Artwork inside Patric McCoy's North Kenwood condo Credit: VAM Studios

Where you live is, for better or for worse, an expression of who you are. Some people, though, are better at expressing themselves through design than others. The new traveling exhibit “Everyone’s a Designer/Everyone’s Design,” which has its opening reception tonight, celebrates five especially distinctive Chicago homes.

The staff at Illinois Humanities chose the five homes, each from a different corner of Chicago, and one which no longer exists. Jennie Brier, a historian at the University of Illinois-Chicago, sat down with the homeowners for a recorded interview. The interviews will be screened at the exhibition, which will travel throughout the fall and winter to the neighborhood where each of the homes is located before concluding at the Chicago Cultural Center.

“It was an incredible thing to do, to go to different places, talk to people, see the neighborhoods,” says Brier. “In a couple of cases, the homes were built from almost nothing, and they were renovated in way that was so dramatic. It was also incredible to see how deeply heartfelt their experience of designing the interior of their home was, how it reflects who they are, what they think of the home, what they think about their role as residents in these homes.”

The homeowners are:

Pipes and gauges inside Tim Heppner's net-positive energy home in South Chicago
Pipes and gauges inside Tim Heppner’s net-positive energy home in South ChicagoCredit: VAM Studios

Tim Heppner, who was trained as both a carpenter and environmental scientist, renovated his house in South Chicago, originally built in 1875, to be a net-positive energy home. “He’s grown all the food he needed for a year, he collects water and sends it back into the wetland, he’s situated the house so it uses no purchased energy to function, whether it’s heating or water,” says Brier. “It works.”

An antique plate from Yolanda Anderson's pink house in Austin
An antique plate from Yolanda Anderson’s pink house in AustinCredit: VAM Studios

Yolanda Anderson’s Victorian mansion is known throughout Austin as “the Pink House.” Her father painted it when the family moved in in the 1980s, and Anderson and her family have maintained the color scheme, both inside and out. The house has survived several fires. “They’ve created an incredible world inside the space,” says Brier.

Patric McCoy’s condo in Kenwood isn’t interesting because of any architectural features—Brier describes it as “completely ubiquitous”—but because of what it contains. McCoy has covered every surface with work by contemporary African-American artists. McCoy’s father had wanted to be a painter, but he was turned away from art school after the administrators discovered he was black. Now McCoy runs a program called Diasporal Rhythms devoted to appreciating the art of the African diaspora.

Photo paper dolls from Karen and Mike Williams's West Ridge bungalow
Photo paper dolls from Karen and Mike Williams’s West Ridge bungalowCredit: VAM Studios

Mike and Karen Williams painstakingly restored their West Ridge bungalow to its original glory and have filled it with photographs and art made from photographs, including a collection of paper-doll cutouts. “This house is really defined by light and wood,” says Brier. “The way the beveled windows catch the light, the wood trim. And photography is a medium of light.”

The final home, the one that no longer exists, belonged to Francine Washington. It was an apartment in the now-demolished Stateway Gardens public housing project. Washington was one of the first residents to move into Stateway Gardens in the 1950s and the last to leave in the ’90s. To Washington, Stateway Gardens was a real community, where everyone knew everyone else. When Washington moved into a new apartment there, she threw a party to repaint the walls, which were painted in a dull, industrial color. “She described an incredible experience of watching people pass colors around, change colors, what it was like to transform a space that some people think of institutional and homogenous,” Brier says. “She said, ‘I need color in my life and I am going to put this color on the wall.'”

During each stop of the “Everyone’s a Designer/Everyone’s Design” tour, there will be a storytelling session hosted by Chicago’s city historian Tim Samuelson and designers Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth during which visitors will be invited to bring in objects from their own homes and tell stories about them.

“It will be wonderful to have things from the east side, the west side, the north side, and the south side,” Brier says. “We know by every measure this is a segregated city. This is one of the opportunities for us to visit each other, to see what’s happening.”

“Everyone’s A Designer, Everyone’s Design.” Opening reception Tue 8/7, 5-7 PM, Calumet Cultural Center, 9801 S. Ave. G, 312-664-3939,, free.