Hands On

Hammer Design Group’s Ari Smejkal spreads his wings while building upon Chicago’s go-to shop for gorgeous, custom woodwork.

By Lisa Shames

Photo by James Gustin for Fig Media

January 28, 2019 10:39 PM

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When a homeowner wanted a custom treehouse built inside of her North Shore mansion—complete with a giant slide, bridge and climbing wall—she knew just the guy to call: Ari Smejkal of Chicago’s Hammer Design Group. The same name came up for a Boeing Company airlines executive when he needed someone to create a safe room inside his home’s wine cellar. And when Alison Victoria, host of HGTV’s Windy City Rehab, needs a savvy carpenter, Smejkal is on speed dial.

But to simply call Smejkal a “carpenter” or “woodworker” is a gross understatement. “Ari is an unrivaled artisan,” says Victoria, who has collaborated with Smejkal for more than five years. “I can send him a picture of a random French Gothic door I saw in Paris and he can recreate it for me. He can take a 100-year-old mantel and refurbish it, expand on it, and if I want two builtins to match, he can do that, too.”

It’s safe to say that Smejkal, 55, was born to be an artisan woodworker. His great-grandfather was a carpenter in the former Czechoslovakia. At age 15, Smejkal began working alongside his grandfather and father, also carpenters, in the Fox Lake area of northern Illinois, building boats, docks, houses and, he says, “pretty much anything and everything you can imagine having to do with construction.” In the mid-1980s, he headed to Southern Illinois University to study landscape architecture, but by that time he already had his own company with seven employees. So in 1983, with the economy on a dive, Smejkal decided to leave school and focus his attention full-time on his growing business—and hasn’t looked back since. Today, he counts more than 10,000 pieces of handmade furniture and some 1,000 custom-built homes, restaurants and nightclubs among his handiwork.

From 1993-1995, his Hammer Design Group’s home base was a showroom in Barrington in an old ammunition factory. A move to the city in ’95 came next with a shop in the old Engine Company 42 firehouse at 228 W. Illinois St. in River North along with a shared space in The Merchandise Mart to showcase Smejkal’s custom furniture. When the economy shifted again in 2008, Hammer Design Group moved its production to La Grange and added a small pop-up store in Portage, Mich., once again proving its agility. Currently business is booming, and a 3,000-square-foot workshop in the West Loop is where the woodworking magic happens. And next year, Smejkal plans to open a gallery and showroom on the farm he recently purchased—and is in the midst of rehabbing—in Germantown, Wisc., not far from Milwaukee.  

As anyone who has worked with him will attest, one of Smejkal’s greatest gifts is tapping into trends before they catch fire, an ability nurtured, he says in his unassuming way, by his diverse roster of clients across the United States. “Traveling so much, I get to see trends before they come down the pike.” His sixth sense for the next big trend has served him well over the years, Smejkal says, referencing a reclaimed-wood table he saw in 1991 in an article about Ralph Lauren. “I began making my own version and selling them at the Kane County Flea Market in St. Charles, Ill. At the time, reclaimed wood tables were a relatively new style that was about to catch on. I sold one to a member of the Walgreen family who ended up hiring me to design her house as well.” Other big-name Hammer Design Group clients include Joan Cusack and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrooks. “Next thing we knew, we were doing stuff all over the country and flying all over for commissioned jobs,” he says.

Smejkal also has the keen ability to visualize something in his head and then build it, and has earned a reputation for being undaunted by a project that others might consider too difficult. “We’re the guys that, when people can’t figure out a way to do something cool, they call us,” he says. That means everything from the aforementioned tree house to custom built-ins and cabinets to entire rooms with everything made by hand. His woodwork can also be spied in Chicago restaurants Aba, Beatrix and Summerhouse, as well as chic boutique hotels such as the Graduate Hotels in Minnesota, West Virginia and Milwaukee. “We enjoy doing the research and coming up with new and different ideas and concepts,” says Smejkal, who now boasts a team of six, bringing on specialized guys when the project demands.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Wade Weissmann, president of Wade Weissmann Architecture and a longtime collaborator with Hammer Design. “There are people that you work with who, when you give them an idea, they immediately start looking for reasons as to why it won’t work. Ari is just the opposite,” says Weissmann. “One of the huge values he adds is that he’s an artist who is constantly exploring new and better ways to hone his craft.”

In fact, Smejkal is expanding his artistic horizons as we speak, creating large-scale abstract paintings and experimental-style sculptures—skills he picked up while watching and working alongside his friend, painter René Romero Schuler. A show in the spring at a gallery in Lake Forest is in the works. “I’m getting older, and I don’t want to be doing heavy construction all my life,” says Smejkal of his newest venture.

But that doesn’t mean Hammer Design Group—or, for that matter, Ari Smejkal—is slowing down. With his three sons now working by his side, his business is stronger than ever. Apparently, when it comes to this family, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. 

Hammer Design Group, 346 N. Justine St., Suite 402, 773.742.3160. hammerdesigngroup.com