The Secret Life of High-End Chicago Architectural Designer Linc Thelen

A sought-after designer with a mile-long waitlist, Linc Thelen found himself with lukewarm leads and diminishing contracts as the real estate boom fizzled. And then – poof! – it all dried up. Now he's in demand again as an architectural designer and as an artist.

Photo courtesy of Linc Thelen Hollywood took notice of Thelen's rising star. Warner Bros. requested permission to use his painting Still Life Vase With Two Lemons in the film Contagion.

He's waiting for a photographer, prepping for a shoot at his studio. Surrounded by six-foot-tall canvases and smaller paintings hung in tidy groupings, Thelen, who has a disarming charm and Twilight good looks, explains the evolution of an idea. He picks up an ice pick he's used for 20 years (it belonged to his mother) and a paint-encrusted bowl big enough for a hearty serving of soup. Two ordinary objects. This is what he began using to trace patterns of circles, the first explorations of a new style, after the bottom fell out.

Customization is a trademark of high-end Chicago architectural designer Linc Thelen's firm. “Every piece of furniture in this Lincoln Park living room is custom-made for the client using our furniture craftsmen.”

It's a fool's errand to call the top of a trend, but by November 2009 Thelen knew – checks weren't coming in. This is a guy at the top of his game who ran a thriving architectural design firm. A designer who's father was in the building trades. A talent who's very first building was a 20-unit renovation. Now the phone was dead. With the real estate market in shreds, many industry pros quietly folded tent and disappeared. Thelen retreated to a third-floor walk-up to re-group and focus on his significant other: painting.

Photo courtesy of Linc Thelen Architectural Circles, an early study. Thelen's work is held in numerous private collections and in the permanent collection of alma mater Columbia College.

It took four years of feeding and sculpting his circle idea before these scenes tackling faith, greed, liberty and tenderness formed this eruption of work. The titles are imposing: Moving Mountains, Descent of the Cross, Saint Paul. “When the paintings were all together, I saw it,” he says. Episodes when he was “trying to create something new in my art, or frustration with my business.” And finally, renewal. “This work has been hidden for the last couple of years,” he says. “It's really like experiencing my life all over again.” A theme emerged: Adversity

Photo courtesy of Linc Thelen Melting Sky. One of Thelen's landscapes, a striking contrast to his early classical and still life work. He received a bachelor of fine arts from Northern University of Illinois.

Zhou B Art Center chose Thelen's work for its annual solo show. “The art has to be strong,” says general manager Michael Zhoushi. “Linc's work had matured so much, and he had a great story.” The exhibit and companion book are curated by Sergio Gomez of 33 Contemporary Gallery. Thelen's exposure has ramped several notches: This past February, Revision Home presented about 15 paintings, many available in its online store.

Now his previously flagging design business is crackling. The recovery wave in full effect, he has the schedule of a rock star. “We're crushed,” he smiles. This year, Linc Thelen Design was hired to create a modern take on a Grand Beach, Mich., farmhouse. He received commissions for two noteworthy renovations: An apartment listed in the National Register of Historic Places in Chicago, the 1927 Beaux Arts building at 399 Fullerton, and a head-turning 1926 apartment in the landmark 1209 Astor building.

Don't forget the private residences. “I love my clients,” he says. They love him, too; his business is built nearly 100 percent on referrals. He shows us finished work from a Lincoln Park home. “I custom built the table,” he says in an email exchange. “We took flooring from a school theater and used it for the table top.” It's that kind of attention and innovation he brings to every project.

And intensity. Thelen admits he's a 24/7 kind of guy. Always on, always creating, calling, planning. Asked how he's going to manage his soaring painting career and a re-invigorated design business, Thelen can't imagine a conflict. “I really enjoy what I do,” he says. “It's not work when you love it.”

Adversity – April 19 to May 11 at Zhou B Art Center, 1029 W. 35th Street.

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