John Robert Wiltgen has always obsessed over making his clients’ worlds beautiful. Because of this, his workplace has expanded halfway around the world—from Chicago’s Gold Coast to Africa’s Ivory Coast.
Wiltgen and his award-winning design team have created plans for a globe-trotting family’s luxury estate in Lagos, Nigeria. With additional residential and commercial development planned there, Wiltgen is launching a new division, JRWD Nigeria, Ltd.
“It’s exciting. This is a new country whose government is just 50 years old,” says Wiltgen, whose Chicago-based firm enjoys a strong presence in the U.S. as well.
The lavish Lagos residential compound features both a mosque and a chapel for its Muslim and Christian owners who maintain residences in several other major cities throughout the world.
Such affluent international figures represent some of the faithful clientele Wiltgen and his design team have assembled since 1981. Interacting both socially and professionally with dignitaries and celebrities comes easily to the genial designer, whether meeting with the vice president of Ghana, His Excellency John Dramani Mahama in the capital city of Accra or privately touring Norway’s palace in Oslo while waiting for a friend’s audience with King Olaf to conclude.
Stateside, Wiltgen’s sustaining love for drama-apparent in all of his jaw-dropping designs-attracts clients in film, theater, and politics. The night before he walked the red carpet with Hollywood royalty at the Academy Awards, Wiltgen entertained Timothy Hutton and his then-girlfriend Angelina Jolie at Spago. He and his assistants designed a 7,000-square-foot, in-town residence for a son of a Chicago film family. And not long ago, he was seen introducing a visiting senator to Chicago’s dining scene.
The drama that distinguishes Wiltgen’s work is not accidental. As a teenager, long before studying architecture and interior design, Wiltgen was mesmerized by performance art while working backstage at Arlington Park Theatre. It provided a mega-dose of theatrical know-how from ZsaZsa and Eva Gabor, Leslie Caron, Louis Jordan, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and other masters. Working side-by-side with award-winning set, costume and lighting designers helped develop his exquisite sense of style.
While Wiltgen yearned to appear on stage rather than behind the scenes, he knew he would never be content just waiting idly for his next role to come along. Lack of control over the source of each paycheck was another issue (the theatre company went bankrupt three times in two and a half years). So interior design seemed to represent a somewhat more financially reliable alternative for using his creativity.
At 19, he became a partner in a design firm. “I learned at an early age that I liked being the boss,” recalls Wiltgen. Less than three years later, he opened his own practice. Through time, Wiltgen’s body of work grew from single-family homes to vintage co-ops to luxury high-rises at Water Tower, One Mag Mile, Chicago Place, and recently Trump International Tower, where the design team has completed 22 homes.
“Thinking outside the box” represents the Wiltgen philosophy. The designer demands that of himself and his team, each of which is challenged to learn something from every home they create enabling them to reinvent themselves for the next residence. “This is what distinguishes our work,’ he says. Imaginative architecture, highly creative space planning and exceptional furniture, accessories, and art give this design collaborative an edge that attracts the curiosity of the media and the public.
Accolades come John Robert Wiltgen Design’s way regularly; the firm’s work has earned dozens of prestigious awards. The Chicago Academy for the Arts Irv and Essee Kupcinet Leadership Award honored his tireless support of the school. The Better Boys Foundation, The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois represent some of his other volunteer efforts.
Wiltgen was named to i4design Magazine‘s Class of 2011 Suite Sixteen which recognizes established stars and rising talent in the design world. Chicago Social named him as the Designer to Watch in 1998. In 1991, he was noted as the youngest recipient ever to win the Merchandise Mart’s Outstanding Achievement in the Design Profession award.
Wiltgen is a tireless leader who says his job has just begun. Makes one curious as to how John Robert Wiltgen Design will continue to make the world even more beautiful.