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Graphic artist Jenny Beorkrem finds she's a poster child for knockoffs of neighborhood maps

Ork Posters is the design shop behind Chicago's popular neighborhood maps

Melissa Harris

Chicago Confidential

September 13, 2012

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Graphic artist Jenny Beorkrem sat down behind her iMac this week and with a few clicks located the folder titled "KNOCKOFFS."

It contained 82 images, all copycats of her ubiquitous neighborhood maps. They're the minimalist ones that only show the names of Chicago's neighborhoods wedged inside their geographic boundaries.

Some of the files in the knockoff folder are screen grabs of imitators' e-commerce sites. Others are posters Beorkrem and her friends have spotted in locales as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom. Even Nike mimicked her design for a 2008 Chicago Marathon T-shirt. Most of the knockoffs, including Nike's, prompted cease-and-desist letters from Beorkrem's attorney.

Beorkrem said she'll often be at someone's house, spot one of her posters and realize the host is clueless that the artist is in the room.

"Oh, yeah, people never know," Beorkrem, 29, said as we walked to her Montrose Avenue shop from her soon-to-open one located in a garage about a half-mile away. "It has to be a friend, who will say something like, 'You know Jenny designed that.' And they'll be like, 'What!' People don't think it's a person making them. They think it comes from the top down, from some design firm in New York or something."

That's what I assumed until I read about Beorkrem in Chicago-based Design Bureau magazine and then tracked her down at last weekend's Renegade Craft Fair in Wicker Park.

An Iowa native and University of Wisconsin graduate, Beorkrem previously designed graphics for Chicago-based marketing firm The Bond Group. Many years ago she spotted a map of Chicago's neighborhoods that she liked but wasn't modern enough for her style. She never found exactly what she wanted, so she decided to design one for herself and hang it in her apartment. Friends seemed to take to it.

In summer 2007, she used her brother's credit card to buy the necessary supplies to print 20 or so and started an online store on Etsy.com. She sold the posters for $30. They cost $20 to make. And Etsy took $2.

"I made them to fit into an Ikea frame; that's how I picked the size," she said. After a customer requested a neighborhood map of Brooklyn, she decided to learn how to screen print art from Steve Walters, the founder of Screwball Press and one of Chicago's most prolific concert poster designers.

By Christmas 2007, Beorkrem's posters had been featured on several influential design blogs. Business was taking off. She built her own website, cutting out Etsy's fees, and sales soon averaged about 20 per day. By early 2008, Beorkrem was making enough money to quit her job and work full time on Ork Posters, a spinoff of her last name.

"People work all their lives to try to get an idea like that — that takes off like her posters have," said Walters, who prints Ork's products as Beorkrem focuses on the business. "It seems like every frame shop in Chicago uses her posters to show off their frames in their front windows. ... People will walk in and see them on the floor of the shop. And everyone who sees them has seen them somewhere else before."

Anyone with Adobe Illustrator and access to a printer can replicate Beorkrem's work. And as a three-woman shop, Ork can't afford to sue every imitator.

Authentic Ork digital prints have an "Ork Inc." copyright centered at the bottom, and Beorkrem authenticates her screen prints with her initials signed on the back.

Beorkrem has since expanded her offerings to include the neighborhoods of many of the world's largest cities. "London was the hardest," she explained. "It's not built on a grid." And now she's diagraming other places and objects, such as the heart, the brain and the Great Lakes.

So, what's her next design?

"I can't tell you because people will steal it."

Marketing the past

Jay Richman, the owner and operator of the Mallers Building on Wabash Avenue's Jeweler's Row, thinks he has found the key to marketing his nearly 100-year-old building via social media.

The key, he says, is the past. He's asking longtime customers and building tenants to dig up historical records and memorabilia and write down their stories related to the building so he can post them on Facebook and Twitter.

"Everybody wants the old stuff," he said. "That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to pick the brains of as many of the previous-generation jewelers to gather as much information as we can."

In his own research in the building's basement, he has uncovered an invoice dated Oct. 2, 1928, from tenant A. Quint & Co. to customer "Al Capone, Lexington Hotel" for $400 worth of silverware and table accessories including a "large berry spoon" and a "tomato server."

Richman did a quick Google search and discovered that testimony from Abraham J. Quint and bills totaling $5,932.32 for silverware and jewelry from A.J. Quint & Co. at 5 S. Wabash Ave. were used in the Internal Revenue Service's investigation into tax evasion by Capone.

Richman said he hopes to find more historic gems in the 10 or so unopened boxes in the basement.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential or Facebook at facebook.com/chiconfidential.