Sustainable design blends old and new in a Chicago suburb.
BY DANIEL P. SMITH
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 edition of INVISION.
LOCATION: Park Ridge, IL
Owners: Dr. Jean Nham and Alex Nham
AREA: 1,976 square feet
TOP BRANDS: Lindberg, Seraphin, SALT, Eco, 141
On the northwest edge of Chicago, about 15 miles from downtown, sits the town of Park Ridge, IL. The childhood stomping grounds of Harrison Ford and Hillary Clinton, it’s a city of about 38,000 people that still looks like something out of a Normal Rockwell painting: tree-lined streets, upper middle-class homes and soccer fields teeming with giddy youth and adoring parents.
Park Ridge also has a strong central business district known as Uptown, a pedestrian-friendly square-mile area punctuated by a commuter rail station, an art deco movie house and chic independent retailers. Among the newest in the neighborhood: Uptown Family Vision, a contemporary eyecare and eyewear emporium owned by Dr. Jean Nham and her husband, Alex Nham. Designed with sustainable materials and custom features, Uptown Family Vision brings a hip, urban feel and fresh energy to a city that had few optometry options.
Innovative shelving shows off Uptown Family Vision's frame selection. Photo by Christopher Bradley
“We really thought we could bring something different, something unique, so that’s what we did,” says Jean, who was ready to use the lessons she learned working for five years in optometry retail and office settings in Arkansas and Texas. The Nhams embraced the entrepreneurial spirit in 2014 when they left Dallas to return to Alex’s Chicago area roots and open an eyewear shop.
Once they’d found a location in Park Ridge’s century-old Gillick Building, the Nhams turned to Moss, a Chicago architecture, design and build studio, to fashion the tall, narrow interior space of nearly 2,000 square feet. It was the first eyewear shop for the six-person firm, which intentionally tackles a diverse mix of commercial and residential projects.
“I think the fact that we didn’t specialize in (eyewear shops) is the precise reason Jean and Alex were attracted to us,” Moss founder and owner Matt Nardella says.
While the Nhams weren’t exactly sure what they wanted, they knew what they didn’t want: anything that resembled a traditional doctor’s office. Nardella, who wears glasses, agreed: “For my buck, optometry spaces are too often clinical and cold,” he says.
The Nhams drew inspiration from spaces, especially restaurants, that combine natural elements and durable materials such as wood and steel. “We wanted both simple and elegant,” Alex says.
But beyond those general directions, the Nhams gave the Moss team free rein. Working together over a series of design options, sketches and conversations, the clients and designers pieced together a distinctive look. The Nhams’ ambitious vision and Moss’ creative fingerprints are all over the finished product, from natural light flooding through the windows facing Main Street to the business’ logo.
Moss grows green: The design firm used reclaimed wood for the flooring and tabletop fitting station at Uptown Family Vision.
The flooring is one element that catches everyone’s attention, Jean says. Although the Nhams and Moss had initially hoped to preserve the shop’s original hardwood flooring, the boards proved unsalvageable. But the designers quickly offered a compelling alternative: a new hardwood floor plucked from reclaimed Trans-Pacific shipping crates. That floor now runs throughout the shop, each board carrying its own color and tone for a dynamic, one-of-a-kind look.
For the frame displays, the Nhams chose a sleek, powder-coated steel bracket system. The nine-level shelving wraps around one half of the showroom as one continuous element, simultaneously screening the pre-test area while showcasing more than 400 frame options. A raised ledge enhances the eyewear display, creating dimension and an added touch of merchandising flair.
“We definitely wanted the frames to be the main focus,” Nardella says, “and this shelving delivers that.” It also draws the eye upward toward parts of the original pressed tin ceiling that the designers were able to preserve.
The entire project — its sensibilities, materials and style — culminates at the fitting station anchored in the center of the showroom. The tiered, eight-seat tabletop was crafted from a local storm-damaged tree set atop steel legs, with LED lights circling double-sided mirrors.
“If you distilled this project down to one thing, it’s the fitting station,” Nardella says. “It’s where people try on glasses and get a good impression of everything we wanted the space to be.”
Jean reports that so far, it’s a winning impression, as the rookie-year shop remains ahead of its initial sales projections. “We really value craftsmanship, quality and service,” she adds — and they’re all attributes that Uptown Family Vision’s clients can immediately see in the shop’s stylish space and inspired selection.
Five Cool Things About
Uptown Family Vision
Alex Nham, Dr. Jean Nham and their year-old son Beau.1. Child's Play: As the parents of a year-old son, Beau, the Nhams are coming to understand the challenges of toting kids around, which is why they insisted on a defined children’s area featuring small toys, books and puzzles. “Our customers really appreciate that we’re tying to create a comfortable and engaging environment for them on so many levels,” Jean says.
2. Premium Experience: In addition to being Uptown Family Vision’s co-owner, Alex Nham works in the quality assurance department at Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, one of the nation’s craft beer trailblazers and an inspirational force for the Nhams’ mission at Uptown Family Vision. “Like Goose Island has done with beer, we’re trying to turn a traditional idea on its head and offer a premium experience,” he says.
3. Enhanced guarantee: Regardless of the manufacturer’s warranty, Uptown offers a two-year guarantee on every frame it sells. “It’s our way of going above and beyond and standing behind the products we sell,” Jean says.
The exam room has the same clean lines as the optical showroom.
5. Free For All: In its past life, Uptown Family Vision’s current storefront had been a general store, an apparel shop and, most recently, a store peddling kitchen goods. “Throughout construction, we’d get these little clues as to what was here before,” says Alex, especially noting some decades-old, gold-leaf window lettering that had been concealed. “It deepened our connections to the space.” See more about the design and construction journey on the Moss blog at invmag.us/uptown.
A LIFE-CHANGING HAIRCUT
One of Uptown Family Vision’s earliest customers was a man with an outside Rx and a specific request: rimless frames. Store associate Mary Dravecky apologized for not having any in stock, but, she added, “We might have something else that will interest you.” Dravecky showed him a round-framed look from the Danish-designed Lindberg line, a collection that favors simplicity and elegance. “It was probably the one frame in the shop we thought might never sell, but right away he said, ‘This is it,’” Jean Nham recalls. “Even if we don’t have something specific that a customer wants, we have the variety and knowledge to offer them something they’ll love equally as much.”
WEEKLY VISION THERAPY
Uptown Family Vision’s website asks: “Did you know that up to 25 percent of all school-age children have vision problems significant enough to impair academic performance?” To serve these children — and further differentiate the practice — Dr. Jean Nham conducts weekly vision therapy sessions with patients whose problems cannot be treated adequately with glasses or contact lenses. Using therapeutic lenses, prisms, filters and computerized activities, she helps children improve their visual skills and mental processing. The practice also offers Ortho-K for both children and adults.