Chicago Shows a Lot of Heart

Mike Antoniak

Visitors to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile this past February couldn’t ignore the colorful, oversized reminders that it was National Heart Month.

For four weeks, one hundred five-foot-tall acrylic heart sculptures were fixtures along the city’s Michigan Avenue as part of the “Hearts A Bluhm” project.

Each acrylic heart combined a unique design along with a health tip as part of this month-long campaign to promote heart health awareness, celebrate the city’s creative spirit, and raise funds for Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.

Sponsorships of most hearts ranged from $2,500 to $10,000. For $20,000, donors could sponsor hearts designed and signed by the city’s celebrity athletes.

“It really created a lot of conversations about cardiovascular health,” says Kathleen Henson, president and CEO of one of the event’s organizers, Henson Consulting, Inc. in Wheaton, Illinois.

Planning for the heartfelt installation began last September. “The hearts had to be built to withstand the winter weather of Chicago—with its cold and wind,” notes Henson. “In fact, they were installed just two days before one of the biggest, windiest winter storms we’ve had, and all survived.”

The Heart Builder

Much of the credit for that endurance goes to Busch Plastics, Inc., a family-run business in Lynwood, Illinois. Henson emailed company president Frank Busch last fall with a photo of the kind of heart she’d like featured and a brief explanation of the project.

Figuring out how to bring that idea to life was left up to Busch.

“We’re a plastics distributor and a complete fabrication shop with a CNC router and a five-by-nine-foot oven for forming plastic sheets,” says Busch. “This was one of the biggest jobs we’ve done and probably one of the most satisfying—knowing we did something for the entire city of Chicago.”

Given the outdoor setting and length of the installation, Busch decided it would be best to build the hearts out of the plastic material butyrate. “It’s a high-impact sign-grade material that I knew would hold up well,” he explains.

Busch’s plans called for the hearts to be built from molded halves. These were then nested together to create a heart roughly five feet in diameter and six inches deep. 

Chicago-Heart-1To support the hearts, Busch added a set of tubular legs (supported by brackets) and designed a form for the concrete base that would serve as the stand. A concrete company poured the forms to create the bases. When cured, each three-inch-thick base measured two-by-three feet and weighed approximately 250 pounds.

Heart Art Studio

As the hearts were built, they were delivered to a special “Hearts A Bluhm” art studio that had been set up in the city’s The Shops At North Bridge mall on Michigan Avenue.

Event organizers partnered with the Columbia College Chicago arts school to coordinate the creation of the designs featured on the hearts.

Chicago-based Doot-Russell Company handled the printing of the health tips featured at the base of each heart.

Before decorating the hearts could proceed in January, organizers turned to Busch once again. “I had to design a wooden frame that would support the hearts while they were painting or applying the designs on their fronts and backs,” he says.

Henson estimates that sixty of the designs were created by Columbia students, staff, faculty, and alumni. The rest were embellished by artists or graphic designers working for heart sponsors.

Chicago’s professional sports teams were also well represented, with “team hearts” signed by members of Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox major league baseball franchises, the NFL Chicago Bears, the NHL Chicago Blackhawks, and the NBA Chicago Bulls.

Chicago-Heart-3Design themes and approaches varied. “Some were painted directly to the acrylic; some affixed things to the heart,” notes Henson.

For a few hearts, the graphics were printed digitally and then installed by the Signs By Tomorrow in Bloomingdale, Illinois. In the final weeks before the February 1 deadline, the company was called on to complete several sponsored hearts.

“I work with Signs By Tomorrow all the time, and they always come through for me and do a fantastic job,” says Henson, who steered the projects to the company.

“We were contacted to print and install the graphics for the first heart on Tuesday, January 25,” reports Mark Schellerer, senior project manager at Signs by Tomorrow. “The order came in that morning and was out that afternoon.”

Other orders quickly followed. “Every morning that week, there was another project waiting for us to print and install,” says Schellerer.

Working from files provided by Henson’s graphic design team, Signs by Tomorrow printed and installed the graphics for hearts sponsored by a variety of businesses and brands, such as: Diet Coke, The Chicago Bears Foundation, the Blush Cardiovascular Care Unit, The Shops at North Bridge, Des Plaines Casino, McGrath Lexus, and, of course, Henson Consulting.

Stretchy Ink

For these jobs, Schellerer employed Signs By Tomorrow’s HP DesignJet L25500 sixty-inch-wide format printer. “Most of these were time-sensitive jobs and it was the available printer,” says Schellerer.

Schellerer adds that the latex printer does have some unique qualities, which made it the perfect solution for printing the graphics destined for the contoured hearts. Ink happened to be one of those benefits. “Latex ink can stretch as much as 200 percent without the fading you’d see in something printed with a solvent inkjet,” he says. 

All the printing was done on 3M Controltac 180-10 media—the same material the company uses for its numerous vehicle wrap projects.Chicago-Heart-4

Installers applied the graphics onsite to the molded acrylic hearts. “In a lot of ways, this was just like any vehicle wrap,” says Schellerer, “but it was also a lot easier, because we didn’t have any obstructions like door handles to work around.”

In fact, the only real hitch Schellerer encountered was that the graphics template he originally received was incorrectly sized for completely covering the heart. “We provided enough bleed so that it wasn’t an issue,” he explains. “After that, we made our adjustments in the rest of the files.

“There were no other problems at all.”

According to Schellerer, this was a pretty straightforward project for his company. “We got the jobs in the morning and our installers had them in place by the end of each day,” he concludes. “That’s kind of our bread-and-butter and what we’re known for—quick turnaround, top quality, and reliable service for whatever our clients require.”

At the end of the month, the hearts were dismantled and distributed to sponsors for use as they wished.

“The sponsors own them and they’re now popping up all over Chicago,” says Henson. “Some have gone to schools, and others have been installed outdoors. Overall it’s been a massive success.”

Photos courtesy of Signs by Tomorrow—Bloomingdale.


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