Don Erickson began his apprenticeship to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1948, on a dare from a college professor. He was an 18-year-old who was torn between a career as an architect and a life as a classical pianist. He left Taliesin three years later, after winning accolades for the home he designed for his father. He is known for bold designs of private homes and public buildings, many in suburban Chicago
Erickson’s Swedish parents had different visions of the best career for their son. His mother, Ebba, wanted him to be a pianist, while his father, Gunnar, a master staircase designer and builder, encouraged his interest in architecture. (Note: Gunnar designed staircases for Keck and Keck.)
“I didn’t want to be an architect. I had no interest, and buildings were boring. I didn’t know they could be a way of life. when a friend of my dad’s, another architect, showed me Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s book [In the Nature of Materials The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright 1887-1941 New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942]; I was dumbfounded.
“It had a gravity that dragged me into the book and into Mr. Wright that was inescapable. It was a good black hole to be sucked into. I couldn’t get enough Wright. I never imagined that spaces could be made this intriguing and challenging, that architecture could be a way of life.
“Architectural Forum came out in 1948 before I went to Taliesin. I tried to emulate Mr. Wright’s work by studying the drawings. It was a real revelation.” This was the second edition of the magazine devoted entirely to Wright’s work. The first was published in 1939.
Marion Gutnayer, Erickson’s professor at the University of Illinois had criticized one of his projects, and Erickson blurted out, “Frank Lloyd Wright would have done it this way.” Erickson says that Gutnayer exploded in his thick French accent, “Eef you like heem so much, go to heem!”
“That was another turning point in my life. I would have never thought of going to Taliesin to be with Mr. Wright. It would have never occurred to me that you could study with Beethoven, with Michaelangelo, that you could do things like that.
“That explosion by my professor, I thought for microseconds, my god, what a wonderful idea! I didn’t mean it (his retort to the professor) as an insult. He opened up the doors to a new life.”
Erickson, his father, and cousin drove to Taliesin, and were told by an apprentice that there was a two year waiting list to join the Fellowship. Erickson was disappointed when they drove away. A few minutes later he told his father he was not ready to give up. He called Taliesin from a pay phone. Wright, himself, answered the phone. Erickson recalls the conversation:
“I want to be your apprentice!”
“Can I see you?”
“Yes, where are you?”
“In Spring Green. I can be there in ten minutes.”
“Meet me in the studio.”
He was invited to begin his apprenticeship at Taliesin West.
Erickson left Taliesin when his father commissioned him to build a house in Inverness, Illinois, in 1951. “Why leave? I suppose it’s like a bird in the nest who has never taken flight. I had my own ideas to express. My father gave me a chance to build something that my mind had created. When I left I told Mr. Wright that I’d be back and I fully intended to be back.” Instead, he earned more commissions in suburban Chicago, and never went back to the Fellowship.
Don Erickson says, “My theory is you don’t design until you analyze what the clients needs are. You have to analyze the problem. You do that up here, not with a pencil. When you analyze the problem, the solution becomes apparent. The problem becomes the solution which becomes the idea. I always come up with the idea sitting and listening to classical music, or driving in a car, or over the roar of the jet engine, flying cross country. You argue with yourself. You become enough of a critic to overcome the euphoria of an idea. You have to bring the euphoria to something which is manageable, which works, which is within your budget.
Don Erickson has designed numerous custom homes in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, as well as his most well-known project, the Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, IL.
Sources: Mark Hertzberg, Wright in Racine
For more Mr. Hertzberg’s article, with photos, go to:
For more on Indian Lakes Resort:
Don Erickson: 1929 – 2006
Architect designed Indian Lakes resort
By Graydon Megan
Special to the Tribune
October 27, 2006
A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, architect Don Erickson’s 55-year career featured houses and buildings that were delicate, beautiful and always original.
“Every building is a unique piece of art,” said his wife, Patricia, citing a building she and her husband called the Bird Cage apartments near Ridge and Pratt Boulevards on the Far North Side of Chicago.
“[The building] inspired me to become an architect,” said Mettawa architect Thomas Heinz. He said Mr. Erickson’s design incorporates thin vertical black metal elements reminiscent of bird cage wires against a creamy rough stone structure.
Perhaps Mr. Erickson’s best-known design is Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, completed in the 1980s. To avoid the boxy look and long corridors of many hotels, he designed a pyramid shape with hexagonal rooms and interior spaces and a six-story atrium lobby.
Mr. Erickson, 77, died of multiple myeloma, which he battled for 13 years, Tuesday, Oct. 24, in his Barrington home.
Mr. Erickson grew up around Chicago. His father built staircases and his mother was a classical pianist, and he was torn between music and architecture.
He was drawn to Wright after seeing some of the architect’s buildings near his home in Portage Park. His father gave him a book of Wright’s work, which prompted him to pursue architecture at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, where he began in 1948 after graduating from Proviso High School. As the story goes, he told a professor that an assignment was “not the way Wright would do it.” The professor responded by telling Mr. Erickson that if he liked Wright so much, he should go study with him.
Mr. Erickson was initially turned away from Wright’s Taliesin studio in Wisconsin and drove to a pay phone and called the studio. Wright answered and agreed to take him on as an apprentice if he would go to Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona. He was with Wright for three years, splitting time between Arizona and Wisconsin until he started his own practice in 1951.
“Don considered Mr. Wright a second father,” his wife said. “It was a very powerful time in his life.” Wright is said to have put his arm on Mr. Erickson’s shoulder while telling him the world had enough musicians and what it needed was good architects.
By 1952, Mr. Erickson was building his first house, for his parents, in Inverness. In December of that year, he married his first wife, Shirley Erickson. She said that instead of a honeymoon in Mexico, the couple spent two weeks driving icy roads to look at Wright houses in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.
The couple soon built a house for themselves near Palatine. By 1966 they had a house on 10 acres on the north side of Barrington and lived there with their three children. A tornado in April 1967 destroyed the home, but Mr. Erickson rebuilt on the foundation and lived there the rest of his life.
Mr. Erickson spent some time in the 1970s helping to establish a design program at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. While there he met and married his second wife, Sharon Dam. They later divorced.
Mr. Erickson was co-founder in 1998 of the Association of Licensed Architects, where he sought to offer architects continuing education and other benefits at reasonable dues.
Patricia Lusk renewed an acquaintance with Mr. Erickson in 1989 when she asked if she could be an unpaid summer intern in his office as part of her course work in interior design at Arizona State University. She said the experience featured a great deal of work. They were married six months later on her Christmas break, before she went back to finish work on her degree.
“We were beautiful together as a team,” she said. Their collaboration won a recent Sub-Zero Kitchen Design Award as well as an award for an addition at what is now Fifth Third Bank in Wauconda. “He lived and breathed architecture,” she said. “He was still working up until last week.”
“He stood up for what’s right and true,” Heinz said. “You can see that in his buildings–honest buildings from an honest man.”
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune