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Kiesselbach: Lawrence von Ebeler: Living carte blanche

Published 9:59am Monday, February 18, 2013

Delivered by his grandfather, a doctor in Freemont, Ind., in the family home, Lawrence von Ebeler has fond memories of the man who made sure the little guy took his naps “on the big horsehair couch in his office” half a block away from the house. If he was good, von Ebeler would be allowed to go the next door restaurant for a doughnut.
“Grandfather was a terrible driver … but a very good man,” he said.
Von Ebeler moved from there to the farm in Hillsdale, where his father was a tool and die maker and “gentleman farmer,” who raised chickens and cows. Von Ebeler found life on the farm difficult but did his chores until he graduated from high school. One of his teachers had taken him under her wing and taught him painting on the side. That single act changed his life.
More than anxious to leave the farm, he enrolled at Western Michigan University, where he studied art education.
“I had no other ideas, and I had really enjoyed the painting,” said Von Ebeler, who had worked on plays doing set design and thought he’d teach.
After graduating, he taught junior high for an exhausting two years before teaching high school art in Royal Oak.
Given carte blanche, he and other teachers planned over-the-top field trips to New York where they saw plays and entertained 125 students in Rush Street shops and galleries, wearing homemade construction paper Easter hats.
They once toured the galleries on roller skates the whole group had purchased. It got his kids on the front page of the newspaper, and he loved it for the next six years.
Teachers’ incomes are limited, so Von Ebeler went to work for Stanger Designs in Birmingham as creative director. He did their catalogues and all the holiday decorating for all three stores, working holidays and long hours. After all three stores went bankrupt, he started his own firm, Designers Unlimited, where he made a name for himself creating the look and feel of local shops and their merchandise.
Recruited by the Taubman Co., the leading shopping center developer of the time as the design review person, he designed hundreds of stores wanting to get into the fast-growing mall market.
“It was a pretty ideal situation,” Von Ebeler said. “We put on luncheons for the stores wanting to get in, and then I would approve — or disapprove their designs. I was known as a very tough person because my design standard was so high.”
They reorganized after seven years, and Von Ebeler went to Columbus, to work at RPA as vice president of design for specialty stores. After four years, he saw the writing on the wall, and he and a friend decided to open an office in New York.
Just as that venture failed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art stores asked him to design the prototype for new shopping center stores all over the world. He became the defacto museum designer for retail stores, designing the Baseball Hall of Fame store, the Lincoln Memorial store in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Science and Industry store and the Columbus Museum shop.
Then came the government shut down.
“We had contracts with the National Gallery and others, and suddenly the contracts were canceled, and we had no business. I went home and started looking for a job.”
Shopping center developer Glimcher Realty Trust hired Von Ebeler, who did all the tier 1 stuff, designing whole shopping centers.
“I was again, the hero,” said Von Ebeler, who was traveling again: Kansas City, Michigan and New Jersey. He had a team of 60 people who would design the storefronts of hundreds of stores, including promotional materials, complete with aerial photos. Urged on by his wife, he retired at 62 to do antique shows out of an airstream trailer called The Airstream Attic before his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, he designed the Craig Smith gallery in Harbert, Molly B’s store, as well as numerous window displays.
His love of cooking led him to do catering for weddings and parties before he began volunteering for parades, pageants, auctions and Rotary.
Always upbeat, von Ebeler said he is living the very best part of his life right now, spending quality time with his many good friends. Asked what his main design theory has been over the years, he told me, “Don’t underestimate the good taste of the public.”

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