On September 26 of last year, John de la Vaux died. Builder of some of John Lautner’s most memorable buildings, de la Vaux brought unique qualities and experience to the job, along with a brilliant mind. It is unlikely such a builder will ever be seen again. It is no exaggeration to say that John Lautner’s name would not be as well known if his collaboration with de la Vaux had not happened, happily for both.
John de la Vaux’s daughters have created this beautiful testimony to his life:
John Douglas de la Vaux
1912 – 2018
With heavy hearts we announce the passing of our Dad, John
de la Vaux, on September 26, 2018, at the age of 106. His mind remained sharp
until the very end, but his body was just worn out.
John was born in Daley City, California, July 4, 1912, the
fifth child of Alfred and Aimee de la Vaux.
In 1916 the family moved to San Anselmo. He was enrolled in the First
Grade in a one-room school in 1917, only to be removed when the Pandemic
Spanish Flu broke out. John was again enrolled in school and again removed due
to his father’s incarceration for being a German during WW I, an episode that
his father never recovered from. John was enrolled and removed a third time
when he was mis-diagnosed with polio. The family moved to San Diego in 1920,
hoping for a better life in the wake of the War and John was finally enrolled
in First Grade at eight years old. He was blessed with a photographic memory so
was able to catch up quickly. During those years in san Diego, he fished for
food for his family and frequented the boat-building yards, picking up skills
he would use in the future. He even watched the building of Lindberg’s Spirit
of St. Louis airplane! The family moved to Hollywood, California when John was
about 16 years old and he was enrolled at Le Conte Jr. High School. He attended
Hollywood High School and left school in the eleventh grade when he was 20
Life was tough during the post-War years and schooling was
interrupted several times when John took jobs to help support his family. The
move to Hollywood located the family across the street from the girl who would
be the love of his life. His future father-in-law took him into the building
trade and gave him the building education of a life-time. They helped to build
the brand-new Beverly Hills community!
John married Marguerite Bell in 1933, a marriage that lasted
64 years until her death in 1997. They were blessed with three children:
Johnette, Marguerite, and Douglas.
Employment of any kind was hard to find in the 1930s when the Country was still in the throes of the financial crash of 1929. John worked in building construction, on highway projects up and down the California coast, commercial fishing and boat building. When WWII started, he was too old for the Draft. The building trades dried up. Boat-building and commercial fishing supported his family. He built speed-boats for the Actor and Actress John Hall and Frances Langford, and Actor Errol Flynn. When the U.S. Navy wanted to increase the speed of 45-50 mph P.T. Boats, John was involved in a top-secret modification, designing and building a wood hull that would withstand speeds of up to 120 mph. He was on-board the boat when it was tested with new super-charged engines in Long Beach Harbor. The test was successful, but the Navy was daunted by the ultra-speed and cancelled the contract. In 1942, Lockheed Overseas Corporation contracted John as a crew supervisor and sent him to Northern Ireland to build an airstrip for the Allies. He crossed the Atlantic, in a convoy, on the Queen Elizabeth which had been modified as a Troop Ship, at a time when German submarines had become a deadly threat.
In 1947, Marguerite had become friends with the wife of an up-and-coming modernistic Architect, John Lautner, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. John Lautner was looking for a builder to construct a very modernistic house in the Hollywood Hills. The two Johns were introduced, and a liaison of 40 years was sealed. Through those 40 years, John de la Vaux built seven John Lautner designs; the most famous (throughout the world) is the Chemosphere house which is still known as the most modern house ever built.
Another design, the Harpel house, built beside a small lake in Anchorage, Alaska, was featured in the October 6, 1967 issue of Life Magazine. As John states in the documentary, “Infinite Space,” his life wouldn’t have been complete had he not built those homes. The homes he built:
Malin Residence (Chemosphere)
Harpel Residence no. 1 and no. 2
Began the Reiner Residence
Most of the Tolstoy Residence
Remodeled Stevens Residence
John built many more homes designed by other Modern
Architects, including a home for George C. Page, founder of Mission Pack. John
was subsequently hired as a consultant on the construction of the George C.
Page Museum La Brea Discoveries at Rancho La Brea, Hancock Park, in Los
John and Marguerite retired to Carson City, Nevada, in 1987,
to be nearer his son and daughters as Marguerite was taken away by dementia. He
cared for her for 10 years until her death in 1997. For the past 12 years, John was writing a
book on how the Pyramids at Giza were constructed: how the stones were moved,
lifted and put in place. He was also writing his life history. His Daughter,
Marguerite, hopes to complete his Pyramid book.
Besides being a “builder extraordinaire”, our Dad had a love
affair with food throughout his life. He was truly a gourmet cook! He was an
avid reader of scientific and nature publications and his phenomenal memory
allowed him to quote minute details about a myriad of subjects. It is said that when a centenarian dies, an
encyclopedia of knowledge dies with them.
He was our encyclopedia.
John was pre-deceased by his parents and 5 siblings; wife,
Marguerite; grandson, Leonard Bright; daughter-in-law, Jeanine de la Vaux;
granddaughter, Danielle de la Vaux; and granddaughter, Laura Dolan
Bright-Ruecker. He is survived by his daughters, Johnette Deane and Marguerite
Dolan (Joe), son, Douglas de la Vaux (Mary), 2 grandsons, 3 granddaughters, 8
great-grandchildren and 9 great-great-grandchildren.
Dad, we could ask you about anything and you would always know
something about it.
Your cooking was beyond amazing; you could dream up a recipe and create
a gourmet feast.
We miss you so — you gave so much to so
many. Thank you for all you gave to us.
Are you interested in purchasing the English edition of Lautner A-Z, the new book by Tycho Saariste and Jan-Richard Kikkert? It isn’t available yet but when it is you can buy it from the Foundation. To make sure you are notified when we receive the copies, please complete this simple form.
About the book:
An Exploration of the Complete Built Work
by Jan-Richard Kikkert & Tycho Saaristewith an introduction by Alan Hess
English version to be released Spring 2019
paperback, size: 6.7 x 9.4 inch (17 x 24 cm)386 pages with aprox. 500 b&w and colourimages
Publisher: ArtEZ Press
From the front flap:
The American architect John Lautner (1911-1994) was well ahead of his time. His original, unconventional and very versatile oeuvre was never repetitive. His concern for the dreams and desires of his clients, his sensitivity to the location of his buildings and his interest in the latest technical developments in were constants in his work.
Lautner blurred the boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces, between nature and architecture.Lautner’s oeuvre spans more than half a century, from his first independent commission in 1939 until his death in 1994. In this time period he carried out 144 of his designs, 103 of which are still standing. Most of them are located in and around Los Angeles.
Lautner’s work developed greatly throughout the years: he started off close to his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright and ended with an uninhibited, unique and personal architectural style.
This book provides an unprecedented treasury of information about all of Lautner’s built works. It is an odyssey, the story of two architects on a mission: Jan-Richard Kikkert and Tycho Saariste located, visited and described all the surviving buildings. This began with finding the correct addresses through Google Earth and ended with studying dusty rolls of drawings in owners’ attics. Each house visit is described separately, with a focus on striking architectonic elements, the locations and the clients.
Kikkert and Saariste also conducted extensive (archival) research on buildings that no longer exist and designs that were never built. The book is richly illustrated, often with photographs made specially for this book.
‘The purpose of architecture is to improve human life.’ John Lautner
‘After years of indefatigable research, Tycho and Jan-Richard’s book adds an invaluable resource for our understanding of Lautner. The contentiousness around Lautner’s work was probably inevitable, given his particular genius. For him, architecture was about finding the creative and perfect solution to the problem without concern for precedent, tradition, or fashion.’ Alan Hess
Palm Springs Modernism Week is celebrating John Lautner this year, by dedicating a sidewalk star to him and offering several other Lautner-related events. Most of the events take place on Friday, February 17, 2017, the day after Modernism Week officially begins. Here is your itinerary, should you choose to attend:
Begin with The Visionary John Lautner, a lecture by Alan Hess at the Annenberg Theatre inside the Palm Springs Art Museum. The lecture is from 10 – 11 am; tickets are $12 each.
Appropriately following at 11:30 in the same place is Arthur Elrod = Diamonds are Forever, a lecture by Adele Cygelman. Cygelman will demonstrate that Elrod in his own right was a designer of lasting value. The event ends at 12:30; tickets are $12 each.
Next on what has informally become known as “Lautner Day” is the dedication of the star. The star will be inset in Palm Canyon Drive outside the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. There will be brief presentations by special guests and light refreshments afterwards. The event is free and there are no reservations.
The star was one of the goals of Karol Lautner Peterson, who headed The John Lautner Foundation from its inception in 1995 to her death in August 2015. We of the Foundation Board are especially pleased that the architecture and preservation groups in Palm Springs worked so hard to make it happen.
The final event of Lautner Day is the screening of Bette Cohen’s wonderful documentary, The Spirit in Architecture: John Lautner, at the Annenberg Theatre at 4:30 – 6:00 pm. Tickets are $10 each. The film is the 25th anniversary edition, newly updated and remastered from the original 1991 film by Bette Cohen. The screening is dedicated to Bette, who died in October 2016. Bette’s co-producer, Evelyn Wendel, will introduce the film. (See an account of the making of the original film, written by Cohen.)
While this list of events completes Lautner Day, there is still more.
On Sunday, February 19, Hotel Lautner will offer tours of the remodelled Desert Hot Springs Motel at 10 am, 11:15 am, and 12:30 pm. Visitors will be able to tour two of the units. Tickets are $50 each, a portion of which will be donated to the John Lautner Foundation. Members of the Foundation Board of Directors and volunteers will be at a table at the event, offering DVDs of Infinite Space and Tributes for sale and answering questions about Lautner’s work.
That night is a party with a purpose: Hotel Lautner – A Night for Preservation. Hotel owners Tracy Beckmann and Ryan Trowbridge will host another tour of the hotel and will introduce founders Ron Woodson and Jaime Rummerfield of Save Iconic Architecture (SIA). Proceeds will benefit SIA. Tickets are $125 each, 21-and-over only.
And finally, on Wednesday, February 22, Tracy Beckmann, co-owner of Hotel Lautner, will present what she has learned from renovating the Desert Hot Springs Motel (original name). Beckmann will speak at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club from 3-4 pm. The event is free but reservations are recommended.
The “Multiple Property Submission” of eight Lautner homes to the State Historic Resources Commission was approved in Sacramento this morning, January 29, 2016. The eight properties are the John & Mary Lautner House, the Foster Carling House, the Schaffer House, the Harvey House, the Harpel (Hollywood) House, the Pearlman Mountain Cabin, the Elrod House, and the Walstrom House.
The commission noted that seven letters had been received in support of the nominations.
The primary authors of the application, Lauren Bricker and Luis Hoyos, both teachers of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, were present, as was ChristineLazzaretto of Historic Resources Group, who prepared the final revisions, and Judith Lautner representing the John Lautner Foundation. Students in the Cal Poly classes did the initial research and preparation of the application. Commissioners complimented the Cal Poly professors on their efforts in introducing their students to this process.
The multiple property submission will now be forwarded to the State Historic Preservation Officer for nomination to the National Register. The final determination is made 45 days after receipt by the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C. As there have been no objections to the listing and the properties meet the criteria of the National Register they are expected to be listed.
The success of this application opens the door for additional applications by Lautner building owners and others. Much of the base work has been done. The Foundation is happy to assist with research and other aspects of the process. Please contact the Foundation through this form if you would like more information:
The Elrod House, one of the best known of the homes designed by John Lautner, will be listed for sale early this coming week, according to owner Michael Kilroy. Built in 1968 atop a ridge overlooking Palm Springs and the southern Coachella Valley, providing views also of the San Jacinto Mountains to the west and San Bernardinos to the north and east, this home has been featured in the James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever” and in many high-end advertising campaigns. As well-known and high-profile as the Elrod House is, Kilroy has helped create different kinds of memories of it for many people.
Judith Lautner first saw the house as a young woman working for her father, when the two visited Arthur Elrod soon after it was built and then later when he was working on the Hope residence. Lautner and Elrod had become good friends during the design and construction of Elrod’s house. Judith says that she loved visiting it at different times of the day because it became a different house every hour. Arthur’s death was a great loss to all who knew him and to the broader design world. He was both a major design force — John Lautner once remarked that no house he designed was better furnished than when Arthur furnished the Elrod House — and a kind man who generously helped many in the various communities around him.
Judith Lautner didn’t see the house again until many years later, when she and her sister Karol Lautner Peterson first met Michael Kilroy after he bought the property in 2003. Judith says, “Michael spoke highly of both the work of John Lautner and of the efforts of the John Lautner Foundation, then asked if Karol and I had ever stayed in a home designed by our father. Moments later, he offered to lend the house to us and members of the extended Lautner clan, so that we could all stay together in a home designed by John Lautner. It was a week-long stay which none of us will soon forget, one during which we drew lots for the privilege of spending the night in the main bedroom and cooked each night in the generous kitchen. I liked the guest bedroom so much I didn’t give it up all week.”
This generous sharing of the Elrod House with others became the norm under Michael’s ownership. When the Hammer Museum was organizing its landmark exhibition of the work of John Lautner, the first comprehensive exhibit of his work, and Michael learned that architectural historian Nicholas Olsberg and the other curators of the exhibit had never stayed in a Lautner house, he lent them his, his only caveat being that they stay for at least three nights, so they could “start to really get some of the subtleties of the design.”
As noted in the film “Infinite Space: the Architecture of John Lautner,” when the Dutch architects and students who were traveling to every known Lautner project arrived in Palm Springs and reached Michael by phone that morning, he asked where they were staying that night, then put them up in the house. Michael also provided the house to numerous groups for charity events, like the Palm Springs Preservation Society’s Retro Martini Party in 2010 (half of the profits went to the Foundation), and a series of TEDActive events in 2012, and opened it to the general public for multiple days of tours during Modernism Week 2012 with the proceeds donated to the Los Angeles Conservancy. Michael continued to share the property while a dispute over lender manipulation of mortgage interest rates dragged on between a multinational bank and hundreds of property owners including himself; the dispute lasted more than seven years and involved more than four years of litigation in half a dozen legal venues before that bank settled with him last year.
Michael’s sharing of the Elrod House in a variety of different ways, for more than a dozen years now, has meant that many more people than would otherwise be the case have been able to experience first-hand one of the greatest works of John Lautner. We are fortunate that owners like Michael Kilroy have been so impressed by John Lautner’s work that they not only buy and preserve these wonderful properties but also go out of their way to share them with others in ways which can greatly spread the enjoyment and understanding of these great designs.
The Elrod House will be listed by Tyler Morgan, Keith Markovitz and Todd Monaghan of HK Lane/Christie’s International Real Estate in Palm Springs.
Sacramento City Hall Council Chamber
915 I Street
Sacramento, Ca 95814
The application was prepared by two Cal Poly professors: Lauren Weiss Bricker and Luis Hoyos, with assistance from their students, and with revisions by Christine Lazzaretto of Historic Resources Group. It was a joint project of the Cal Poly professors and The John Lautner Foundation, which provided information and funding where needed.
The eight buildings are:
Foster Carling House
Pearlman Mountain Cabin
The application is the culmination of several years’ work, primarily by Bricker and Hoyos, and contains historical and architectural detail of each building, along with photographs. If the state commission approves the nomination it will be forwarded to the Keeper of the National Register, who will approve or deny the application.
It is rare for a nomination to be denied after the state office has approved it. If the application is approved, the listing will pave the way for further nominations of Lautner buildings. The Foundation intends to pursue additional nominations either on its own or in collaboration with others and encourages all owners of Lautner buildings to look into the potential for listing their Lautner property. We are happy to assist.
The application is expected to be on the “consent” agenda, which means that it will not be discussed separately. However, any consent item can be pulled from the agenda and discussed. Bricker and Hoyos expect to be at the meeting, along with representatives from Historic Resources Group, and members of the Board of Directors of the Foundation.
While not required, support in the form of letters is encouraged. There is no required format for such letters. We have provided a sample letter (in Microsoft Word format) to get you started.
Letters should be sent to
State Historical Resources Commission
P.O. Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296-0001
Or you can send comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Foundation’s primary purpose is the preservation of Lautner buildings along with the education of the public on the value and importance of Lautner’s architecture. Listing of these eight homes will provide a level of protection for the buildings as well as increased visibility of this architecture. We are therefore very excited about this application and mark it as a significant point in the Foundation’s history.
Karol Lautner Peterson died early in the morning of August 25, 2015, in her home. She was surrounded by close, loving family members.
Karol was the president of The John Lautner Foundation as well as a former member of several boards and commissions in Marquette, Michigan. She was a lifetime advocate for the work of John Lautner and worked tirelessly to preserve it and to educate others about it.
At the time of her death, Karol was working, along with the rest of the board of directors, with two Cal Poly Pomona professors to help list several Lautner buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. She was also studying methods for creating endowment funds, in hopes of creating one that will fund the Foundation over many years, and helping develop a preservation fund.
She was the guiding force that created the Foundation in 1996 and saw it through to its acceptance as an educational nonprofit in 1998.
She was instrumental in developing the year-long celebration of John Lautner’s 100th birthday in 2011. One of her prime achievements as head of the Foundation was the transfer of the John Lautner archive to the Getty, where it will be protected and preserved for generations to come. She was always celebrating the work of John Lautner in one way or another.
Aside from being a tireless worker for architecture, Karol was a loving mother of two, wife of many years to Bruce Peterson, oldest of seven children of her mother, enthusiastic volunteer at the DeVos Museum of Art (Marquette), preservationist of family history, and loving friend to more people than can be counted. She was always busy, and loved to relax by kayaking in Lake Superior. For 22 years she joined the walk across the Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day.
Services will be held in Marquette, Michigan, at the
First Presbyterian Church
120 N. Front Street on
Friday, August 28, 2015:
10 – 12 Visitation
12 – 1 Memorial Service
1 – 2 Reception in the church hall
In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be given to The John Lautner Foundation at http://www.johnlautner.org or the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter, 84 Snowfield Road, Negaunee, MI, 49866.
The Foundation also plans to host a memorial celebration of Karol Lautner Peterson’s life in the near future in the Los Angeles area. Details will be announced as soon as they are available.
The announcement of Duncan Nicholson’s death in January 2015 left many of us shocked and saddened. A valued associate of John Lautner for the last five years of Lautner’s life, Duncan worked on many Lautner projects and his work on the Sheats-Goldstein residence continued until Nicholson’s own death. In addition to designing many original projects for many clients, Duncan worked with owner James Goldstein to improve and enhance Goldstein’s remarkable residence and to bring to life the private nightclub on the site, essentially a Lautner-Nicholson joint collaboration.
Duncan was a passionate co-founder of The John Lautner Foundation, and served on its board for several years. His insight, integrity, and hard work made him a valuable contributor to the Foundation’s work as well as a close, trusted friend.
Here, in memory of this great, honorable, and creative man are words from a few of his many friends and colleagues that only begin to explain the value of the man and his work to the world of architecture:
Bette Jane Cohen:
I never got to say goodbye to you Duncan. What a loss for Real Architecture with your passing… I know you loved working on Real Architecture! You made a difference! I am honored I got to know you and grateful for all your hard work! You are an inspiration!
Thank you for all the support you gave me while I was making the film, “The Spirit In Architecture: John Lautner.” Thank you for helping me coordinate all the screenings and exhibitions with John.
What beautiful work you’ve done throughout your lifetime…and the amazing people that you’ve worked with. You are continuing the legacy of Frank Furness, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and John Lautner…
I remember how inspiring it was for you while you were working with Eric Lloyd Wright, then your amazing time with John Lautner.
I’ve kept my eye on your wonderful work up at the Sheats-Goldstein residence for years. I know you loved working with James Turrell and loved working on all those Skyspaces…Great job!
I know how much it meant to you to pass on your knowledge in your office and all those wonderful tours to the students! You will continue to make an impact Duncan!
I met Duncan while working together on a fundraiser for the MAK Center at the Sheats-Goldstein House. From the very start, I was impressed by his honesty and enthusiasm. We instantly became friends talking not just about architecture, but also surfing, his lovely wife, and his great outlook on life. His smile lit up the world. Duncan was one of the most generous, honest, humble, kind, and talented people I’ve ever met.
I think something architect Hans Hollein wrote about John Lautner also applies well to Duncan:
Hollein called his work “significant of Angelenos’ exuberance and generosity, of their undoubted and purposeful seizing and reaching out for the new, fantastic, and unconventional and their longing for built manifestations of freedom.” Naturally, Duncan had incredible respect for John Lautner. But it wasn’t the typical cold posthumous reverence we often display for important architects. Instead, it reflected a shared love for pleasurable sensation and provocation, a contagious affection for life richly lived. Duncan’s generosity and talent are irreplaceable, and architecture has suffered another tragic loss.
Karol Lautner Peterson:
Life is too short. We never know what will happen. Losing Duncan at such an early age is just unbelievable. He turned out to be an amazing architect designing many beautiful buildings and furniture. We have lost a faithful friend,companion, steward, and boss.
I will always be indebted to Duncan for agreeing to be a founding member of the John Lautner Foundation. His dedication was enormous. He was a loyal supporter.
I am very sad to hear of Duncan’s passing. I last spoke with Duncan at the inaugural tennis tournament at the Sheats/Goldstein Residence. I was acting as a docent for a MAK center tour and Duncan passed by, so I asked if he would speak about John Lautner. Even after knowing and working with Duncan, he still brought new insight as he spoke of John, the Residence, and ideas being built on the surrounding properties. Duncan was very direct, even to the point of telling me that “my architecture career would not start until l went to work on-site for a contractor”. I took his advice and for me I think that he was right. I have many good memories of my time spent with Duncan, Michael Wirts, and Roban Poirier. When I was studying architecture in school I imagined architectural teams with creativity and ingenuity that I witnessed in this group. Architecture has changed dramatically in the past decades, but maybe as Duncan Nicholson showed through his life, many of the guiding principles may stay the same.
I am deeply saddened by duncan’s unexpected departure.
a great architect.
I didn’t know Duncan personally. Although we had both worked with John at different times, our paths only crossed once, years later at an open house at the Goldstein residence, where we talked about his unusual work there.
His untimely exit finds me thinking of those sun-dappled clearings discovered unexpectedly by hikers when exploring forest trails. Experienced by only a few, the chance visitor finds their life brought sharply into focus. The moment remains indelibly etched in memory. Making those moments is what certain architects strive to accomplish. Duncan was one of them. I think he had many more to offer. His absence is our loss.
This sad loss also has me reflecting on the ever dwindling number of those who passed through Lautner’s orbit. It’s like the tail of that comet growing dimmer over time.
For us the living, Duncan’s passing is a moment to reflect on what’s still possible in life.
Duncan, come ‘round the office once more!
The exquisite office you created with your talents.
Regale me with stories while Glady patiently wags and waits for her Dad.
Have a scotch with me Dunc…
Talk to me of your visions and the integrity of fine design…
Tell me how much you love your lovely Lee…
Laugh on the phone with me until we both gasp…
Share never heard stories of you and John…
Come ‘round to me Duncan, once more come round
Only just this instant learned of Duncan’s death. He was such a source of light. This scarcely seems possible. My thoughts are with his family and those who loved him. The loss is immense.
I first met Duncan at john Lautner’s office when he first started working there approx. 1988. We mutually disliked each other immediately. He was the new kid on the block in Lautner’s office, and he did have something to prove. I had already been working for Mr. Lautner for 14 years, and had seen Draftsmen and Project Architects come and go. Only the ones who were meant to be there and work and learn from Mr. Lautner stayed, the rest blipped into the Architectural cosmos. Duncan stayed. He did all the low man on the totem pole jobs, and bitched about it. He was arrogant, and almost sometimes too much to take, but he grew on you. He did have talent. A lot of talent. It showed. Mr. Lautner started giving him better jobs to do. He was a great Architect in the making, and learning his craft from the Master. It was not until John Lautner’s funeral that Duncan and I started to bond, having cocktails at the Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. We started doing projects together, and worked well together. I always enjoyed visiting him at his office at the Airport and checking out his latest designs. His work at Sheats-Goldstein is epic, and the rest of his work yet to be built, but in the oven and getting built or getting ready to be built will also be timelessly awesome. I hope to build some of his unbuilt designs myself. He left way too soon. You are seriously missed. Un-replaceable. Goodbye old friend.
Duncan was always happy to talk about John Lautner’s Sheats/Goldstein house whenever I brought visitors there. He was very proud of the house and proud to be a part of its future. He will always have a place there and in our hearts. On a lighter note…. he got me wearing clogs again after I hadn’t worn them since the 70s!!
I knew Duncan for almost thirty years as a friend and fellow architect and he was truly one of a kind. Duncan was a wonderful spokesman for organicism in architecture, and an embodiment of the western, modernist pioneering spirit of Architecture that has created many of our greatest buildings in California. He was very generous with his time and his knowledge, regularly speaking to and touring through his projects with my graduate students and other architecture-seekers from around the world. It is a great loss to us all and he will be sorely missed, we send much love to his family and office from our camp in silverlake.
Duncan and I worked together in John Lautner’s office and then, after John died, collaborated for a couple of years on the development of Lautner’s designs for the Goldstein House. Professionally, Duncan was confident, energetic and inventive; unafraid to try anything once and willing to make it himself if necessary. He was funny and wildly opinionated; a political person who would guerrilla edit Robbie Conal posters in the middle of the night (this was the mid 90’s). I remember him best for his kindness; he was a generous and loyal friend ready to take care of your dog when you went to Europe or bring soup when you were ill.
It’s all very sad. Duncan’s friendship and talent was forthright, yet personal… loyal to John’s creations and vision, yet expressive and insightful. His work truly exhibited that energy. He was one of our founding board members, a tireless supporter of JLF’s main mission… to protect and care for John’s archives. So committed to continuing John’s vision, one only needs to walk around at Sheats-Goldstein since John’s passing to see this… in that all he has designed, with great respect to John’s master plan, while presenting his own strength as an architect possessing great creativity… a master of concrete finishes… beautiful details and forms, and above all he had great ingenuity and an persistence to keep the projects moving and get them built.
Duncan Nicholson was rightly proud of having been ‘the last man hired by John Lautner’. He understood this lineage and the responsibility this brought. Having worked with John for the last five years of Lautner’s life – on projects large and small – Duncan was also intimately involved in caring for his mentor, when the office and his trusted staff did everything to keep Lautner working.
Following Lautner’s death, Duncan became a founding – and central – board member of The John Lautner Foundation. Among other projects he, with Christopher Carr, oversaw the dismantling of the Goldstein Office and its transfer to LACMA. More importantly, Duncan continued the work on the Sheats/Goldstein House, following first Lautner’s designs and plans, but slowly and steadily leaving these behind to put his own mark on this important project. One only needs to compare Lautner’s original intentions, shown in a model at the Goldstein House, to the extraordinary project that was actually built. This building will exist for a long time. And with it, Duncan Nicholson’s name.
During our extensive John Lautner research we visited and interviewed most of Lautner’s former employees. The first time we met Duncan he was a bit distant to us, but when he noticed the detail of our research he changed entirely into a very friendly and open person. On our next visit to LA we had the chance to meet him again and had a lovely dinner in a restaurant. That night we became friends for life. Over a lot of wine he told us the greatest stories about Lautner and the work at his office, which we will never forget. He also impressed us with a very clear vision about how organic architecture should be made. He was extremely passionate about this. His work shows his love for architecture from the overall idea to the finest detail. I would have been so curious to see all his work in the next twenty years or so. However I was shocked to hear that he suddenly passed away and that the last addition of the Sheats-Goldstein house would remain his project for life. This is not fair, I am sure he had many more stories to tell. It is very sad we will not be able to hear them.
I feel very blessed to have been an apprentice under Duncan Nicholson. He took the time to mentor me over the years that I worked under his tutelage. He had the attributes that every man and architect should strive for. He was honorable in every aspect of his work and life, and he taught me that, like in life, one’s architecture should strive to be honest, original, and innovative.
The first time meeting Duncan I quickly realized that he was immersed in historic knowledge, bringing forth references on ancient truths. He was always articulate in his thoughts, on point in his writings, and exact in his drawings. Duncan was a one of a kind Architect and an artist in his own right. He took every chance to design as a profound opportunity to bring something beautiful into the world. No matter how small or how large he would make a lasting design that was unique in its form and true in its function. He was an individual who would rather struggle for commissions than compromise his integrity.
When he drew, I knew it was always an informed thought with a deep understanding and significance. I knew this because he taught me that I could hone that same skill to form and develop a design, and by controlling and training my mind I could quickly imagine, iterate, and then solve the idea. And only then was the complete idea worthy to be put down on to paper. This was just a glimpse of the love that he put into his work as he continued a long legacy of great design.
Duncan enjoyed surfing and rode countless waves at his favorite spot at Topanga, where it is only fitting as the place he would first meet his wonderful wife Lee. He had an amazing laugh and was youthful in his ability to get the joys out of the everyday. He was generous, and loyal, and always playful in his natural zest for life.
And above all of this he was also my friend, and I will miss you.
He was never short of words of wisdom, and I would like to share a few of Duncan’s sayings:
-The answer is always to be found in the problem.
-The first answer to a problem is often not the best answer.
-Only a Jackass assumes.
-Fact follows fiction.
-If God had a partner the world may not have been as beautiful.
Duncan and I worked together for 25 years on the completion of my house, the James Turrell sky space, and the adjacent tennis court/night club/office complex. There was never a project that was too big or too small for Duncan to tackle. He had tremendous vision along with great attention to details. If there was ever any problem on my property, I knew that a quick call to Duncan would get it solved. His years of working under John Lautner served him well, so that Duncan and I were always on the same wavelength when it came to the goal of designing every project in the way that John would have done it. I will miss Duncan very much.
For information on the memorial service for Duncan Nicholson, see this article. If you would like to contribute your memories of Duncan to this article, please send them to email@example.com
Education about and preservation of Lautner buildings