Opportunity at the Center of the Activity – Merchandise Mart, Chicago

(Aug 2016)

The Project and Background

At 4.2 million square feet, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart (theMART) is one of the largest commercial buildings in the world. Opened in 1931, it was envisioned by prominent Chicago retailer, Marshall Field to serve as the nation’s central marketplace for wholesale goods. To that end it held more tradeshows than anywhere else in the US in the 1940s and 1950s. It continues to play a vital role in Chicago and the nation’s economies today, evolving and adapting with changes in the way business is done today. In recent years, it has become the hub of Chicago’s start up community with two major incubators, 1871 and Matter occupying spaces on the 12th floor. Most recently, food giant ConAgra relocated its corporate headquarters from Omaha, Nebraska to 170,000 square feet of space in the property. To keep up with this latest surge in vitality, theMART just completed a $40 million renovation of its public spaces on the first and second floors of the property. The transformative renovation is designed to complement the creative energy and talent of its tenants and visitors. Renovations included space known as The Lounge: a multi-purpose space with spectacular views of the Chicago River and skyline, located at the top of The Grand Stair.

Problem Statement

Leadership at theMART viewed The Lounge as an experiment, during the early days after renovation. Given its central location, open floor plan and abundant natural light, leadership asked students in the IIT, Institute of Design, Design Thinking Course to consider how the space might be evolved to leverage all that theMART has to offer and further help distinguish it as the central hub for innovation and business in Chicago.

This project was a quick sprint of just one week. We spent the first two days doing field observations, ethnographic research, gathering insights from primary observations, interviewing the leadership team and framing the opportunity.  The third day was spent identifying and prioritizing opportunity areas in order to transform the insights from the day before into feasible ideas and concepts. Day four consisted of turning our ideas into tangible prototypes and concepts. The final day culminated in a presentation of our suggestions and concepts to the leadership team of theMART.


Given the research and insights we gathered, we understood that users of the space were interested in gathering there to relax, chat with friends, have some alone time and enjoy the views. Therefore, our solution was to suggest transforming the space into a relaxation paradise sectioned off into parts that catered to the different audiences: solitude seekers, group recharge space and social users. This space would also meet the needs of the leadership team by being available for events, movie screenings on their grand staircase and immersive sensory experience timeslots for rent.


For the leadership

  • Generate revenue for the building by renting the space after-hours for events
  • Rent the sensory area to companies in the building as an added employee bonus
  • Attract companies by providing spaces that their associates would enjoy using to recharge during work hours

For the community

  • Build community between associates by allowing for creative free-time spaces
  • Give users the ability to explore different parts of the world in the sensory room while also recharging through relaxation and silence
  • Allow quiet spaces, vertical and horizontal, for those workers who need some alone time to focus solely on work
  • Encourage social bonding through activities centered around the grand staircase seating and large screen
  • Utilize greenery and sunlight to give users a feeling of being outdoors while being able to escape the often unfriendly Chicago weather

Solution Process


  • theMart leadership team
  • theMart residents
  • theMart residents’ employees
  • Outside renters

Research & Insights

  • theMart leadership team envisioned the area generating revenue while also acting as an added benefit space in order to attract employers interesting in renting their office space.
  • Those companies currently renting space in theMart saw the area as a ‘get-away’ for their employees to take a midday break or an informal meeting with colleagues.
  • Employees who worked in theMart space also saw the area as a get-away that allowed them to connect with other colleagues, meet new people, enjoy the Chicago skyline and river, while also having space to work alone, if needed.
  • According to ethnographic research over the course of an afternoon, we observed groups of people sitting together in order to chat, work silently or both. We also noted several lone workers and scattered quiet meetings.

Key Takeaways

  • Given the emphasis on the companies and employees currently in the building and the desire to attract more, it seemed as if highlighting the relaxation and community aspects of the space would appeal to all parties.
  • Since it was important to the leadership that the space also provide an additional revenue stream, creating a featured attraction that would cause buzz and encourage people to gather at that location also surfaced as an important factor.
  • The space also needed to be able to cater to all primary users – solo workers, office meetings, social groups and relaxation seekers.


  • Immersive relaxation room
    • Take a corner of the space that would act as an immersive sensory chamber, complete with swings that allowed users to relax while enjoying scenery from around the world and taking ‘trips’ while in the comfort of their office building.
    • This would allow a total unplugged experience for intervals of 15 minutes while users explored a different part of the world.
    • Companies would be able to pay a small monthly fee for their associates to book an open slot at any time or location they desired.
    • This area would also be open to the public for bookings, after office hours.
  • Vertical office nooks
    • These tree-house-like office pods would be accessible via vertical staircases and be complete with outlets and small laptop tables.
    • The vertical spaces would be connected and intertwined by a walking path for those who found relaxation through movement.
  • Big screen scenery
    • At the foot of the stairs, where the large blank wall stood, would be equipped with a projector that would allow calming and serene scenery to be displayed during the day.
    • After office hours, this same wall would double as a space to screen films, rent out for events, premieres, sporting event screenings etc.
  • Greenhouse effect
    • The entire space would be surrounded, top and sides, with plant life, creating a healthy, refreshing atmosphere to take a quick break, walk around, meet a friend or have a work meeting.
    • This effect would the added bonus of boosting spirits during cold Chicago winters

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