By Lisa Napoles
The emergence of the Second Chicago School of architecture following the end of World War II brought together a community that shared an enthusiasm and a vision for new design idioms. One of the magnets that drew members of this community together was the Baldwin Kingrey furniture store, named for partners Kitty Baldwin Weese, wife of architect Harry Weese, and Jody Kingrey Albergo. While they were neither architects nor designers themselves, together they promoted the Modernist aesthetic in Chicago, and by educating influential interior designers, architects, and consumers alike, popularized designs and designers now considered modern icons.
Photo (right): Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo at Albergo's wedding, 1951 Photo credit: Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957
Harry Weese first conceived a modern furniture store while studying at MIT. He would revisit the idea frequently in the years that followed, as evidenced in the recurring notes found in the sketchbooks he had started keeping during his studies, a habit he would maintain for decades to come. His diary entry for March 16, 1943 outlines his thoughts for
“a shop gathering together beautiful and useful modern objects… Important and anonymous discoveries – subcontracted and assembled pieces of my design; foamed and webbed couch in church pew form, telescoping coffee tables of magnesium or plastic, chests of trays, South American fabrics from Peru, grass matting to a special design from Venezuela, music, restaurant adjacent, movies, bar, a small haven for those interested.”1
At the time of this entry, two years before he would marry Kitty Baldwin, Harry Weese imagined his sister Suzanne running the store. Even in its very early conception, Weese imagined the store as accessible to consumers, with “a less snooty annex on Wabash for selling low-cost good design in furniture.”2
In 1947, while Harry Weese was employed at Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, Harry and Kitty attended a party held by James Prestini, an industrial designer and professor at Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design. It was at that party that Harry and Kitty met Jody Kingrey (not yet married to Patrick Albergo), who had worked briefly at Chicago design store Watson & Boler, where she had tried and failed to persuade the owners to carry modern furniture. That evening at James Prestini’s party, Harry, Kitty, and Jody made plans to form a partnership to open a store emphasizing the work of modern European designers, selling retail to the public, instead of through interior decorators.
Photo (right): Drawing for Baldwin Kingrey advertising by Harry Weese, c.1950 Photo credit: The Architecture of Harry Weese
None of the three had previously run their own store, or had sold modern design. However, Jody Kingrey had retail experience, Kitty had learned about art and design from her brother, Ben Baldwin, an architect and one of Harry’s classmates at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Harry had seen modern European design firsthand during an extensive 1937 bicycle trip through France, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and England.
The store was started with funds each of the three partners obtained through loans from their parents. Harry Weese met with Alvar Aalto in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Aalto was teaching at MIT and obtained the exclusive Midwest franchise for Aalto’s Artek furniture line. A storefront was rented just off busy Michigan Avenue, near several other stores and galleries.
Harry Weese designed the shop, including the signage that projected from the façade of the storefront and allowed the name of the store to be seen by those walking in either direction on the sidewalk. Weese also designed free-standing glass and metal shelving systems that divided the storefront space while occupying the absolute minimum square footage and allowing customers to see the objects displayed from every angle. He designed the advertising materials for the store as well, using spare black and white line drawings of furniture and decorative objects arranged in floating compositions.
While Alvar Aalto’s Artek furniture formed the core of the store’s inventory, Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo would add Harry Bertoia jewelry, wooden bowls by James Prestini, textiles by Alexander Girard, Angelo Testa, and Baldwin-Machado, glass by Venini of Venice, and furniture by Borge Mogensen, Kaare Klint, Bruno Mathsson, and Charles and Ray Eames.3Baldwin Kingrey also carried Harry Weese’s own furniture designs, including lamps and pieces fabricated by Artek.
On the store’s opening day, the store drew many visitors eager to see high design furniture available directly to Chicago consumers for the first time. By the close of business on that first day, the owner of a Chrysler dealership had walked in to the store and purchased the entire stock for his showroom on Wacker Drive, leaving the new partners without inventory for several weeks.4Kitty Baldwin Weese described the demand created by the store, “I think there was an outburst, especially when they saw this furniture and other things that were readily available. And I do mean readily! Aalto’s three-legged stool sold for $6.25…. So it was available to everybody, that was part of our real cause.”5
Photo (left): Alvar Aalto Three-legged Stool 60, 1933.
The store opened in 1947, predating architect-planner Benjamin Thompson’s store Design Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by six years. Kitty Baldwin Weese remembered Benjamin Thompson visiting Baldwin Kingrey whenever Thompson was in Chicago. After working for SOM for one year, Harry Weese left the firm and established his own practice in the back room of the store.6This was made possible only because of the store's outright success that provided Harry and Kitty Weese with a reliable income.
Between 1947 and 1957, Baldwin Kingrey occupied an important place among art, architecture, and design circles. Kitty Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo stayed abreast of design trends and sourced new inventory on trips to Europe. The shop served as a salon not only for Chicagoans interested in modern design, but for architects and designers who stopped briefly in Chicago as they traveled across the country.7As the store’s clientele grew, Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo added an art gallery, selecting work from professors and students at the nearby Institute of Design as well as from artists from New York and elsewhere in the country. The gallery hosted diverse exhibitions, from paintings by George Fred Keck, designer of the “House of Tomorrow” at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, to fashion shows, to an exhibition of art produced by children of members of the Junior League, in 1949.8
Baldwin Kingrey hosted the first exhibition of Alvar Aalto’s work in the United States in 1952, which included photographs and plans of Aalto’s buildings as well as examples of his home furnishings.9In 1953, Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo were recognized by the Chicago Home Fashions League “for their successful pioneering of modern design at moderate prices.” Kitty Weese said, “The people that rushed into Baldwin Kingrey weren’t from Lake Forest [one of Chicago’s most affluent suburbs]. They were mostly from the city, and they didn’t have very much money. Instead, they had some sort of new outlook – a vision. They loved the simplicity of our ‘plain furniture.’”11
Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo had created their store with young, apartment-dwelling city residents in mind. However, the influence of Baldwin Kingrey extended beyond the store’s intended audience. A 1957 ad in the Chicago Tribune for a new suburban residential development advertised that the development’s model home was “furnished by Baldwin Kingrey.”
While the aesthetic promoted by Baldwin-Kingrey was embraced by the Chicago design community, it found many critics, including the Chicago Tribune columnist who described,“Modernism is walking around several of the Chicago galleries this month in a most disappointing guise…. Motherwell, Baziotes, etc., from the New York Kootz gallery, perform infantile and inconsequential antics at the Baldwin Kingrey gallery, 105 E. Ohio St.” Describing the work in the Baldwin Kingrey exhibition of Hugo Weber, sculptor and instructor at Chicago’s Institute of Design, the Chicago Tribune said, “Mr. Weber’s sculpture is as attenuated as the bare backbone of a brook trout.”12
Photo (left): Unit Case 111, Harry Weese for Artek, Finland, 1948. Photo credit: Reference Library
In the years that followed opening Baldwin Kingrey, Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo both began raising children and developing ambitions beyond the store. By 1957, Harry and Kitty Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo decided that they had achieved what they had hoped to with their partnership and made the decision to sell the store. Baldwin Kingrey continued through the 1960s and into the early 1970s under the founders’ name, but without the direction of Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo, the store lost its identity as a source for important design. Kitty Weese remembered how she came to her decision, “It was so much fun. Then the children started getting bigger. That was more interesting, but Baldwin Kingrey consumed our life at the time.”13
Accounts of the store from those who knew its owners well share a common thread which attributes the success of the store to the unique qualities of Kitty Baldwin Weese & Jody Kingrey Albergo; their clear vision in choosing designs for the store and the environment they cultivated among clients and members of the Chicago design community. Jody Kingrey Albergo said, “People seemed to kind of come into the world where Kitty and I lived.”14
Stanley Tigerman, who visited the store while a student at the Institute of Design, said “I think that Baldwin Kingrey had a substantial impact on both architecture and design. [George Fred] Keck’s interior design consultant Marianne Willisch, artists, and decorators alike were influenced by products to be found at Baldwin Kingrey.”15
Architect Peter Blake said,
“I remember that there were only two or three important design centers outside Manhattan. They were located in the Boston/Cambridge area, in Chicago, and on the West Coast. Baldwin Kingrey was an important center of that sort, on a par with a design gallery of the kind you would expect to find in the Museum of Modern Art. I cannot recall any other stores of the kind until well into the 1960s.The store was not merely a commercial center but an important cultural center as well. There was no other place in Chicago during those years that spoke so clearly to and for those of us who were devoted to the best in modern design.”16
In The Architecture of Harry Weese, Robert Bruegmann says of the store, “…Baldwin Kingrey was the most conspicuous example in America of the postwar trend to allow consumers to buy modern design directly from retailers…”17In executing their vision of promoting European modern design at prices accessible to most consumers, Kitty Baldwin Weese and Jody Kingrey Albergo succeeded in educating clients and creating a popular demand for modern furniture that allowed other retailers to follow, including the well-known Crate and Barrel chain, which was founded in Chicago.
Decades after Baldwin Kingrey had closed its doors, a Chicago Tribune article covering the opening reception of an Alvar Aalto retrospective at Northwestern University’s Block Gallery (now Block Museum) in 1985 quoted interior designer Norman de Haan, who said, “This is like walking into the Baldwin Kingrey shop.”18
Reflecting on the experience Kitty said,
"It was a very, very personal thing running that store. We worked very hard - and all the time. Harry gave me a book about how to run a retail store. I don't think I ever read it, but he taught me how to do double-entry. I did all the books and ordering. After that there was a sort of rhythm of what sold and what didn't. Jody was a wiz at the sales."19
Photo (right): Baldwin Kingrey display, c.1952 Photo credit: Ferenc Berko, The Architecture of Harry Weese
Lisa Napoles received her Master of Science in Historic Preservation degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives on the South Side of Chicago, where she works in historic preservation.
1Robert Bruegmann, The Architecture of Harry Weese (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010) 28.
2Robert Bruegmann, The Architecture of Harry Weese (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010) 28.
3Robert Bruegmann, The Architecture of Harry Weese (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010) 31.
4Robert Bruegmann, The Architecture of Harry Weese (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010) 31.
5John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 5.
6Kitty Baldwin Weese, Harry Weese Houses (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1987) 11.
7Robert Bruegmann, The Architecture of Harry Weese (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010) 31.
8Lucy Key Miller, “Front Views & Profiles: Annual Affair,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1949, 14.
9“Designs of Famous Finnish Architect to be Shown Here,” Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1952, A1.
10“Women Win Style Award in Furniture,” Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1953, WB.”
11John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 121.
12Eleanor Jewett, “Two Exhibitions of Modern Art on Current List, “Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1948, A2.
13John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 118.
14John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 77.
15John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 123.
16John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 125.
17Robert Bruegmann, The Architecture of Harry Weese (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010) 32.
18“Chicagoing: It’s an SRO gathering despite all those chairs,” Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1985, F2.
19 John Brunetti, Baldwin Kingrey: Midcentury Modern in Chicago: 1947-1957 (Chicago: Wright, 2004) 26.