Every day on his way to work in Chicago, Nick Luzietti sketches. He carts his notebook and pencil onto the el train and, plugged into his iPod, draws nonstop until he's deposited downtown. He draws so quickly and furiously that, on at least one occasion, his pencil has flown across the car. "The drawing takes you someplace, like a dream," he says. "That is my moment, the time when I'm most inspired."
Luzietti is the design principal of VOA Associates. Even so, he says, "I don't see myself as an architect and interior designer. I see myself as a director or an artist."
The sketches helped pave his way. Growing up in Cincinnati, he recalls, he used to imagine being an engineer. Until he showed his sketches to his high-school guidance counselor, that is. "He saw them and recommended architecture," Luzietti says. And that's what he went on to study at the University of Cincinnati-the first from his large Italian-American family to go to college.
He switched to interiors in 1975, after five years in architecture. "I was looking for a place where I could show my personality," he continues, a shock of gray curls atop his head. He may be designing serious office interiors, but there's adventure in the approach. "The key is to show who you really are, where you came from," he says. "Society is built on the idea of stripping away personality. I think that's a mistake. You have to get outside the standard procedures and methods."
Computers don't dictate his method. Rather, he relies on cardboard models, sketches, and an interactive process with clients. In that way, he's old-fashioned, but he's anything but staid.
For the Delaware showroom of a company that developed instruments to test bodily fluids, he channeled the human circulatory system. That translated into curved shapes inspired by the concept of a cell's nucleus. For the headquarters of the Chicago marathon, he thought about the parks that runners pass along the way, then used that image to design the meeting rooms as open and spacious "parks" with benches instead of sofas. Nearby, a long wall is dotted with small, round, color-changing LEDs representing the runners. As the wall progresses, the number of lights dwindles to one, a metaphor for the first person to cross the finish line.
Designing his latest project, the Chicago headquarters of the newly merged MillerCoors, he had a large brewing kettle airlifted by helicopter to the top of the building. A real pub serves up beer to employees and guests, and each floor is branded to represent a specific product in the company's portfolio. Sunlight cascades into the open plan, saving on energy costs; 95 percent of the construction waste was diverted from landfill to recycling; all systems and equipment are energy-efficient; and a LEED application is in the works.
One of the projects closest to his heart is Chicago's St. Vincent de Paul Center for disadvantaged and at-risk children. When he asked them what they wanted most in a school, their answer was: "Jacuzzis and security cameras." The former response was silly, the latter serious-but Luzietti took both into account. He designed a play zone in three parts, one of which is a "water area" clad in natural linoleum and used for splashing around with hoses. To address the safety concerns, he installed round windows low enough for children to see the outside, which gives them a sense of security.
"It's my dream to lift ordinary projects to the level of art," Luzietti says. "Art is connected to us being kids." A perfect sentiment for a 62-year-old who's quick to say he's just a kid at heart.