BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Builder of the beautiful, dean of detail, and mastermind of the marvelous, architect Phil Liederbach is considered by many to be a successor in both the high style and prodigious talent of the very biggest names of Chicago’s greatest 20th-century builders. A founder in 1991of Liederbach & Graham LLP, Liederbach and R. Michael Graham are known for carefully crafted buildings, whether new structures or restorations. Their houses and apartments mirror their sophisticated clientele, and they keep their firm small in order to personally address each project.
“Every project is different, and we really want it to be a reflection of the individual. For that reason, there’s not really one particular style to our work that people would recognize. We do aim for the level of detail of the 1920s and ’30s, and the higher skill level of the craftsmen of that day. Our clients are very conscious of good design,” Liederbach says.
A recent Liederbach Instagram post featured a drawing of a handrail accompanied by the note: “a molding that must be kind to the hand is worth spending a little extra time on.” Other posts praise the works of major Chicago architects who have inspired, such as Harrie T. Lindeberg, Henry Ives Cobb, and Edwin Hill Clark. He travels frequently both home and abroad for other architectural inspiration.
Looking with Liederbach through images of his work on a recent Zoom conversation, I as particularly struck by the perfectly scaled rooms I saw. Timbered ceilings, nickel silver, white oak floors, and Moroccan tiles accenting a kitchen were all elegant elements casting their spells.
Jay Krehbiel, CEO of Chicago-based Hindman Auctions, and a client and friend of Liederbach’s agrees, saying, “I think of Phil as the true heir to David Adler’s practice here in Chicago. Anyone can build a big house, and many do—most of them are just vulgar. What Phil understands, but that seems lost today, is that the details make a space exceptional, and a space can be exceptional, whether it is big or small. A string course on a building, the bonding pattern and color of bricks, a finial or inlay on a stair rail: that is what Phil’s eye is drawn to and what he brings carefully, yet boldly into his work.”
Liederbach confirms this influence, sharing, “A new Georgian townhouse we designed recently in Lincoln Park has David Adler’s influence on it. I was informed by the four row houses by Adler on Lakeview.”
At the University of Illinois Chicago Circle campus, Liederbach studied with Stanley Tigerman: “He was not only a renowned architect but an art historian and philosopher. I learned to step outside the profession.”
Prior to starting his own firm, Liederbach worked at Hammond, Beeby and Babka, now HBRA Architects. He shares an memory of his early days: “Our first house was built 25 years ago for Dennis and Connie Keller with Nancy Traylor as interior designer, and they still love it. At the time we interviewed the kids, it was built for the next generation as well.”
Liederbach, who divides his work in thirds between the city, suburbs, and out of state, is currently working on homes on Lake Michigan, in Wisconsin, and in New York. And no two are truly alike: “Our clients have families of all sizes, it runs the gamut. One family told me that they liked things cozy, and then said they loved hosting dinner parties for 45 and parties for 100-200.”
The partnerships Liederbach creates with interior designers show his ability to insure the overall beauty of the finished home. This dedication to collaboration is mindful of the professional relationship of David Adler to his sister, the legendary designer and arbiter of taste, Frances Elkins, which lasted for over three decades.
But collaboration is often a learned experience and one that takes time, and finding the right fit: “I started out wanting to do everything my way. Then I was very lucky to work with a legend, Imogen Taylor, Colfax & Fowler’s principal designer. That’s where I learned to be a better collaborator.”
Taylor, who often ran 10 projects simultaneous from Chelsea to Chicago, encouraged Liederbach to look to the finished product when an interior designer has completed that work. “I may not know the color of the final drapery fabric, but I know to space the moldings and spread the casings out so that they will work with the fabrics to make them sing,” he says.
“Phil is so talented, he always takes everything to the next level. He is praised as a classicist has traveled through Europe looking at great architecture, but he also does modern work so well,” shares interior designer and Classic Chicago columnist Jenny Brown. “He is very humble, always open to collaboration with the client and the designer, taking it all through his brilliant mind. Ideally, the architect and the designer should be on the same page. Phil makes that possible.”
Although he is regarded as a heir of David Adler in his classic approach and sense of detail, the variety of his work ranges from Art Deco designs in the 1929 Palmolive Building to the early colonial in Oakbrook to a Louis XVI-style home using La Lanterne in Versailles as precedent.
An example of this nod to classical style is the de Gournay hand-painted wallpaper Liederbach utilized to sublime success in a summer house inspired by an 18th-century garden folly in Salem.
Sometimes the architect must focus on bringing the outside in, through details inspired by nature, and other times the attention falls to a home’s surroundings: “Outdoor spaces are even more appealing due to the pandemic, and we love little gems of gardens—you can take delight in even small spaces,” he says. “We love to draw people to our windows.”
With a pitch perfect attention to detail and triumphant collaborations with some of the finest interior designers, landscape architects, builders, and importantly, many gifted craftsmen over the years, Liederbach and his talented partner, Michael Graham, have been creating work that will endure.
Liederbach & Graham, Architects is located at 500 North Wells Street, Chicago 60654. For more information, call 312-828-0900 or visit liederbachandgraham.com.