Portrait Play

One Chicago-based artist is making a name for old-world portraiture — literally.

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Based on a 19th-century portrait, Emma would be bound to the walls of a museum if not for the abrupt brush stroke across her eyes, which gives her a contemporary, cheeky wink.

Artist Josh Young has that witty way about him.

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“[The slash] makes it uneasy — but it’s fresh and unstuffy,” says Young, whose avant-garde approach to classical portraits toes the line between playful and refined. Emma is one in a collection of many, which were quick to catch the likes of interior top-tiers including Nate Berkus, Jonathan Adler and Kate Maker. Both versatile and viral, they’ve also become a mainstay on the walls of more amateur art collectors everywhere.

“Two years ago, no one knew me,” says Young. “No one saw my work.” 

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The first American graduate of Milan’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Young’s art is highly influenced by his time spent in Europe, where he sourced countless artifacts under the public domain. Subsequently, a stint in New York City’s textile industry introduced him to interior design. “It was all great fun, but I knew I really wanted to have complete creative control.”

What started atop his dining room table, Josh Yöung Design House, now comprises an entire corner unit just floors below the one he and his husband have lived in since they transplanted from the Flatiron District in 2016. Nestled in the city’s Gold Coast, the pre-war site is a romantic, unfussy vestige of what the area used to be — a through-line that carries into Young’s creative work. 

“It’s such a great source of inspiration for me,” says Young, who fell for the building’s 1929 architecture. “I’m all about taking old-world and vintage elements and introducing something new.” 

That juxtaposition is apparent in his simultaneously nostalgic yet refreshing studio. The sea of ivory is interrupted by two circa 1930s Scalamandre Le Tigre stools. An antique secretary desk stores hundreds of old French, Italian, English and early American documents for his collection, Bibliothèque. Tools of the trade – from photo prints to paint brushes to books on Picasso – look just as beautiful and interesting as the artwork they inspire. 

Regardless of size, this is a space you could get lost in.

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Young’s approach to art and design are one in the same. “Don’t take anything too literally,” he advises, cautioning that abiding to a particular style or aesthetic lacks interest and personality. “Find things that matter to you.” 

On that note, you’ll surely find an assortment of Young’s original works scattered across the studio — from his Parisian exposition posters to his signature portraits. Though, Young admits, “Emma is my favorite.”