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Dream Factory

HMR Designs perfects the stunning special event.

Robert Mertzlufft, president of HMR Designs


The sense of being plucked from reality and plopped into a world of imagination and impossibility— Dorothy felt it when she stepped from her black-and-white farmhouse into Technicolor Oz; Charlie felt it on his wide-eyed tour of Wonka’s chocolate paradise. And while those kinds of experiences are usually reserved for fairy tales and soundstages, in Chicago, HMR Designs (1200 N. North Branch St., 773.782.0800,—an event decor firm that operates out of a sprawling 150,000-square-foot warehouse and office facility on Goose Island—has the magic touch.

As of this fall, HMR is the new name for a company assembled from three brands that had each established themselves as powerhouses on the city’s event-production landscape. For decades, Heffernan Morgan had been a staple of the society wedding and charity ball circuit. Botanicals was a boutique design firm with a floral focus, and Ronsley Special Events was known for staging everything from massive corporate events, to championship celebrations for the Bulls and Bears, to lavish mitzvahs.

“Our capabilities are limitless now,” says Robert Mertzlufft, a former protege of Bill Heffernan who is now the president of the HMR superbrand. “We’ve picked up the best habits of each operation’s practices.” With minimal whittling of staff, the talent pool from the three companies—a full-time team of 57—now works in the building that was once Ronsley’s headquarters. As the company’s creative director, Bill Heffernan is there, too—though with Mertzlufft steering the ship.

The HMR building looks fortress-like from the outside, but inside, it teems with colors and ideas. When The Field Museum opened its Chicago World’s Fair exhibit with a lavish gala in October, HMR’s prop department built three giant, rotating Ferris wheels and suspended them from the ceiling above the black-tie crowd. For a client’s recent 60th birthday at the Park West, HMR transformed the concert venue into an Alice in Wonderland spectacle, complete with 15-foot mushrooms. And for weddings and bar mitzvahs taking place on the weekend we peeked inside HMR’s design studios, dozens of table arrangements were being created from flowers that had been coaxed into just the right state of bloom. Elsewhere in the building, faux basketball-hoop centerpieces were being built for a young sports fan.

“What happens with a lot of big businesses in our field is that they stop focusing on what’s really beautiful and just go for wow every time,” says Heffernan. “But our design staff are actually all trained florists. If you want gorgeous flowers, you know where to come.” And thanks to HMR’s on-site graphics department, wood and metal shop, seamstresses and treasure trove of props, “If you want a giant production, we can do that too.”