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.
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
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 painting.
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.
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.
See More Art and Design by Linc ThelenView All 5 Photos
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