Amelia Lacy | Unusual Suspects

Gene & Jackie Lacy

Gene Lacy, b. 1918–1990
Jackie Hammes Lacy, b. 1931–2010

Gene and Jackie Lacy were Indianapolis-based graphic designers and illustrators practicing from the 1950s through the 1980s. They both attended the John Herron Art Institute (now Herron School of Art and Design) in Indianapolis, where Gene was a faculty member and later chair of the visual communications department from 1961 to 1971. Their collective body of work was influential in introducing modern sensibilities to the local design scene. The Lacys received many honors and awards for their work over their thirty-year careers. Gene Lacy was given the State of Indiana’s highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash award, and March 1, 1984 was named “Gene Lacy Day” in Indianapolis. 

Strains of Stan Kenton’s music fill a large, open studio on the ninth floor of the Merchants Bank building in downtown Indianapolis. Simple white linen curtains are pushed away from the room’s tall windows; wide Venetian blinds have been pulled open to reveal the growing city below. Gauguin, Picasso and Mondrian prints cover the walls. A magnificent string sculpture fills the wall of the reception area. Around the studio, perched at drawing boards, are eight designers, illustrators and typographers creating the designs and illustrations that will soon become ads and logos for such corporations as Weimer Typesetting, American United Life Insurance Company (AUL) and Eli Lilly & Company.

At one drawing board, in a dimmer and more secluded corner of the studio, a cigarette burns to ash in an already overflowing ashtray while a stained paper cup of black coffee cools beside it. Above the drawing board are bits of paper stabbed to the wall with silver pushpins. Torn from magazines and books, the ragged-edged scraps contain the words and photographs of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, the designs of Paul Rand, and, occasionally, a specimen of a favored Bodoni or Helvetica typeface. An iron framed butterfly chair with a black canvas cover sits at an angle across from this drawing board, inviting clients and visitors – artists, advertising executives and bank presidents alike — to recline within its spare frame. A solid black slate table, littered with jars of rubber cement, Pentel pens, X-Acto knives and art and typography books, holds a wooden record player upon which spins the New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm LP. Beside the player a selection of records is stacked haphazardly, among them the works of Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bela Bartok.

The man who sits at this corner drawing board, engrossed in the music and his work, is Gene Lacy, the owner and principal designer of this graphic design studio. His trademark narrow black knit tie is loosened at the opened collar of his rumpled white shirt, the sleeves rolled up his forearms. With relaxed precision and an unwavering attention to detail — skills he honed during a stint as an army mapmaker in World War II — he creates a perfect 14-point ampersand with an ink-dipped brush.

That scene took place in 1954. Gene’s creativity and passion for art live on. Half a century later, Irv Showalter, former student and co-worker of Gene’s, remembers Gene’s words well: “You can’t design if you can’t do it to a rhythm.” Terry Lacy, Gene’s son from his first marriage and a fellow artist, concurs with Irv’s memory. “Dad saw design in music,” says Terry. “The tonal qualities in the music related to color. The blare of a long note was a horizontal band of color; the riff of a saxophone had structure.”

Music, especially jazz and classical music, was an essential element in Gene Lacy’s graphic design. The influence of music and the influence of the words and philosophies of writers such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway were components critical to Gene’s work from the early days until the end of his career and life. These artists, writers and musicians, had the ability to convey an understanding of the human condition, as well as a feeling of excitement or even despair, with words and sound. Through his design work, Gene strove to achieve the same outcome. He applied the individualistic philosophy of Steinbeck and Hemingway, to which he related strongly, to his approach toward his own life and work.

Born on February 7, 1918 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Gene Lacy, the oldest of three brothers, came of age during the Great Depression. Though his father, Herbert Lacy, showed a natural bent toward creativity with his penchant for colorful storytelling and an occasional cartoon drawing, neither parent had a background in art or particularly encouraged an appreciation for art or design in their children. Nevertheless, Gene’s interest in art and music began at an early age. Though he was a talented piano player, showing a natural ability in the lessons pressed upon him by his mother Minnie Lacy, his passion always lay with art and design.

“Gene was constantly drawing,” recounts brother, Dick Lacy, “even during church.” Dick remembers that as a child Gene would spend the entire sermon drawing on the back of the church bulletin. “Whatever he drew, he’d just make it come alive.” Don Lacy also recognized his older brother’s affinity for design at a very young age. In addition to drawing, the young Gene Lacy designed and created very intricate model airplanes from tissue paper and balsa wood. “Gene was bored with the practical, but he always saw beauty in design and was interested in the geometric form of things,” says Don.

As a high school student, Gene’s artistic talent and flair for typography was described as “brilliant.” While still a student at Shortridge High School, Gene was hired by a local grocery store (his first job) to create the advertisements for the week’s specials. His freehand lettering emblazoned the plate glass windows, advertising fresh fruit, sliced bread and 10-cent jars of pickles.

In the early 1940s, while studying fine art and design in Indianapolis at the John Herron Art Institute (then one of the premier art schools in the country), Gene landed his first truly professional job as an artist. He was hired by the Indianapolis based Caldwell-Larkin Advertising Agency, where he formed a bond with Howard Caldwell, Sr., who was head of the agency. The guidance and friendship that Caldwell provided lasted throughout Gene’s tour of duty in World War II and was a strong incentive for him to return to his graphic design work in Indianapolis after the war.

North Africa, where Gene was stationed during the war, had a great influence on his work. According to Dick Lacy, Gene “was so affected by the people he met overseas as well as the scenery, the intense shapes and colors of all he encountered.” His paintings from this era seemed to focus on shadows and light and the nuance of shape and form, qualities that drew him even more strongly to graphic design and the concept of conveying ideas through abstract and simple design and typography. These influences affected the design work he did in later years.

Irv Showalter calls Gene a purist. “And what we did in the ad game,” says Irv with a laugh, “was to try and destroy that. Every job we did, he’d have to remind me of that. He’d say ‘This could have been great, but you had to turn it into an ad.’ It unnerved him. He couldn’t stand to see you destroy something that he felt could have been perfection.” Gene never liked the term ‘commercial art’ even though it was the most commonly used expression to describe graphic design work at the time. He felt it inferred that one stoops to commercial art from fine art. Gene preferred the more dignified alternatives ‘advertising art’ or ‘graphic art.’

After working for Caldwell-Larkin for a number of years, Gene Lacy decided he wanted to go it alone. His strong ideals and principles made working for others a struggle, and the need to work for himself would continue throughout his career. So in 1953, he opened Gene Lacy Design in the Merchants Bank Building. After four months of running the entire business on his own, he realized that a one-man operation was too limiting and he began expanding. “You can’t play a symphony by yourself,” he told Indianapolis News business editor, Bart Grabow, in an interview in the mid-1950s.

Gene felt that his organization was unique because he had a policy of collaboration, permitting each staffer to contribute his special talents to each project. “We try not to pigeonhole people and thus stifle their creativity,” Lacy told Grabow. This formula proved successful for the company. The eight-member team collaborated closely on projects that ranged from illustrating new product brochures for pharmaceutical companies to designing covers for a retail hardware magazine. The clients attracted by Gene Lacy Design, including Eli Lilly & Company, National Retail Hardware Association, AUL, and the Indiana Democratic Party, were among the most coveted in the midwest. Gene Lacy was well known as one of the best designers in Indianapolis. If you wanted cutting edge graphic design and typography, you contacted Gene Lacy.

Claims Dick Lacy, “Gene Lacy and his team were so much ahead of their time. Most designers today, despite the use of computers and new technology, still haven’t caught up with them.” Irv Showalter reiterates that point. “You’ve got to remember this was all by hand . . . . Gene could take a brush and a pencil and create type so perfect you’d swear it was printed on the page. When he couldn’t find the typeface he wanted, he’d just create something new.”

Gene believed typography should be a thing of beauty. Former student and employee Dick Beck remembers, “He taught me, and many others, the skill of applying the letter form not only to convey the desired idea but to do it with exciting results.”

Strong emphasis on dramatic typography and color, or even the dramatic absence of color, became a trademark of Gene’s. Using typography, design, color and unique ways of selling an idea or product were still unusual concepts at that time. This was a drastic departure from the literal photographs and copy depicting people using a product that most companies were accustomed to in the 1950s and ’60s. “His emphasis was on doing something really dramatic typographically and with color,” says son Terry. “The whole piece would be an exciting visual composition. He would try to establish a very dramatic identity program that a company could keep repeating.” Though Gene’s unique approach to advertising in this predominately conservative climate was risky, ultimately his concept of identity recognition through graphic design was successful. “For Indianapolis, Gene Lacy was its advance guard,” states Beck.

Gene’s freeform style in the office at Gene Lacy Design allowed the other artists to explore the reaches of their talent and creativity as well. Staffers remember that he was never outwardly demanding, yet he expected only the best from each employee and would accept no less from them in the finished products. Gene motivated his employees by entrusting them with responsibility for their own projects or their own portions of the team collaborations. He displayed confidence in the talents of each and every team member; the result had a great influence on every member of the team.

The standards of creativity and perfection Gene set for himself served as an example to Beck and the others. “He made me see things I’d never seen before. He taught me to stay curious and to be intolerant only of mediocrity,” says Beck.

Even those employees who weren’t artists were influenced by Gene’s passion for and love of the arts. As secretary, bookkeeper and receptionist for the studio from 1954 to 1956, Janet Disborough wasn’t hired as an artist and never worked in that aspect, but she explains that Gene’s influence was huge. “Here was this man, different from anyone I’ve ever met, he plays jazz and classical music all day…the studio at 911 Merchants Bank was like another world.” Disborough, now married to Gene’s brother Dick, recalls that “because of Gene, I was exposed to a world of art that I hadn’t realized existed. I came away with a lifelong appreciation for art and music that I would never have had were it not for the experience of working with him and with the other artists and designers at Gene Lacy Design.”

Jackie Hammes joined the studio in 1954 while attending Herron on scholarship. Jackie says she took her portfolio to Gene because he “had a reputation as the best graphic designer in town. I wanted to work for the best.” Little did Jackie know that in addition to landing a job with the best designer in town, she would also find her future husband and partner in Gene. The two married in 1956 and formed a design partnership that would continue throughout their lives and careers.

Born Jacqueline Ann Hammes in 1931 in Detroit, Michigan, to Grant and Eleanor Hammes, Jackie was the only child of these working class parents during the depression era. As an only, and often solitary, child, Jackie soon turned to drawing to create a happier world for herself. “I always loved drawing,” Jackie remembers. “I was encouraged by teachers and my classmates, [and] that began to intensify my interest in art.” But, according to Jackie, a maid at a Toronto hotel “was the first person who not only made me believe in myself and my work but made me realize that it could be possible to pursue an education and career in art.”

While traveling in Canada one summer with her aunts, Jackie stayed for a time at a Toronto hotel. She was befriended by a young woman employed as a maid at the hotel, who complimented her on her artistic talent. The young woman was an artist, too; she attended art school in Toronto and worked at the hotel in the summer. She spent many hours with 11-year-old Jackie, talking to her about art and sharing her dreams of a career as an artist.

While attending Cass Technical High School, a school that catered to talented art students in Detroit, Jackie won several awards for her work in watercolor and pen and inks. But her creativity didn’t stop with paint and paper; she also designed and sewed her own wardrobe. After graduation, Jackie worked in a downtown Detroit art shop for a short time, painting decorative work on plastic ware for speciality shops and department stores and designing window displays. In a Detroit News article in 1950, Jackie professed to striving toward the “ultimate goal” of owning a retail shop where she could sell her own wares. Her predominant interests, however, repeatedly returned her to illustration and design.

Initially hired as a paste-up artist in Gene’s studio, Jackie’s responsibilities expanded to include illustration, paper sculpture and design consulting. At the time, Jackie, along with other staff, felt that she was learning from Gene and growing as an artist.

After their marriage in 1956, the Lacys continued to collaborate on many design projects although the birth of their children — Lisa in 1957, Amelia in 1958 and Laura in 1965 — altered Jackie’s role in the business. (Gene also has three children from his first marriage: Terry and twins Susan and Steven Lacy.) In an attempt to balance family and artwork, Jackie spent more time working at home, contributing illustrations to Gene’s jobs. She illustrated several children’s books and other publications for Indianapolis publishers, such as E. C. Seale & Company, Bobbs Merrill Company and Indiana University Press. The titles included A Bear Can’t Bake a Cake for You (1962), Sir Abernathy (1963) and The Leaning Tower of Toot (1965). Jackie also contributed numerous illustrations to children’s magazines like Highlights and Child Life, where Gene served as Associate Editor.

“It was actually a very nice way to live,” says Jackie today. “I had my artwork — the illustrating, which is really my first love — yet I had time with my children. It was, mostly, ideal.” Daughter Lisa, now an artist and art instructor in Dallas, remembers growing up in the artistic Lacy household. She says that it “was always very obvious to us that our family was different from others in the neighborhood. We had a ‘beatnik’ mom who wore black pants and turtlenecks and drew pictures all day, instead of baking cakes in an apron like other moms. The talk at home was about people like Paul Rand, John Steinbeck and Saul Bass [later a visitor to the Lacy home]. My dad was a very passionate man. He never just liked something. It was ‘great.’ He didn’t just love you — he ‘loved you madly.’ A typical evening at our house would be listening to music by candlelight and discussing art rather than watching the latest episode of Gunsmoke. I remember being encouraged at a very young age to paint and draw and create.”

It was during this period that administrators at Herron persuaded Gene to return to the school as an instructor. “They were looking for someone with a high profile in graphic arts.” says Terry Lacy. “They wanted someone to teach new concepts, new ways of design.” Gene taught 3rd and 4th year advertising design at Herron from 1962 to 1971, served as head of the Visual Communications department, and was involved in the creation of Herron’s design building — Fessler Hall — which opened in 1962.

“The free and exploring mind of the individual human is the most wonderful thing in the world,” Gene told a group of Herron faculty members in the early 1960s. Gene believed it was his role as a teacher to make the student aware of this concept. Gene’s approach to teaching reflected his own philosophies on art, creativity and life. So rather than teach a student to draw or paint or design, Gene focused on teaching the student to be aware of the beauty around him, whether that beauty lay in nature or typography. He advised other instructors to teach students a foundation by having them do simple things like find a stone and draw the stone with a black pencil. “Do not place the emphasis on the drawing but on the beauty of the stone,” said Gene. “The student will then begin to see the beauty in the simplest of forms and contrasts. He will realize then that what he has looked upon all in life is beautiful. It is design.”

This teaching approach had a lasting effect on students. Dick Beck remembers Gene as his mentor and the most stimulating teacher he had. Says Beck of himself and Gene’s other students: “On each and every one of us, he has left his mark. His influence is like inherited quality: For the rest of our lives, there is something of him in us.”       

While teaching at Herron, Gene disbanded the studio in the Merchants Bank Building. After working for a time with a smaller staff on his own, he accepted a position as Art Director with the Handley & Miller Advertising Agency in Indianapolis. It was at Handley & Miller that Gene created a design concept for the first automatic teller cash machine in Indianapolis, which was offered by American Fletcher National Bank. Handley & Miller co-worker Irv Showalter remembers the job: “I came into Gene’s office and there was this layout he had created that featured a half of a brilliant red circle and half of a bright blue circle, with just a small amount of copy. Gene said ‘God, this is a terrible layout. No one wants to look at red and blue balls.’ And he proceeded to throw it in the trash. I said, ‘Gene, that’s brilliant, it’s day and night; I can see what you’re doing. You’ve got to use it.’” At Showalter’s insistence, the design not only survived, but was effectively used for many years to symbolize the bank’s 24-hour ATM.

Despite Gene’s successful contributions to Handley & Miller, his continuing ideological conflict with the corporate world would eventually win out. In 1969, Gene left the agency to strike out on his own again. The unlikely location for his new endeavor was a bright red train caboose in Broad Ripple on Indianapolis’ northside, a creative community that included musicians, actors, sculptors, woodworkers, jewelry makers and painters — an ideal environment for an artist. There, beside the Monon railroad tracks, Gene and Jackie again set up drawing boards and welcomed their clients.

As their daughters grew older, Jackie was able to devote more time to the partnership. Her influence is seen strongly in the work from this period. Gene’s attention to detail and precision in design were well complimented by wife and partner Jackie’s more whimsical approach to her illustration. The juxtaposition of their styles would prove to be an asset in their new caboose-housed design business, Gene Lacy, Inc. Cheery color and fabric and fanciful designs appeared in ad campaigns for clients such as Hoosier Energy and Indiana National Corporation. Jackie’s pen and ink sketch of the James Whitcomb Riley Home in Indianapolis’ Lockerbie Square, part of a drawing series of historical places designed for the Indiana Historical Society, is still used today on many of the Riley Home’s promotional items.

By the early 1970s, the design community in Indianapolis had begun to change; no longer were graphic designers such a rarity — others had followed in Gene and Jackie’s footsteps. Many of these new graphic designers had studied under Gene Lacy at Herron, Purdue University (where he taught in the mid 1970s), or the Indianapolis Art League.

Gene and Jackie later moved the studio to a house in the area that offered more space and where Gene finally had room to work on the larger pieces he had been thinking of for years. It was at this location that Jackie was surprised and delighted one day to arrive and find a new sign — one that read “Gene and Jackie Lacy Commercial Art” — replacing the old “Gene Lacy, Inc.” sign. At last she was outwardly recognized as an equal in the partnership.

While Jackie concentrated on jobs that showcased her illustration and paper sculpture talents, Gene created what he and many others felt were his best works. These large, multi-media pieces, painted directly on handcrafted wooden panels, combined the use of the typography Gene loved as well as the bold use of color and negative space. Gene was able to blend graphic design and fine art with stunning results. Some of his work visually depicted the sound and feeling of jazz music; other work featured the beauty he saw in type or numbers. This was a period of great personal and professional creativity for the Lacys. Their endeavors were rewarded with numerous honors that included nods from the prestigious Art Directors Club of New York.

Perhaps so that he would have more time and space to experiment with this new medium, the Lacys added a studio to their home near Broad Ripple and moved the business there. While Gene continued to work on these pieces and other personal works, he stayed active with commercial design for clients like AUL, Wabash College, Indiana National Bank and the Art Director’s Club of Indiana — an organization he had been involved with since the Gene Lacy Design days. Gene served as president for a time and remained active with the club throughout his career.

One of the Lacy’s most noteworthy projects of this era was a graphic identity that would prove to stand the test of time. Marty Rugh, then a public relations manager for St. Vincent’s Hospital, was charged with developing a logo for the institution. After reviewing proposals from numerous designers, the project was awarded to the Lacys. Gene requested that Marty come to the studio to discuss the project and added, “by the way, why don’t you bring along a bottle of wine?” While she talked, he drew, and as the blustery afternoon wound down, the idea took shape — three doves in flight symbolizing mind, body and spirit. Rugh presented the mark to the St. Vincent’s Board of Directors, who accepted it unanimously. Gene declined payment until it was deemed to be legally necessary by officials at St. Vincent’s. The Lacys ultimately submitted an invoice for the modest sum of $200. Those who knew Gene would confirm that this gesture was typical of his character. His love for the work would always overshadow any sense of business. Almost thirty years later, the doves remain one of the most recognizeable and elegant symbols in the city.

In November of 1980, Gene suffered a massive stroke. Even after months of intensive rehabilitation, Gene remained partially paralyzed and was unable to walk. Under Jackie’s constant care and assistance, however, Gene began painting again. From his wheelchair, Gene created watercolors. Gone was the unerring precision of hand; in place of the precise line and curves of his earlier work was a sense of dramatic animation. Using vibrant reds and blues and oranges, Gene painted scenes of anger and disaster: the big bang and hurricanes and explosions and crushed metal. In one vibrant painting from this era, titled “Self Portrait,” Gene depicts eyes and colors and shapes flying at all angles from a face, lying prone, that appears trapped.

Though at that point Gene was unable to design the jobs as he had for so many years, he advised Jackie as she provided work for both their established clients like AUL and such new clients as McNamara Florist.

In March of 1984, a group of Gene’s former colleagues and students put together a tribute for Gene. “A Tribute to Gene Lacy” was co-sponsored by Business Furniture Corporation and CP Lesh Paper Company. The event was held in downtown Indianapolis, not far from the original location of the studio Gene launched more than a quarter century earlier. This show was a celebration of Gene’s contributions to the graphic arts community and showcased his work of the preceding 30 years. Along with the outpouring of respect and accolades from those in attendance whose lives and careers Gene had influenced, he was granted Indiana’s highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash award. Then Governor Robert D. Orr proclaimed that day, March 1, 1984, as “Gene Lacy Day” in Indianapolis.

Gene Lacy died on September 24, 1990; his body was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. Family, friends, students and colleagues gathered at the graveside as Gene’s life-long friend, jazz musician Leroy New, offered a last tribute to the man they so loved and respected. “This one’s for you, Gene,” proclaimed New, as he raised his saxaphone in homage and played the haunting notes of Benny Goodman’s “Good Bye.”

Although Jackie had kept their studio active while Gene was still living, following his death she returned to the illustrations that she loved — creating cards, invitations and other jobs for new clients and for herself. Her faithful companion, a little black cat named Bodoni, was a tribute to a favorite typeface and the typography Gene so loved. Even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, art remained an essential component of her life. Participating in in painting and drawing therapy from her home in Zionsville, Indiana, she eventually succumbed to the disease in 2010.

Though Gene and Jackie Lacy’s design business has been out of existence for many years and Gene himself no longer stands at a lectern teaching his students nor leans over a drawing board directing an employee, the work — and its influence — lives on.

Someone once said of Gene, “If you gave him a piece of ruled paper to write on, he’d turn it sideways.” The zeal for creativity that Gene and Jackie brought to the field of design showed Indianapolis that black and white advertising isn’t always black and white and that right side up isn’t always right. Design is in the music, and the music is in the design.

Unusual Suspects is edited by Andrew Blauvelt and William Drenttel and supported by Winterhouse Institute and AIGA. The project seeks to uncover important contributors to local design scenes across the United States in the hopes of enriching and expanding the canon of graphic design history. Design Observer is open to editorial submissions for this series. Please write to [email protected] and clearly identify your project as for Unusual Suspects.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Illustration

Comments [5]

Unusual Suspects is a welcome new addition to Design Observer.

Stories like the Lacy’s are disappearing every day, while the work they created is (in many instances) left to languish. I hope this forum is the beginning of an enduring effort to record the lives and accomplishments of pioneers that have yet to be discovered.
James Sholly

I was lucky enough to find my way to the Herron Art Institute in the 1960s, and many fine teachers there guided me, including Gene Lacy. With his son Terry I visited his home too, and seeing his work for clients made me realize the possibilities for a visual artist. His work was a leading edge of design for print communication, and he was one of those whose work was important in the evolution from promotional commercial art into a broader more interesting discipline, Graphic Design, a new way of using the visual arts for communicating ideas. Terry continues the tradition of design and fine art he inherited from Gene, with his graphic design, illustration, hand made paper landscapes, watercolor painting and historical images.
Don Nelson

I like the style of these images - situations supported by light making you feel like being right there as an observer.

Are there any other sources about Gene and Jackie?

The only other source of info about the Lacys that I know of is the publication that a version of this story originally appeared in. It’s called Commercial Article and is available here:

James Sholly

Slide #17 - St.Vincent Health still uses this logo 34 years later, which is a wonderful testament to enduring design.

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