Entering a Studio Dwell house involves more than just walking up to the front door. A typical outdoor entry sequence at one of the Chicago firm’s custom homes contains a 90-degree turn or two, and also may include stairs and landings before ending at the threshold. “The path is not a direct path to the door,” says principal Mark Peters, AIA. “It’s part of getting people to experience the architecture and the building. We’re getting them to take a pause and look around.”
People definitely have paused to peruse the work of Studio Dwell, one of the Windy City’s hottest young firms. Peters started the company in 2004, after a four-year partnership in a start-up firm, Mass Architect, and five years at Pappageorge Haymes Architects. Initially Studio Dwell designed multifamily projects with a sprinkling of single-family, but once the recession hit in 2008, that ratio reversed. A few lean years flowered into an active 2011, and today the firm is busier than ever.
Peters and his four-person team have become best known for skillfully shoehorning Modern abodes into tight urban lots. They do have a house in suburban St. Charles, Ill., under construction, but the majority of their work lies inside the city. The firm invites generous natural light into its projects, discreetly placing windows to wash walls with the sun’s rays. “When we put windows close to an adjoining wall or ceiling, it lights the adjacent plane,” Peters says. “We use that as a technique to maintain privacy.” Skylights, open staircases, and translucent materials are a few other favorite ways to let light flow throughout a home, even if it’s on a narrow site.
The houses of Paul Rudolph and the Sarasota School have influenced Peters, as have mid-20th-century South American architects. Studio Dwell’s challenge is to translate the classic warm-climate connection between indoors and outdoors into something that works for the Midwest. The firm takes a creative approach to finding spots for exterior rooms, often placing them atop garages and roofs. Many of its homes wrap around courtyards that provide a core of natural light and fresh air to the interiors. In the dead of winter—and on the smallest of lots—clients still have direct visual access to a private outdoor space, ideally with year-round plantings chosen by a landscape designer. And in multifamily projects, Studio Dwell adds terraces, decks, or patios to each unit.
The firm has earned widespread praise for its restrained detailing, winning awards from AIA Chicago as well as three residential architect Design Awards. “Mark understands the critical details of a project and how to make them come together,” says David Miller, FAIA. (His Seattle firm, The Miller Hull Partnership, has used Studio Dwell as its architect of record on two Chicago projects, one multifamily and one single-family.) Purposely limiting its materials palette has helped Peters and his team shape quietly elegant environments that don’t shout for attention. “We narrow down our palette as much as possible to create a calm environment,” says project architect Gary Stoltz. “When you come home, you want to relax. We try to eliminate distractions.”
Peters’ relationship to buildings began during the summers he spent working for his father’s commercial and house painting company in Hartford, Wis., alongside his two brothers. (Today, Marty Peters is a photographer who shoots Studio Dwell’s projects, and Mike Peters is an industrial designer.) Mark majored in architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and earned his master’s at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he met his future wife, fellow architecture student Tamar Myers. The two ran a concrete countertop and furniture business for a few years, calling it Cityspeak after the made-up language in the film Blade Runner.
The couple eventually closed Cityspeak, as Myers shifted into pharmaceutical sales. But the experience of making things has no doubt helped Peters with Studio Dwell’s recent entry into design/build. It started as a fluke: In 2009, a general contractor walked off a project, so the firm stepped in to finish it. That house turned out so well—and building it provided such valuable extra work during the downturn—that Studio Dwell began to build more of its own designs. “Design/build is a much easier process for us, and for clients, too,” Peters says. “There are fewer change orders, because we’re right there at the site.” The firm still works with outside general contractors sometimes, but has built three of its houses so far and has three more under way. “It’s been hassle-free for me,” says design/build client Bill Nudera.
Studio Dwell’s latest design/build project is its new office, which occupies an old mechanics’ garage in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. The firm rehabbed the 3,000-square-foot space, inserting a courtyard and leaving much of the raw industrial character intact. Staffers bring their dogs to lounge under the plywood desks, and Peters rides his scooter to work from the home he shares with Myers and their two children, ages 12 and 16. The studio’s design captures the firm’s low-key yet polished ethos. Says Peters, in characteristically understated fashion: “It kind of goes with what we do.”