Even in a city famous for speakeasies, this hidden night spot really stands out.
It’s Bjorg Solstad and Lenny Johnson’s backyard refuge on Chicago’s Near West Side. Unlike the dark and brooding indoor lounges of Prohibition days, their outdoor retreat lifts spirits with its fresh air, bright lights and vibrant colors. And it’s not all that secret. As the sun sets on a summer evening, friends can follow the sweet sounds of Lenny’s blues band to the couple’s 1888 brownstone.
A concrete-painting pro rolled out a red carpet for guests by applying several coats of deep red and mustard yellow to once-dull slabs. Fences and trellises form walls for the main outdoor room, assuring privacy, framing seating areas and giving climbing vines a place to do their thing.
After buying the home in 2010, Bjorg and Lenny knew they wanted to change the backyard’s spartan swath of gray concrete into a warm and inviting place to entertain friends. Interior designer and color specialist Kelly Fitzsimmons helped the couple create a gathering space that includes furniture, lighting, plants and a painted dance floor.
“When I first saw the concrete, I wanted it out,” Bjorg says. “But then I thought about grass and having to cut it, and we decided to keep the concrete and transform it.”
A Perfect Little Outdoor Room
The balcony (below) works for smaller gatherings (stairs connect it to ground level). Canvas awnings and lattice panels shield the space from outside eyes and elements, while furniture, rugs and treasures add indoor softness and style.
By day, Bjorg and Lenny serve others. She’s a physical therapist, and he’s a lieutenant with the Chicago Fire Department. By night, they serve their friends—and themselves.
String lights, bistro tables, lush plants and live music mimic the feel of a sidewalk cafe. A few cables strung between the balcony and garage support the lights. Big containers of hardy arborvitaes green up the patio year-round, while a changing lineup of small trees like rose of Sharon and dwarf lilac thrives in pots along the fences.
Mosaic-tile tabletops reflect Bjorg’s love of bold Mediterranean-and Southwestern-style colors and patterns. She says she’s not sure where that comes from—she grew up around Norway’s clean, mod designs and muted hues.
Velvet curtains frame the garage’s backyard entry (there’s an alley door for cars), creating a stage for Lenny’s Red Line Lounge Band. He has a music studio inside the house.
“This slab of concrete was so depressing that if we didn’t add color to it, it would take away from the cozy hacienda feel.” — Kelly Fitzsimmons, interior designer