Harold Washington Library

Public library spaces for children have undergone significant transformation in the twenty-five years since the opening of the Harold Washington Library Center. In response to this cultural transformation, the new Thomas Hughes Children’s Library is a prototype of an active learning space within the Harold Washington Library Center that will be modeled across Chicago’s branch library locations.

Conceived under the Chicago Public Library vision of “home of the curious,” the space begins with the concept of the empty box – the idea that a child will transform their own environment based on their individual curiosities and interests. The empty box enables the child to shift from being a spectator to a full participant in their own learning.

The children’s library also creates a “parent incubator” space. This is where both parents and children can engage in a learning resource for enhancing their parenting skills and exploring and interacting with the journey that their children are on.

With the budget of a moderate renovation, the design team worked to economize systems, surgically renovate space and strategically apply the limited budget to the highest and best use of space.

To support this empty box approach, the furnishings within the space were selected to support the students’ creativity in space use, including the flooring. Flooring that provides a foundation for activities to happen, from puppet shows to computer work, creates a welcoming and playful aesthetic for children and their families.

The new children's library is organized into three age-specific neighborhoods clustered around a central plaza:

  • Each neighborhood creates a place of belonging and is defined by a low, sweeping border of wood shelving and furniture pieces that can be reconfigured based on the library’s needs.
  • The plaza is the central gathering place for all ages, offering flexible furniture and shelving that can be moved around easily to support a variety of activities with a STEAM and literary focus.
  • An entry gallery showcases items that children have made in the Library, inspiring newcomers and regulars alike to explore their own curiosities and tinkering potential.


Chicago, Illinois, USA

Design Firm



Public Sector
  • Government
  • Collection

    Color At Work

    Products Used

    color form tile
    achromatic tile
    glitch tile
    duotone tile

    Case Study