Architect John Syvertsen on improving lives through design

Written By By JOHN SYVERTSEN Posted: 04/10/2014, 09:08am

Throughout my 35-year career as an architect, I’ve attended dozens of ribbon-cuttings and grand-opening celebrations. But it wasn’t until I was designing a new elevator in 2007 that I realized the power that design has to change people’s lives. The organization I was working with simply needed accessibility to the upper floors in order to remain in their location. After we installed the elevator, they were thrilled to be able to stay in their community.

Although this project was by some standards insignificant, it drove home for me the importance of impact. It was the perfect representation of the power of design to improve lives, which is the fundamental purpose of our work as architects and designers. As a result of this work, our team at CannonDesign founded Open Hand Studio in 2008 — a virtual studio that would do pro bono design work, a movement, a dialogue, a call to action to change the world through design. Through Open Hand Studio we’ve celebrated countless “elevator” moments; most recently, we celebrated remodeling the lobby at Anixter Center, a nonprofit providing services and supports for people with disabilities.

The lobby project was again, a project small in scale but massive in impact, resulting in an immediate elevation of human dignity. Our team was challenged with transforming a sterile and clinical room with a security guard enclosure into a vibrant, inviting and open space, greeting clients and visitors with the remarkably positive and professional culture that is Anixter Center. I met one client in particular, Dan Smith, who experienced these architectural changes not only on a pragmatic level, but on a personal level.

Dan came to Anixter Center 28 years ago after an accident. Anixter Center offered Dan hope. Here, he found new friends and new passions and set new goals. Despite the fact that Dan needs to use a wheelchair to get around, he maintains an incredible outlook and zest for life. That positive attitude enables Dan to encourage others around him and help fellow clients. By changing and opening up the space, Anixter Center was able to employ Dan as the receptionist in the new lobby.

Needless to say, this began a domino effect of good, not just for Dan but for Anixter Center employees, clients and visitors. Dan’s life has improved immensely with his new responsibilities — his communication and organizational skills are much better, as well as his coordination skills. His sense of pride and joy is infectious as he greets people entering Anixter Center. I know I will feel inspired every time I walk in to Anixter Center in the future and see Dan sitting in the renovated lobby.

My hope is that Open Hand Studio — and designers like us around Chicago — will continue to make a difference in the communities in which we live and work. We’ll continue to tackle barriers, become more critically engaged in community-based opportunities and become a source of sustainable social change for good through design.

John Syvertsen will be honored at Anixter Center Benefit for Ability on May 1 at Harold Washington Library’s Winter Garden. For tickets ($350), please call (773) 973-7900 x 243 or visit

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