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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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org