Resourceful Renters | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Resourceful Renters 

Rob Roy Campbell & Dana Carter

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Space 2,000 square feet | Rent "less than $2,000"

Two thousand square feet sounds like a lot of space, but when Rob Roy Campbell and Dana Carter moved into this former furniture factory loft nearly three years ago, they knew they could get even more out of it. Campbell, who makes microphone amplifiers and other recording equipment, and Carter, who's working toward an MFA in studio arts at UIC, needed to organize a lot of tools and supplies but wanted a comfortable living area. That meant taking advantage of the 14- to 18-foot ceiling by building semiopen platforms, which would also preserve the light and view from the western wall--the only one with windows.

Fortunately they had an agreeable landlord and no compunctions about getting their hands dirty. Carter knew her drywall from doing art installations, and as a teenager in Barrington Campbell had helped his father, a Scottish immigrant, build their family home. They added walls to one existing platform to create a semiprivate bedroom, cutting holes for an indoor window and a small opening for the cat, which likes to use the exposed pipes (thoughtfully planked with wood) as a catwalk. Carter installed and finished what she calls "super cheap" oak plywood for the floors (and on a recent visit to Seattle was pleasantly surprised to find the same material lining the escalators at the new Rem Koolhaas public library).

When he built the platform over his work area, Campbell wanted to improve on the ladderlike stairs he'd made for the bedroom, but he didn't want them to jut out too far into the room. He found the solution in a photo of a ship's staircase where left and right steps were staggered to make the steep climb easier. Below decks, Campbell's homemade plate reverb--a huge suspended steel disk that's used to create reverb during recording sessions--functions as both sculpture and divider. When Campbell's nephews visit, he says, they like to hang on it and spin around. "They think it's like Swiss Family Robinson in here," says Carter.

Many of the couple's furnishings come from the immediate neighborhood. "This industrial corridor turned out to be weirdly convenient for acquiring things," says Carter. A heavy fire-escape ladder left behind by previous occupants is hung horizontally in the kitchen as a pot rack, and the wood-framed windows now installed in the bedroom had been abandoned in the alley. The floral-print, wood-framed sofa came from a nearby Goodman Theatre prop-warehouse sale.

When the Baby Factory in Lincoln Park was about to be demolished to make way for DePaul University housing, the couple bought a bunch of long tables and carts on the cheap, adding wheels for easy maneuvering should Campbell want to rearrange the room to record a friend's band. Homier touches include a working Victrola, a glass-front bookcase put into use in the kitchen, and a paper parasol rigged as a lamp shade.

Now Campbell and Carter enjoy nearly unimpeded sight lines through the space to the industrial rooftop topography outside from almost everywhere in the apartment. The space and the view, says Carter, "have been inspirational in both of our work." The only drawback is that it might be difficult for them to give up when they're in a position to buy a place. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to live in a regular home," says Campbell.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.

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