Co-Working, Chicago Style

1871 is a creative incubator for the city’s thriving tech community.

Co-working spaces are popping up all over the world, social and creative hubs for people who want to get out of their basements and into a professional workspace but don’t want to take on the costs of rent and equipment on their own. And like 1871 in Chicago, they have also become important creative hubs and business incubators.

Named after the year of the Great Chicago Fire--and inspired by the tenacity, ingenuity, and innovation required to rebuild the city afterward--1871 is a not-for-profit co-working space and business accelerator where digital start-up entrepreneurs can work, network, and be mentored.

Located on the 12th floor of Chicago’s historic Merchandise Mart and designed by Gensler’s Chicago office, the space has become the epicenter of Chicago’s thriving tech community. It provides a growing network of more than 400 entrepreneurs with 24/7 workspace, classrooms, conference rooms, and social spaces that encourage collaboration, creativity, and business growth. Networking events and workshops are also a draw for entrepreneurs trying to launch their digital start-ups or make connections.

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It was critical that the space and infrastructure be adaptable to support a wide variety of possible uses and be customizable by users as their businesses grow and change. So the space is a 55,000-square-foot flexible shell ready for digital entrepreneurs to customize their own work areas within. Varying membership levels allow tech hopefuls to lease a desk or an entire suite.

The Gensler team worked with the Chicago Artists Coalition to commission three local artists to create original, large-scale murals for the space. The murals by Ruben Aguirre, Justus Roe, and Chris Silva cover more than 180 feet of stationary walls in the hub’s vast open entry space.

Graphics are used simply and judiciously in the space: in addition to the vibrant murals, they include a large-scale neon “address plaque” and the 1871 story transformed into a bold typographic treatment in the entry/lounge. And since it’s a space about creativity and collaboration, chalkboards and whiteboards abound.

1871 opened in 2012 and has not only played a huge role in growing Chicago’s burgeoning technology companies, but has been the model for many other co-working spaces like it across the country. The city of big shoulders, with its roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-it-yourself mentality, is once again leading by example.

A story in the Chicago Tribune summed up 1871’s importance to the city: “If the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 has come to symbolize the city’s rebirth, then tech incubator 1871 has come to symbolize Chicago’s recent economic new growth.”


Client: 1871
Location: Chicago
Design: Gensler
Design Team: Todd Heiser, Carlos Martinez (design directors), William Kennedy (project manager)
Photos: Antuany Smith/Gensler

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