More years ago than I'd like to say, I moved into a charmless cinder block dormitory on the campus of a land-grant university about eight hours away from my suburban Chicago home. To assuage homesickness and spruce the place up a bit, I hung a print of Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks” — one of the paintings I always visited on youthful trips to the Art Institute. Many a budding cultural hipster has done the same over the years with favorite artists. But museum gift shops and bookstores have become increasingly prominent ways for institutions to raise additional revenue and “brand” the most famous items in their collections. (If I wanted, I could now sip my morning coffee from a Nighthawks mug.)
Whether you're hoping to outfit your own office, dorm or home, or just looking for a memorable gift, the following shops offer a dizzying variety of choices.
Chicago Architecture Foundation
If you ever visit Glasgow, you will quickly notice all the shops featuring items inspired by Scottish Art Nouveau designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The locals even have a phrase for the stuff — “Mockintosh.” I've long thought we need something similar for the deluge of Frank Lloyd Wright bric-a-brac in Chicago stores. Still, though it's easy to roll one's eyes at all the Prairie School decorative options, a stroll through the Chicago Architecture Foundation shop (perhaps before taking one of their tours) provides plenty of opportunities to collect Wright-like artifacts in a range of prices. A small-scale model of a Taliesin floor lamp, echoing the square boxes and plywood shields of the original, may seem high-end at $199, but try buying the full-scale one, and you'll see you're coming out ahead. And it's easier to take home.
As expected, there are also books galore about architecture and design, 3-D puzzles and Lego architecture for the budding urban designer in your home, and elegant sleek kitchen utensils that look too nice to actually use in slicing and serving humble vegetables.
But on my last trip, the item that tickled me the most was a simple T-shirt, designed by University of Illinois at Chicago graduate Zachary Morrison and depicting the Fab Five of modernist architecture and design: Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, Eileen Gray (an Irish designer who broke into the boys club with her Bibendum chair, among other achievements), Mies van der Rohe and Wright.
The slogan emblazoned on the shirt? “The Mod Squad,” of course.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation Shop, 224 S. Michigan Ave., 312-922-3432 and architecture.org
The Symphony Store
The shop for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has downsized a bit in recent years and moved to a location near the back of the Michigan Avenue entrance, rather than being right on the street. The new store has fewer books than the previous incarnation (though you can still acquire a paperback copy of Aaron Copland's indispensable “What to Listen for in Music,” as I did several years ago). But the music collection — naturally leaning toward recordings by the CSO — remains strong, with a special section devoted entirely to Maestro Riccardo Muti's work, including a hardcover edition of his autobiography. Even more recordings and performance videos are available online.
And one can also find whimsy among the highbrow — for $27, you can pick up a wooden “fiddle” cutting board — though again, in a violation of “form follows function,” you may think it's too nice to use for its intended purpose. You can also buy your own conductor's baton for $7.50 — whether you're actually a conductor or simply harbor Walter Mitty-esque maestro fantasies of your own is nobody's business.
The Symphony Store, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-294-3345 and cso.org
The Museum Shop of the Art Institute
Still the grandest of dames in the local museum gift shop galaxy, the Museum Shop has expanded since the Art Institute opened the Modern Wing in 2009. The old-school shop at the Michigan Avenue entrance still offers a wide variety of accessories for you and your home, as well as loads of prints and books.
Perhaps as a sign of the increasing awareness museum shops have of pop culture, one prominently displayed volume at both the Museum Shop and the Architecture Foundation store is publisher Taschen's heavy-duty doorstop of a book (two volumes, $59.99) “Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era.”
And in an ironic twist, given the rise of street artist Banksy and “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” you can also spend your consumerist dollars on Taschen's “Trespass: a History of Uncommissioned Urban Art” ($39.99), celebrating the defiance and political rhetoric of street artists around the world.
There is a definite change in vibe for the Modern Wing store. The items on display feel more edited, less cluttered, and the space itself is a bit more inviting for browsing than in the main store. Among the high-end home accessories is a gorgeous collection of mouth-blown glass by North Carolina-based glass artist Pablo Soto.
The Museum Shop of the Art Institute, 111 S. Michigan Ave.; 855-301-9612 and artinstituteshop.org
The MCA Store
The Museum of Contemporary Art always has a killer array of cunning objects; it may have been the first place I ever saw that now-iconic Michael Graves tea kettle ($99), and over the years, I gifted many friends with the MCA's longtime signature T-shirt featuring cartoonist Lynda Barry's “Poodle with a Mohawk.” But for me, what sets it apart is its fine collection of DVDs and other multimedia. Whether you're looking for the selected works of pioneering video artist Bill Viola ($43) or the six-CD/LP boxed set of music by cult/outsider favorite Daniel Johnston ($84.95), both the physical and online versions of the MCA store should be on your shortlist for the kinds of gifts that will make the hard-to-please cognoscenti in your life sit up and say, “Wow, where did you find that?”
MCA Store, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; 312-397-4000 and mcachicago.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times