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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Design in Indiana

Jon and James Sholly began Indianapolis-based Commercial Artisan in 2003. James says they are “the principals, staff and the custodial service.” They have a wide range of clients, including Business Furniture, an Indianapolis-based Steelcase partner that’s celebrating its 95th anniversary, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, the American Pianists Association and occasionally Under Armour. Most of their clients are local and many are not-for-profits or arts-based organizations.They started the journal Commercial Article outside of their regular client-based work, and it’s a project they’d love to be able to focus on all the time. Preparation for a new issue typically begins in late January and wraps up in October or November. The amount of time they spend on it accelerates as the months go by, and hits fever pitch in August and September. The focus is on Indiana’s design history. I asked James to talk more about this history-making documentation effort.

Covers from the first issue of Commercial Article (2005). This one was in two parts and told the stories of Indianapolis graphic designers Gene and Jackie Lacy.

I know it’s very New York of me, but I don’t think “design” when I think of Indiana. That may have been one reason to start Commercial Article. Or maybe I’m also being presumptuous. What did inspire you to engage in this mission?

I think that’s it exactly! The perception of Indiana as a place that doesn’t appreciate or contribute to noteworthy design is a misconception we’re challenging. Many people don’t realize that Columbus, Indiana, is one of the most significant architectural cities in the country, or that the Indianapolis Museum of Art is home to 10,000 square feet of gallery space reserved for a vast collection of contemporary design. Some of the people we’ve profiled (Norman Norell, Walter Dorwin Teague) have come from Indiana and gone on to define their particular disciplines. Discovering things like this is inspiring and compels us to get the word out and begin to reshape Indiana’s reputation.

Cover of issue 3 (2010), a profile of Avriel Shull. Avriel was a pioneering Modernist home designer and self-promoting dynamo.

When did you begin and what have been your goals?

Our first issue of Commercial Article was published in 2005. It began as an attempt by my brother Jon and myself to create a self-promotional piece for our design studio Commercial Artisan. After frustrating attempts to talk about and sell ourselves, we concluded it would be easier and probably more interesting to present someone else’s work and tell their life story. Gene and Jackie Lacy immediately came to mind. The Lacys produced excellent work in Indianapolis as designers, illustrators and artists for over 40 years, but were largely unrecognized anywhere else. We worked with their daughter Amelia and soon their story became our primary focus. We gave the first issue away to friends, family and clients and soon began to wonder what other stories were left to tell. From the beginning, we hoped that this effort would help lead to other individuals taking up similar projects in their communities. Ultimately, we’d love to see some type of Folkways-like archive of regional design history.

Accordion-folded issue 6 (2013). This is the story of fashion international giant Norman Norell, who came from Noblesville, IN.

What is it about design and designers in Indiana that distinguishes this work from other parts of the country?

Most of the individuals we’ve profiled are extremely confident in their abilities and appear to be highly motivated to succeed. I’m struck by the determination it must have taken many of them to achieve their goals despite having to overcome economic barriers, geographic challenges and gender biases. These traits and challenges aren’t exclusive to designers from Indiana, but I wonder if the fact that they come from Indiana (with all of its preconceptions) somehow drove them and gave them something extra to prove to everybody else.

How do you go about uncovering the MIAs among the design fields?We keep our ears to the ground and ask for suggestions from people who know more than we do. In most instances there is someone—an informed individual with a healthy design obsession and a willingness to share what they know. They become the go-to and initial point of reference for whoever the subject happens to be. When we decided to profile Jane and Gordon Martz of Marshall Studios, their MoMA-worthy ceramics company, I discovered a website with a wealth of factual information and visual references. The person who created it could have been anywhere, but he happened to live three miles from my house. He provided the direction and much of the content that informed that issue.

Spread from issue 7 (2014) that tells the story of the “Godfather of Industrial Design,” Walter Dorwin Teague.

Cover of issue 9 (2016) depicts the long-neglected urban wall design of Austrian transplant Roland Hobart.

Spread from issue 9 showing Hobart’s wall in its heyday, and a newspaper critique of its subsequent decline.

Have you experienced some significant revelations? What are they?

Yes—many! One example comes from our fifth issue. We had initially hoped to profile a prominent local architect named Edward Pierre. While researching him, we kept finding renderings of his projects credited to someone named Leslie Ayres. Ayres was an architect, an amazing architectural renderer and far more obscure than Pierre. We decided to shift our focus to the stylish Ayres, which circuitously led to his granddaughter, who was in possession of numerous drawings which hadn’t seen the light of day for over 50 years. She had salvaged them from the trash as a young person and held onto them for decades. We now have a record of his brief life and the newly uncovered drawings are in the care of a university architectural archive. We also discovered that industrial design giant Walter Dorwin Teague enjoyed nudism in his spare time!

What has the response been to Commercial Article? And how are you able to fund this?We receive a tremendous amount of goodwill and positive reactions whenever we talk about the project. We have dedicated friends and supporters who attend every launch and regale their relatives at the holidays with each new issue. Print magazine, AIGA and Under Consideration have included Commercial Article in their design competitions, and issues were included in Graphic Design: Now In Production, the major graphic design exhibition that toured the country a few years ago. But most importantly, they are now available to people researching design in Indiana libraries and institutions like the Indiana Historical Society.Commercial Article is a largely self-funded affair. Modest sales from our site and a few local shops help to offset production costs. And we’ve received some funding in the form of grants from the Indiana Arts Commission that help to compensate our writers. A few issues have been entirely funded by either corporate support or through community foundations. It’s my hope to find a source of ongoing funding from either a single institution or a coalition of key supporters.

Cover of issue 10 (2017)—an anthology presenting the stories of Indiana’s most prominent signs and symbols.

What more do you hope to discover? We’ve researched the lives and work of Indiana figures from graphic, fashion, architectural, industrial and environmental design disciplines. Beyond continuing those efforts, I’m interested in exploring the story of a design patron, which I think would be an interesting mirror of our typical type of story.

In short, what’s next?

Our new issue is a look at the histories of Indiana’s most prominent visual symbols. It’s our biggest issue yet and features contributions from eleven writers about things like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wing and wheel symbol, the beautiful Indiana flag, Eli Lilly’s signature logo and Robert Indiana’s ‘C’ logo/painting for Columbus, Indiana. Inspiring others to tell similar stories in their communities is an important element of what we started out to do. We hope to continue to advocate for the documentation of important but lesser-known designers and their work in Indiana and across the country.

Spread from issue 10 showing Evan Finch’s history of the Indiana flag.

Spread from issue 10 showing Mike Knight’s history of the Burger Chef logo.

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