Street Furniture to Hit Chicago

It's summer, you're walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago and you trip over a couch in the middle of the sidewalk. It's not a garage sale or a college prank, but it is the latest public art project from the city that brought us the much-imitated Cow Parade two years ago.

Starting June 1, Chicago will become a makeshift living room, with 300 suites of elaborately decorated furniture arranged throughout the city's streets, parks and plazas.

Each suite consists of a sofa, a chair, an ottoman and a television set. The furniture won't be comfortable — the pieces are made from hard fiberglass — but it will be eye-catching. The suites are being decorated by local artists, in a huge variety of styles: from muted Martha Stewart hues to a sofa with plants and flowers springing from its cushions.

The exhibition, Suite Home Chicago: An International Exhibition of Urban Street Furniture, is an attempt to recapture the frenzy created by Chicago's wildly popular 1999 public art exhibit, Cows on Parade. The life-sized cows — painted in psychedelic designs, covered in baubles or costumed like Marilyn Monroe — raised $3.5 million when they were auctioned off at the end of the summer.

Other cities jumped on the bovine bandwagon. New York had cows in 2000, and Kansas City, Houston and London are planning to have them this year. Minneapolis had Peanuts characters in honor of hometown hero Charles Schulz, while Cincinnati celebrated its dubious title of "Porkopolis" by hosting the Big Pig Gig.

Chicago wanted to try something different. "We didn't want to do anything with a face, no animals this time," says Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the city's public art program.

Chicago chose furniture because of the city's relationship to the furniture industry. Chicago was once a center of furniture manufacturing and is home to yearly furniture trade shows.

Mason isn't worried about people appropriating the furniture for their own living rooms. Each suite weighs about 400 pounds and is bolted to a slab of concrete.

The TV sets and couches will begin to surface in downtown Chicago this weekend. Whether or not Chicagoans and visitors get into the furniture frenzy remains to be seen. At least it will give people something to talk about — or least a place to rest their feet.