Craig Wickersham: From Child Prodigy to Esteemed Modernist Architect
2023 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Craig Wickersham
From child prodigy to esteemed desert modernist, architect Craig Wickersham has a life and career shaped by great stories.
By Nora Burba Trulsson | Portrait by Steve Craft
Architect and artist Craig Wickersham sits on a sofa at a Scottsdale house he designed, a tour de force of desert modernism that angles around a boulder-strewn hillside, perfectly framing views both near and far. As he traces the arc of his career, it’s clear he didn’t take the usual path to success. Anecdotes tumble out like polished gems, each glossed with a sense of humor. There’s getting a building permit for his first home design at the age of 13. Riding his bike to work at a Scottsdale architecture firm in high school. Serving Olgivanna Wright’s meals. Flying to job sites in notorious savings and loan felon Charles Keating’s luxe helicopter.
Those formative experiences and Wickersham’s natural talents for art and design have led him to become a sought-after architect for contemporary homes that reflect both the sites and clients’ needs. He’s comfortable not only with architecture, but has also handled the interiors, landscape and even created artwork for clients.
“Craig is old-school, in that he draws perspectives and elevations by hand,” says Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning architect Brent Kendle. “His artwork is amazing. He designs buildings that are of the landscape and full of character.”
Wickersham’s architectural character formed early on as a child growing up on California’s Central Coast. His father was a private pilot for the Hearst family, and Wickersham would often tag along, wandering through the Julia Morgan-designed Hearst Castle and the Hearsts’ nearby Victorian ranch headquarters. In eighth grade, mentored by teachers, he designed a house, created a full set of working drawings and got the project permitted. “The house was not built, of course,” Wickersham recalls, “but the whole exercise was to show me the process of architecture.” Fast-forward a short while later, and his design for a developer—a friend of the family—did get built. Wickersham was 14. “I don’t recall getting paid for that one,” he says with a laugh.
Moving to Scottsdale, Wickersham attended Coronado High School and, while there, designed a pool addition for Chaparral Park and did drafting for the Scottsdale architectural firm, Allen + Philp. “I rode my bike to their office because I wasn’t old enough for my driver’s license,” Wickersham remembers. “I’d work until 10 or 11 at night on presentation drawings. I became known for my architectural renderings and design.”
After graduating high school in the early ’80s, Wickersham applied to study and live at Taliesin West, and was interviewed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Wright, then head of the architectural community. “We had tea, and Mrs. Wright’s Great Dane, who was twice as big as her, watched us,” Wickersham remembers. “I got accepted, as long as I didn’t wear my pierced earring.” Living in a rustic shelter on the Taliesin site, Wickersham used his drawing and design talents to work on projects such as the Paris Opera and a California hotel. His other tasks? Working in Wright’s private kitchen and creating artistic table settings for her private dinner parties.
After several years at Taliesin, Wickersham returned to Allen + Philp, often moonlighting on other projects. One day, he received a call from an art director at American Continental Corporation, Charles Keating’s Phoenix real estate development company, which eventually became embroiled in a savings and loan scandal that sent Keating to prison. The art director needed a set of presentation drawings of the company’s Estrella Mountain Ranch development—by Monday. It was Friday. Wickersham took on the project and delivered the drawings on time. He got called back a few days later to the corporate conference room. “Charles Keating’s wife, Mary Elaine, their daughter, son-in-law and Keating came into the room, along with his Vanna White-like secretary,” Wickersham remembers. “I didn’t really know why I was there or what to expect, but Charles Keating turns to me and says, ‘How much can I pay you to work for me?’” Wickersham “threw out a stupid, ridiculous number,” and spent the next few years in a blur, working on the Phoenician Resort, designing details such as the ironwork, painting the ceiling at the signature restaurant, Mary Elaine’s, and even festooning the walls of the resort’s ice cream shop with elves. There were flights out to Estrella Mountain Ranch on the $7 million company helicopter and ping pong games in the office. “We had no idea what was happening at my level of work,” he says. “Eventually, there was no more work, and I went back to Allen + Philp.”
“Craig Wickersham designs all aspects of a house, right down to the details. He takes everything to the next level. I think of him as an architect’s architect.”
—Brent Kendle, architect.
For more than a decade, Wickersham worked there and did freelance rendering for other architects before he eventually joined Swaback Partners, a firm founded by fellow Taliesin alums, Vern Swaback, also a Master of the Southwest, and John Sather. In 2004, shaped by decades of experiences, Wickersham launched his own practice and began creating contemporary homes in Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and beyond.
Citing architectural heroes such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Santiago Calatrava, Wickersham takes a holistic approach to designing a house. “I’m capable of doing everything—the interior, the furnishings, even creating the art,” he says. “I’ve designed sinks and sculpture. I’ve picked out the plates and the silverware. In my head, I can even design clothing for the owners.”
Not that he is opposed to collaborating with interior designers and landscape architects, if the client so desires. In fact, he welcomes the opportunity to have a team approach to a project. “Craig doesn’t let ego get in the way of finding the path to the best design solution for the clients,” notes interior designer and fellow Master of the Southwest Janet Brooks, who is currently working with him on an extensive remodeling project. “He is an advocate for good, practical design, but his creativity is immense.”
Landscape designer Chad Norris, a frequent collaborator and Masters of the Southwest award honoree, agrees. “Craig’s enthusiasm and creativity are huge,” says Norris. “I get to complement his architecture through my landscape, which creates a better indoor-outdoor experience for the homeowners. Craig is an amazing artist, and his passion is contagious.”
Now with a staff of two and some 18 projects underway—not to mention a popular Instagram site where he posts his drawings—Wickersham attributes his architectural success to his ability to listen to clients. “That’s my job,” he reflects. “I don’t use my clients’ money for my own agenda. And I answer my phone.”
In the meantime, Wickersham’s homes have become classics, such as the angular hillside residence where he’s been recalling his career path. Completed in 2012, with an interior by Angelica Henry and landscape by Norris, the house repeats its hexagonal geometry in ceiling details, countertops and furnishings, and is linked to the desert site with stone walls, limestone flooring and copper trim. Huge windows frame the hill’s boulders and cacti, while cantilevered rooflines shade patios to the west. The original owners still live in the house, content with its livable floor plan and timeless design.
Wickersham has tapped into his creativity since childhood, but even he is hard-pressed to explain it. “My process is a combination of mystery and surprise. But it seems to work.”
Architect for all homes: Craig Wickersham, AIA, Scottsdale, craigwickersham.com.
pages 128-129—Builder: Glenn Farner, GEF Development, Scottsdale, gefdevelopmentllc.com. Interior designer: Claire Ownby, ASID; Scottsdale, ownbydesign.com. Landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs, Phoenix, highdesertdesigns.com.
pages 130, 132—Builder: Glenn Farner, gefdevelopmentllc.com. Landscape design: Desert Foothills Landscape, Cave Creek, dflaz.com. Tile: Craftsman Court Ceramics, Scottsdale, craftsmancourt.com. Wrought iron: Grizzly Iron Inc., Phoenix, grizzlyiron.com.
pages 133—Landscape design: dflaz.com.
page 134, 135, Top— Builder: gefdevelopmentllc.com. Interior designer: Angelica Henry, ASID, Scottsdale, angelicahenry.com. Landscape designer: highdesertdesigns.com. Decorative metal: grizzlyiron.com. Glass entry door: Meltdown Glass Art & Design, Tempe, meltdownglass.com.
page 135, bottom— Landscape designer: Peggy De La Garza, Trademark Landscape Inc., Phoenix, trademarklandscapeaz.com.
page 136, Top, 137, bottom—Builder: R.J. Gurley Construction, Scottsdale, rjgurley.com.
page 136, bottom—Builder: redhousebuilding.com.
page 137, Top—Rendering: craigwickersham.com.
pages 138,139, bottom—Builder: gefdevelopmentllc.com. Landscape designer: highdesertdesigns.com.
page 139, top—Builder: gefdevelopmentllc.com.Landscape designer: highdesertdesigns.com. Decorative metal: grizzlyiron.com