Unconventional artist, UIC alumnus Brian K. Ellison
Brian K. Ellison, BARCH ’92, has quite the resume. A UIC degree in architecture. Three years as vice president of Chicago’s largest minority single-family home developer. Development manager of large-scale residential sites in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Eight years with The Habitat Co., working to provide new homes for the displaced residents of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green housing projects. A two-year stint in Amsterdam as part of an American-Dutch exchange program. Owner of a custom furniture business, BKE Designs, in Chicago.
“I’ve come full circle,” says Ellison. “I did four years of woodshop in high school—I made go-carts from scratch, tree houses … I made a chessboard when I was 14 that was exhibited in the Museum of Science and Industry. I’ve always been a maker.”
Nothing in his shop goes to waste—Ellison is big on ecology, and points out barrels of wood scrap and a two-story-high chamber of swept sawdust that feed the wood-burning furnaces that heat the building.
Ellison began pondering a career change after 9/11. “It caused me to reprocess important things in my life,” he says. The furniture maker ended up doing volunteer work in South Africa, helping to build an AIDS clinic, and got a creative jolt at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which “pushed me over the edge.”
“‘I’m going to be an artist,’” he thought. After a two-year partnership with famed Dutch designer Faas van Dijk, he returned to Chicago and got down to business. Ellison now sells his custom furniture, lighting and wood creations to restaurants, architects, homeowners and corporate clients; a table he designed sits in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.
In 2015, Ellison’s work won him a coveted spot on Spike TV’s Framework, which “is like America’s Top Chef, but for furniture makers,” he says. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was the oldest contestant there. It was crazy. I made it through eight of 10 episodes—a lot further than my wife and I thought I would—so I guess I did OK.”
Ellison’s wife, Asali Naimah, is a corporate administrator and Middle-Eastern dancer who joins her husband in his second career (or third and fourth, depending) as a poi fire dancer. “Poi was developed in New Zealand,” Ellison explains. “There are two balls attached to chains with loops on the end. You dip them in lamp oil, light them on fire, swing them around and try not to hit yourself in the process.”
Together, he and his wife have performed at wedding receptions and corporate events. Once a month, weather permitting, Ellison can sometimes be seen with other poi dancers participating in the Foster Avenue Beach’s Full Moon Jam, an officially sanctioned Chicago Park District event. Ellison’s performance art experience is yet another aspect of the furniture maker’s eclectic CV.