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An Interview with Horizon’s Interior Designer : Maria Bortell


Horizon’s in-house interior architect and designer, Maria Bortell, is a design star. When she’s not working on a new kitchen design for Horizon’s remodel of a historical 1980’s building, she’s picking out furniture for a new lobby of a brand new northside apartment.  

Her passions for hospitality and residential design merge into one when she works on Horizon’s buildings and she always keeps residents in mind when while designing.  

We think you should get to know her, so we interviewed Maria about her design process, tips for turning your apartment into a home and designing on a budget. 

 

What’s your education and work background? 

My background is extremely varied but as far as design goes, Horizon Realty Group hired me right out of grad school in 2013. I had been designing for years but during the crash and when everyone was out of work, I went back to grad school to expand into hospitality design. I’ve always worked on residential design with private clients. But when you’re designing apartment rentals, it’s still a mix of residential, commercial and hospitality. When I graduated, I thought I’d stay as a private designer with my own business. However, one of the private design jobs I picked up through a friend was this position. He is now actually one of our lighting suppliers. He introduced me to Danny Michael right when they had just purchased The Merion. At first, I was asked to help with window design but Danny then asked me to furnish an apartment model for the building. Once I did a model, we realized we needed to fully furnish the building. 

Then I said, “You know, I think you just need to hire me.”  

I’m glad I went toward this direction rather than privately designing condos because of how much things have changed. People are building more luxury apartments than condos throughout Chicago and they’re making them nicer, offering amenities, etc. which is stuff I’ve been fighting for forever. You can’t be cheap about apartment rentals! And now the whole market is following suit. 

 

What is your creative process for architectural and interior design? 

We always have to look at how much we are planning on altering the building and asking ourselves who is our core client? Where is it? And of course, what is our budget? For our older buildings, since we don’t have much leeway, the best I can do is figure out how I can open up the layout and create more space. Since the style in the 70’s and 80’s were kitchens with private and closed with doors and walls, we now usually try to open that up so it’s one larger room and more closet space. 

When I decorate Airbnbs or model units, I think each building has its own personality. So when I’m working on multi-unit housing, the building tells you how the units can be laid out. 

As a private residential designer, it’s always about turning a house into a home and that’s something I try to create. When you’re going from house to home, you want to use mementos to make it cozier. I love color and I try to incorporate them one way or another.  

Back when I had to rent, I vividly remember walking through buildings and seeing stark white walls over and over again and noticing that they all look the same. However, I always remembered the ones that were different, which usually meant a paint or flooring. Choosing this is difficult because you’re never going to be able to please everyone. I try to incorporate everyone, but it’s just never going be everyone 100 percent. The point is that we hit our target audience.  

 

How do you recommend residents decorate their apartments? 

I think we’re all eclectic. The way we all live is more eclectic than going to a furniture store and buying a all-in-one furniture display. You might have grandma’s old table and it might be traditional, but it could have been a very mod-60s thing or turn of the century.  

I love color and know very few people who do the all-white or off-white design. I agree, it looks beautiful on pictures, but it’s not very practical for the average family. I love red wine, but would you sit on your sofa with that wine? And what about kids? And pets?  

 

Where is your favorite place to shop for furniture and design? 

Oh, I’m everywhere. It’s such a harder question now with the web. Because now anyone can get anything online. Since most things are made in China, you first have to look at where your price-point is. I shop all over the place so it really just depends. I love the idea of using quartz counter tops. It’s more durable and eco-friendly and for years the trend was black absolute counters and that was chic. But white is really bright and opens up a kitchen.  

HomeGoods is every designer’s best friend. Every time I go to the Chicago HomeGoods store, I see another designer there. Target has stepped up their game immensely. I find a lot of things online – I have no shame! Overstock, Wayfair, etc. I use it all. I also use some local artists. When I see some local art I really like, I find out who made it and try to use it. 

Keep up with Maria’s designs! You can follow her on Pinterest here.

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