I can’t remember exactly when I stumbled on the Chicago architecture and art blog Designslinger, but I was hooked right away: I threw my no-more-e-mail rule to the wind and signed on as a subscriber. For months now I’ve been enjoying a free daily dose of local architectural arcana, illustrated with sun-drenched, blue-sky photos of places I might or might not recognize. It’s like a never-ending, totally random walking tour with a hip guide, delivered in bite-size increments to my computer. And it’s how I know that Athens marble comes from Lemont, Illinois; those weird rows of bumps along the edges of some steeples are called crockets; and the little Gothic Revival tower at 120 S. State, built by the Singer Sewing Company in 1926, nearly became a truck turnaround when the great street was turned into a mall in 1979.
In aggregate, I’m thinking, this will amount to Chicago Architecture 101.
A typical Designslinger missive consists of several arresting images of a Chicago home or commercial building, along with a paragraph or two of chatty text. Take it in, and you’ll generally know who designed and built the place, when and why, in what style, with what innovations and intentions, and something about what’s happened to it since. You’ll also know the address, in case you want to take a gander yourself. But even if you’re a regular, you won’t know much about your guide, except that he’s part of a shadowy pair, identified only as Jim and Mitch. Like the Great and Powerful Oz, the force behind Designslinger has kept itself hidden.
Designslinger as we know it appeared in June 2009, the same month that Jim Nedza, the writer, and Mitch Sutton, the technocrat, gave up their life in the art departments of the movie business and moved from LA to Chicago. Nedza is a Chicago native, an IIT architecture dropout who took his first photos of buildings years ago to assist a friend who was a location scout and wound up as a movie art director. In 20 years in the industry, he worked on films like Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and (his favorite because “we got to design everything”) Galaxy Quest. That life—a freelance career entirely dependent on contacts—”was a blast,” Nedza says. “But as we got older”—he’s now 55, Sutton 52—”our contacts were also getting older, and it was harder and harder for people to get work.” They started blogging casually to fill the gaps between gigs, and began thinking it might be time to move on.
In Chicago to visit, they went apartment hunting “on a lark” and wound up with new digs near the lake at Montrose. Nedza is a former docent for Los Angeles Conservancy tours with a passion for history; he says they’re both also architecture and photo “freaks.” Besotted with their new environment, it dawned on them that they could make Chicago architecture the subject of their blog.
“We just go out, usually on a really great sunny day,” Nedza says. “We may take 40 photographs of a building, and generally use three to six. Working in the film industry taught us a lot about what you need for good pictures. For a long time we just had a little point-and- shoot camera. You can take a pretty damn good picture with a simple camera if you’ve got other things working for you—like good subject matter, good light, and a good angle.”
Once they fix on a building and photograph it, Nedza combs sources like newspaper archives, fire insurance maps, and property searches, “looking for a story.” He estimates that he spends four or five hours on research and writing for each item, while Sutton puts in about three hours posting and “doing SEO stuff.” They’ve never had advertising on the site, and it doesn’t generate any income, but that’s not a big issue right now, Nedza says, since “one thing you can do in the film industry is make a lot of money.” As for hits: “some days 1,000, some days 2,300,” Nedza says. “Why we’ve invested so much time and energy into this thing, I can’t tell you, except that we absolutely love doing it.”