Eight years ago, brothers James and Jon Sholly found themselves stumped for ways to tout their SoBro graphic-design business, Commercial Artisan. Blatant self-promotion felt unnatural—some might even call it un-Hoosier. Instead, they found comfort, and even passion, in telling the stories of others—specifically, Central Indiana designers of the past who, the Shollys think, deserved to become household names.
Their first subjects: James’s in-laws, Gene and Jackie Lacy, a culturally savvy husband-wife team who launched their careers as visual artists in Indianapolis in the 1950s. For decades, the couple’s sophisticated sensibilities made them favored graphic designers and illustrators for Eli Lilly and Company and Wabash College, and even today, their work survives in the St. Vincent Health doves logo. “I still recall going on field trips to older, established design studios as a design student in the ’80s,” James says. “The people there were once the kids who had studied under, or worked with, the Lacys. When they spoke about them, they always did so with reverence and awe.” In 2005, nearly a year after they began wedging this labor of love into their workdays and weekends, the Sholly brothers collected the Lacys’ work and life story into a pair of diminutive, heavy-stock booklets called Commercial Article.
Though there was no money to be made and distribution was limited to Etsy and word of mouth, the brothers followed up with installments saluting three more designers: Fred Bower, a Ball State professor who has described his work as “one last heaping gasp of postmodern design,” according to the booklet; unorthodox Carmel home designer Avriel Shull, who sometimes wore a bikini to construction sites; and small-town potters Gordon and Jane Martz, whose work was featured in the MoMA. A fifth book, released in September and selling online for $12, is devoted to the work of Leslie Ayres, a “boy genius,” James says, from Arsenal Tech High School. Ayres attended Princeton on a scholarship and then became an architectural renderer for top Indianapolis firms, including Pierre and Wright, and brought to life some of the most important buildings proposed here in the period between the World Wars, like Circle Tower. Jon says Ayres fits the profile of a Commercial Article subject: “He’s suitably obscure, and suitably talented.”
One could say the same about the Shollys. Issues of Commercial Article have been recognized by the AIGA (the association for design) and Print Magazine. Currently, the series is part of a touring exhibition co-curated by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, appearing at major museums around the country through 2014. Just as they planned, the brothers created the ideal self-promotion vehicle by tooting everyone’s horn but their own.
Along the way, the Shollys picked up insight into the psyches of accomplished Hoosier designers. “There’s a feeling here that you’re not really considered a success until you go somewhere else and become successful,” James says. “A lot of these people we have profiled, I don’t know if they were suffering under that, but being here may have caused them to work harder to achieve.”
Photo by Tony Valainis