WEST LOOP — Look around Chicago and you'll likely see James Geier's handiwork.
The Gold Coast resident and president/founder of Back of the Yards-based 555 International Inc. either developed or designed the inside of some of the city's classiest destinations.
That includes Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster and Perennial Virant. His projects this month include Scone City in Wicker Park — highlighted by "artistic neon lighting and white marble throughout" — and Hopsmith Restaurant & Bar in Gold Coast — featuring a "repurposed 1970s VW microbus, a custom-paneled DJ booth and an adult-sized Twister game floor area."
Yet Geier's backstory is relatively unknown.
"People write articles about the environment, not necessarily the people who created it," Geier, 53, acknowledged during a recent interview at Soho House Chicago's fifth-floor Club Bar.
Justin Breen talks about James Geier's fascinating life:
Geier is nationally and internationally recognized for his work designing venues for the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, National Basketball Association, Gucci, Hard Rock Hotels, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino.
The New Jersey native grew up in Glenview and Skokie, graduating from Niles North High School and earning a fine arts bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois in 1984. For the next four years, Geier worked at Chicago design company Niedermaier, eventually becoming its design director.
He also built and ran a bar in Lakeview, Union, at that time. Although the bar has closed, it helped him get started designing restaurants and other venues.
In early 1988, representatives from Liz Claiborne wanted to hire Geier directly, so he decided to start his own business. He named it 555 Design Fabrication Management Inc. after his lucky number, 5.
The launch date was April 1, 1988.
"It was on April Fool's Day because it was kind of a joke to myself," Geier said. "That was nothing I imagined I'd ever, ever do."
555 International has since grown into a juggernaut, with 130-some employees — artists, engineers, designers, architects and craftsmen — most of whom operate out of a 300,000-square-foot studio, manufacturing and finishing location at 4501 S. Western Blvd. in Back of the Yards.
He has a strong reputation among pro sports teams, which started with his work for the NBA and has continued to the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
Geier, whose father-in-law is former Chicago Bears great and current radio personality Ed "O.B." O'Bradovich, was hired to build the Green Bay Packers' Pro Shop near Lambeau Field in 2000, and he was later hired to help design the team's Game Day Store and Lambeau's concession stands, free-standing kiosks and newest 21,500-square-foot Pro Shop.
"The strength of his team is that they were able to bring to life our ideas as well as their ideas," former Packers Director of Retail Operations Kate Hogan said. "We were able to blend them together to deliver a great showpiece, while making it very functionable and shopable."
About 10 years ago, Geier — who said he "thinks in 3D and color" — said he made a "conscious effort" to do more in Chicago "because so much of our stuff wasn't in Chicago."
"Nobody really knew about us," Geier said.
That changed quickly once Geier and the company made a commitment to Chicago, according to one of his former designers, Sheyna Ochs.
"I was always fascinated by how many people he knows," said Ochs, of West Town. "The man knows everyone. ... Apparently you collect people, and he's always maintained relationships. That is not always the easiest to do. But he seemed to succeed at it."
Ochs said a huge reason for Geier's success is his ability to solve "impossible problems."
Zack Sklar, the chef/owner of the future 660 Orleans restaurant in River North said Geier clearly understands his vision.
"I chose him ultimately because he — like myself — is, and has been, an operator of successful restaurants and bars," Sklar said. "His design is not only articulated creatively, but it's functional. He understands flow, what works and what doesn't.
"His approach to design connected deeply with me, as it mirrors my approach to cuisine," Sklar added. "And he is unique in that he also sees the connection between elemental design in a space and what is created on a plate."
Arthur K. Miner, a former director of design for Playboy Clubs International, worked with Geier on a Palms Hotel project in Las Vegas.
"James has a natural talent of vision. He can look at any floor plan and in his mind see what the end project will look like and then put it all together and deliver an outstanding project," Miner said. "And he is a gem of a person, and someone you should know."
660 Orleans is one of numerous 555 creations on tap for next year. Some major items on the docket include a Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop retail store in San Antonio, an Arizona Diamondbacks Pro Shop, and, locally, a West Loop wine bar.
Geier also plans to debut Morgan's on Fulton, a gallery and event location he owns at 952 W. Fulton Market.
Geier doesn't have an ultimate goal, although the longtime Blackhawks season-ticket holder said if team execs asked him to design a space for them, he'd "probably do it for free."
Geier — whose two teenage children attend Latin School of Chicago — said he's quite pleased with where his life is, and where it will be going.
"Where I'm at now is I enjoy the opportunity to work with the best brands and the best people in various sectors who are really concerned with the development of their brands," Geier said. "That we get called by the best is because of a lot of hard work. And I'm an artist by birth and by passion."
And he is motivated by his father, Marvin, who left the family when Geier was 9, but later worked at Union before he died in 2010. James has a tattoo with the initials "MG" on his left wrist.
"He's the reason I always look forward, and never look back," Geier said.
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