Places that Work: Palmer House Lobby

Privacy, both physical and electronic, is a hot topic these days. The recent uproar surrounding Google’s changes to their privacy policies shows just how much it matters in virtual space. So does the continuing battle we wage to keep our electronic data and e-mail addresses safe from hackers. In the physical world, tussles over allowed fences regularly enliven neighborhood association meetings and houses without nearby neighbors are always in style.

 In my travels, I often search for private moments to catch my breath, relax, and get ready for the next meeting. For instance, when I’m in Chicago and between appointments, I duck into the Palmer House Hotel’s lobby. Here I feel physically alone and peaceful. And I know that I’m in just about the best public space in town,  a place where private conversations can happen.

High-backed upholstered chairs are arranged in pods that form enclaves reminiscent of the high-end restaurant booths. The chairs protect sitters’ backs in ways that our savanna- roaming ancestors would have appreciated. This sort of restricted access, whether it’s physical or ephemeral, is crucial for privacy; the background music in the lobby is loud enough to further increase those feelings.

The arrangements of chairs and central tables focus people in each seating group on each other, while protecting their territories. These arrangements play to our territorial natures, while they aid eye contact in conversations. This is a space we can control. And when we occupy such a space, we feel relaxed.

While other seating areas in the lobby don’t have high backs, there’s enough space between them to create the same bond between users we find in the pods. The seats can be rearranged, just enough so that people are free to position themselves in socially comfortable configurations (facing one another across the table, across a corner). Each time I’m here understand what environmental psychologists mean when they say that mastery over our physical environment and behavior options always give us an emotional boost.

But there’s more to the lobby at the Palmer House than these seating areas. There’s a bar and access to the ballroom. This whole space behaves as a hive of private conference nodes, the kind where you can safely gather after a harrowing brush with unwelcome intrusions into our virtual or physical worlds.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at 

Last week, Sally Augustin wrote about HOK’s Chicago office.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized