey-velvet drapes, an ebony headboard, a leather bench and a large brown-velvet armchair.

When designing the closet, Mazzarini says he asked the couple how many suits, shoes, bags and accessories they had—and that number kept growing as the home-building process progressed, going from around 50 to more than 100 pairs of shoes for each. While the overarching goal was beauty and style, it also had to be comfortable—and to reflect what Mazzarini calls the couple’s “Midwestern warmth and hospitality.”

Fei was born in Shanghai and grew up in Chicago, where his father was getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. Living on a teacher assistant’s budget didn’t leave much for buying designer clothes, but Fei says he “always had an eye for fashion—it was innate.” He says his parents, who grew up when many Chinese people wore blue worker’s suits, weren’t interested in subsidising his passion, so he started working in a clothing store when he was 14 years old. The first suit he bought himself was from Banana Republic.

He graduated from Illinois State University in 1999 and then from the University of Chicago with an M.B.A. in 2004. He went to work in asset management at Morgan Stanley, then to J.P. Morgan Asset Management and UBS before landing again at Morgan Stanley in 2021, where he is now a senior vice president in family wealth management.

Kelli also remembers a passion for fashion from a young age. Growing up in Piqua, Ohio, north of Dayton, she couldn’t afford to buy designer clothes, so she mixed and matched, she says. She graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and went to work at J.P. Morgan Asset Management before moving on to Merrill Lynch and Centric Wealth Management in 2018, where she is currently director of financial planning.

Fashion is central to the couple’s relationship. When they first met in 2008, when they were both working in J.P. Morgan’s wealth management unit in Chicago, each noticed the other’s clothes. “She was chic and classy,” says Fei. “I pay attention to style.” Kelli remembers the first time she saw her now-husband walk by in a suit. “He looked the Wall Street-financier part,” she says.

After their wedding in Lake Como, Italy, the couple honeymooned at JK Place (now called The Place), in Florence, a hotel that also influenced the design of their home. They started traveling to Italy and France every year because they love traveling and shopping together, and they both appreciate the goal of having the best experience possible, whether it is food, art, clothing or design. “The downside of that is there’s no voice of reason,” jokes Fei.

The Wangs say they have passed their fashion appreciation on to their 2½-year-old daughter, Gemma, who loves to hang out in the accessory room of the closet, where she tries on her mom’s shoes. In Gemma’s own bedroom, a shelf is filled with miniature designer bags: Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton. “She has a better sense of style than both of us,” says Kelli.


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”