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SOM Designs New Factory for Optimo Hat Company Inside Former Chicago Firehouse

Since its founding more than 25 years ago, Optimo Hat Company has developed a cult following as a leading maker of handcrafted hats for diverse and global clientele. Optimo's new headquarters consolidates its design, operations, and production spaces inside a 100-year-old decommissioned firehouse located in Beverly, a historic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. To create a space that reflects Optimo’s ethos of craftsmanship, authenticity, and timeless luxury, the company engaged SOM, a firm that shares the same values. The design of the new headquarters befits a hatmaker known for its rigorous attention to detail.

Envisioned as a contemporary workshop with an industrial aesthetic, the design draws from a palette of refined and understated materials, including blackened steel, walnut, and cork. The space is as customized as the hats themselves: elegant steel casings frame task and ambient lighting above workstations; custom floor-to-ceiling shelving houses unique hat forms and molds; tailor-made rolling racks organize and mobilize hats for effortless access on the factory floor; modern and antique machinery were organized and finished uniformly in matte black; and restored glazed-brick walls wrap the daylit double-height space. Using traditional techniques from the beginning of the 20th century, each Optimo hat is formed and finished with materials like straw, fine furs, and rare ribbons to provide the superior product that defines the brand.

On the second floor, an expansive studio space serves as a design atelier to host clients and guests. Remnants of the original firehouse can be seen throughout, including porthole windows flush to the floor where firepoles once stood, opening views to the workroom below. A handcrafted circular light fixture, measuring 10 feet in diameter, anchors the room, while a 19-foot walnut table recalls the design of the factory workbenches below. Along the east wall, 12-foot-tall steel shelves display a collection of objects drawn from decades of hatmaking: production equipment, custom tools, and historic hats, including some produced by Graham Thompson and his mentor, the late, legendary Chicago hatter Johnny Tyus.

Next to the atelier, a private office is delineated by open shelving designed in the same style as the industrial hat carts used on the production floor. Leather sofas, brass light fixtures, and dark walls create a comfortable ambience in the lounge area. Tucked discretely behind the south wall, private areas and a full-scale working kitchen, finished with marble discovered in the original firehouse showers, serve as staging spaces for events and client visits.

SOM worked with Optimo to create an efficient and collaborative workflow for the facility. The new headquarters doubles Optimo's production capacity and accommodates future expansion. “Our intention was to create an exceptional hat factory to produce an exceptional product,” says Optimo owner Graham Thompson. “Collaborating with SOM was key in reimagining this space—we both approach design with integrity and purpose.”

As the last custom men’s hatmaker in Chicago, Optimo continues a tradition that defines the "City of Broad Shoulders." The company supports Beverly’s economic and social vitality by employing local residents and fostering a creative community. Its new headquarters is the smallest factory ever designed by SOM. “We are proud to apply a high level of thoughtfulness and design rigor to this small project, connecting to a rich history of craftsmanship in South Chicago,” says Brian Lee, Design Partner at SOM. “This is a great story for the city.”

About Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world. Since its founding more than 80 years ago, SOM has earned a reputation for design excellence with a portfolio that includes some of the most important architectural accomplishments of the 20th and 21st centuries, and has been a leader in the research and development of specialized technologies, new processes and innovative ideas, many of which have had a palpable and lasting impact on the design profession and the physical environment. The firm’s longstanding leadership in design and building technology has been honored with nearly 2,000 awards for quality, innovation, and management. The American Institute of Architects has recognized SOM twice with its highest honor, the Architecture Firm Award—in 1962 and again in 1996. The firm maintains offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, and Mumbai.