Made for TV

Metromix - January 29, 2002

The set of MTV's "The Real World: Chicago," where a cast of seven lived for four months to film the show's 11th season, was as awesome as it gets if you're 20-something and sharing a crib with six companions. Or so it would seem.

The set/apartment occupied 8,000 square feet spread out over two floors of a former Bucktown factory. The bathroom alone was the size of most studio apartments, and admirably equipped with sleek, futuristic pedestal sinks, enormous shower stalls and suitably singular lighting. There was a workout room with all the right weight machines, a hot tub the size of a small swimming pool on a deck with a superb view of the city, and a ton of fabulous contemporary art. Due to the building's structure and logistical filming issues, the living area was on the top floor, and the three bedrooms, bathroom and gym were one level down.

As production designer, Suhail, a British transplant and architect who has made a name for himself as one of the city's most creative and edgy young design turks, worked on the development and creation of every part of the place. Suhail filled it with undeniably cool stuff, most of it from local sources. The furniture in the living room was a fusion of what he could build and the work of others in Chicago and Europe. The art was all done by local talent and assembled by Sylvia Chivaranond, a curatorial assistant at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. In the bedrooms, almost everything came from Chicago retailers in Bucktown and Wicker Park, and the bathroom was built and customized by Suhail.

So what was it like to live with such cutting-edge chic? Fascinating? You bet. Fun? At first. Comfortable and homey? Not on your life. "The sofa looked great, but it was so tiny none of us could fit on it," says Tonya, 21, a cast member from Walla Walla, Wash., who's now back at college in Seattle. "It was really just a padded bench, and when you sat on it half of your rear stuck out," seconds Kyle, 22, a cast member from Lake Bluff and a recent Princeton graduate.

The great room, which incorporated a living area, kitchen, game area, home office, and library, was designed so "all of the action will take place in this space, supervising producer Anthony Dominici said while the set was in construction. In practice, it didn't. "It wasn't where we could get real," Tonya says. "All of our living took place downstairs in the hallways, bathroom and bedrooms." Kyle concurs, saying it was "too in your face and uncomfortable, and there was just too much going on in there." Added Tonya, "It was like being on a set, which was too overwhelming for just living."

In fact, it was a set, and that was the point. "The colors had to be bold and the furnishings had to be precisely positioned so everything looked good on TV," explains Suhail. "I made it as livable as possible."

Whether the place, which was torn down and auctioned off in pieces in November, made for great TV will be decided when the show debuts at 9pm. As for a place to call home, Kyle maintains that sometimes it pays to be a little less on the edge. He reports that the only thing the kids bought from the house auction were the bed linens.


Updated - May 31, 2021