R.B. Design Studio - Robert Basso

Bob Basso was born in Chicago in 1945. As a youth he travelled with family in Europe, where he discovered paper models of castles and cathedrals in the gift shops of tourist attractions. In his teens he worked part-time at a local print shop where he learned the craft of graphic design. After college, while working as a high-school art teacher in suburban Palos Heights, Basso was inspired to bring these two experiences together by designing a series of Chicago-themed paper cutouts.

Artist photo from 1974 Chicago Tribune article

The first model Basso created in 1972 was the Water Tower, a city landmark famed as a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire. Armed only with a few figures about the height of the building (culled from an encyclopedia) and a camera, he photographed the structure from every angle. Without access to plans or drawings of the building, he designed the model from measurements of the printed photos.

Chicago Water Tower model (1972)

The artwork for the model is done in simple line drawings. The layout and instructions are perhaps a bit rudimentary and the art crowded together on the page, and Basso admits nowadays that the designs look a bit "amateurish". But it seems that he was more interested in recreating the feel of the building through 3-dimensional forms rather than by detailed coloring or shading of the flat walls.

Detail of page 3 of Chicago Water Tower model (1972)

Models of the Art Institute and Field Museum followed, as well as a model created for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Basso designed these in the same way, by walking around each building photographing, and then measuring and drawing from these photos laid out together in a panorama. The models went through several printings, a thousand at a time. Early on, he received a cease-and-desist letter from Playboy Enterprises. The headquarters of Playboy with its prominent logo were located in the art deco Palmolive Building seen in the distance behind the Water Tower on the back cover photo of the book. With some artful scratching out of the company logo in the photo, the problem was fixed in the next reprinting of the model.

Once the model books were printed, Basso hit the street looking for gift shops and bookstores that would be interested in selling them. "I hoped I'd become a millionare!" he exclaimed in a recent interview, but peddling the books took a lot of work and was not always successful. At one point he secured a meeting with a downtown toy distribution company, but was told: "There's not much interest in paper models." Fortunately the Art Institute and Field Museum gift shops did carry the model kits as souvenirs for the many tourist visitors to the city.

Albright-Knox Art Gallery model (1973). Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Basso hoped to eventually create twelve cut outs in the series. A 1974 article mentions future plans for a model of the Sears Tower (the observation deck had just opened) and the First National Bank skyscraper, now known as Chase Tower. Sadly these further paper model designs were never completed. Instead Basso put his energy into jewelry-making and selling at craft shows. After retiring from teaching art, he began attending city council meetings in an effort to improve the street in front of his house. Eventually he decided to run for public office, and won the election. He has served as an alderman in Palos Heights since 2003.

A complete list of published paper model work by R.B. Design Studio:

1972 Chicago Water Tower: A Cut Out Build Up Paper Model. 8-page booklet printed on manila paper in brown and green ink R.B. Design Studio I
1973 Art Institute of Chicago: A Cut Out Build Up Paper Model. R.B. Design Studio II
1973 Field Museum: A Cut Out Build Up Paper Model. Reprinted 1974 R.B. Design Studio III
1973 Albright-Knox Art Gallery: A Cut Out, Paper Model. 16-page booklet printed in black and green ink R.B. Design Studio IV


"Landmarks: If you can't stitch 'em, glue 'em", Nancy Adams, Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1974

Phone interview with Bob Basso, October 2017