You might not have ever heard of Franc Powell of Avon Lake, but if you spent any time in that city over the years, you probably encountered some of his well-known artistic creations. These include the mosaic tile palm tree scene on the front of the former Tropicana Lounge, as well as the etched-glass King Neptune at the long-gone Aqua Marine resort.
Franc Powell is also the first person who hired me after I graduated from college.
That’s why I was happy to find this fine profile of him that appeared in the Journal back on November 7, 1971. It was written by Staff Writer Bob Cotleur.
After the transcribed article, I reminisce on how I first met Franc.
Avon Lake Man’s Ideas Sell for More Than $10 Million
Franc Powell: The Profile of a Successful Artist
By BOB COTLEUR, Staff Writer
IT COSTS to know Franc Emerson Powell of Avon Lake. In the past 20 years, business people have paid over $10 million for the ideas Powell gave them.
HE IS AN ART DESIGNER, a graduate in Fine Arts from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, in 1949, and once taught art to fourth, fifth and sixth grade students in Lakewood.
Today he lives in a $48,000 home on Vinewood in Avon Lake, and “never worries about the mistakes of yesterday. Only today is important,” he philosophizes, “because I have a kind of confidence that whatever tomorrow brings, I’ll find an answer here.”
He tapped his chest over his heart. Not his head.
Yet it is the creative mind of Franc Powell that takes a dusty warehouse or old factory and turns it into a fairyland for a special trade show.
It is his mind that creates glamour for a simple pipe wrench from Ridge Tool Company, in Elyria.
But it is his heart he lives by.
POWELL WEARS TWO HATS. He is a free-lance consultant with his own firm, Franc Powell Design, and operates a studio in Lakewood. A year and a half ago, National Displays on Triskett Road in Cleveland hired him. Today, though still a freelancer, he is their general manager.
The firm is relatively small and doing about $300,000 annually. Franc sees a fairly quick rise to $500,000 a year. Business is good and getting better.
Powell, small, slight and handsome at 51, uses his creative talent for a singular purpose.
He sells desire.
The price tag might be just a few bucks. A small, static billboard for example. His biggest job to date cost some $85,000. Over all the exhibitor may have spent $120,000 for a single annual show. But, if he’s a national firm, the show may travel to a number of key major cities in the nation. Costs soar, but the product sells.
At this moment Powell is in Nashville, Tennessee, re-constructing his latest exhibit for Ridge Tool Company of Elyria.
How do you glamorize a pipe wrench or a bolt threading machine?
Powell does it two ways. He embellished the annual Ridge Tool calendar – 12 months of pretty girls photographed in Hollywood by Peter Gowland, each in a brief but snappy outfit and each holding some special Ridge product – by using life-sized transparencies of the girls in an illuminated display.
RECENTLY IN NEW ORLEANS, two of the girls were on the scene. And Powell was impressed with their “wholesomeness.”
“You get a lot more skin in Playboy or almost any magazine today for that matter,” he says. “These girls were really sharp, nice and well turned out. Customers came around to see them.”
The other technique is a live demonstration of how the product works. Not just tell how it works.
However, Powell’s creative ability is as much the total scene as it is a minor detail. And there are three major Powell accomplishments in Avon Lake which demand more than a casual glance.
Powell, in 1961, conceived King Neptune as a front lobby “greeter” at the Aquamarine in Avon Lake. “From the sketches I made,” he said, “it seemed like it ought to be made of glass...”
King Neptune was born in two dimensions, with a suggestion of a third, in a half-inch thick piece of greenish crystal, four feet by eight feet. He was sand-blasted by a skilled craftsman under Powell’s supervision. Some cuts were deep or scoured. Others were light and feathery.
|Photo of the Tropicana Lounge|
with Franc Powell’s tile design
(Courtesy of Avon Lake Historical Society)
“I did it in mosaic tile, on my hands and knees in my garage. I taped the tile in place on panels 2 feet by 10 feet, rolled them up and marked them. A tile contractor installed them on the building,” he said of the task he completed in 1965.
JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO he finished yet another project. The tower near the sidewalk in front of the United Church of Christ, on Electric Boulevard across from Blesser Field, is sculptured concrete.
Faintly reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, cut short and ballooning where the tower caves, the end result is unique, singular. Twin spotlights sharply etch it against black of night.
Such concepts are typical of Powell’s type of work.
“It is very rare,” he says, “when you can use an idea for a trade show more than once. In our business we are constantly looking for new ideas, new materials, new approaches to things.
“I guess it’s a business where I fit.”
“The concept of a trade exhibit has to be arrived at quickly, as almost a ‘flash’ sort of thing. I have to design quickly, never labor over it. One of my features as a designer is that I work fast.
“I’m a bad finisher. I have to work almost as though I’m under pressure to finish immediately or it doesn’t get done. That doesn’t mean I don’t give things the proper consideration. But it does mean you can’t force yourself to be creative, to think creatively...”
Although he couldn’t technically describe how his ideas emerge any more than you can medically describe how you blink when raindrops fall toward your eyes, he gave some meaningful clues.
“I ALWAYS WORK WITH MUSIC around. Music turns me on more than art, far more. And I noticed when I’m hearing classical music, I think classically. When I hear Rock ’n Roll (which I like because of the beat and instrumentals, right up to the point where someone sings) I think this way. If it’s a rollicking show tune, I’m influenced. It sets my thinking for the time.”
But he doesn’t “program” his mind with music. It’s usually a radio that’s playing and he has no control. Yet he added reflectively, “maybe that’s something I should do. Up to now it’s been background. I didn’t look for inspiration in it (the music). I just allowed it to be there.”
FRANC POWELL never tried to win an award. Yet his very first exhibit, for Youngstown Kitchens in the 1957 Cleveland Home & Flower Show, won first place for show design.
But at a 1968 exhibit for the industry that makes printing presses similar to those in use at The Journal, Powell’s exhibit themed the show and was extensively written about and labeled “Display of the Month” in the national Displays Magazine.
“It’s about as big an award as you can get,” he said.
His theme was based on “The Printed Word – Documenting the Destiny of Man.”
He built a four-segment, carousel stage. As you stood in one spot, the first segment went by. It was a caveman scene with a Chicago art student dressed as a cavemen and drawing antelope and mammoth on the walls.
The second segment featured a specially constructed press, dating later than Gutenberg and on into Ben Franklin’s time. A movable screw came down and pressed the type on a page. The printed pages were given away as handouts.
The third segment was a monk in a monastery carving a woodblock and the fourth, a Paris art theater with a young man working on a lithograph stone. “We had stone samples,” he said, “but I don’t know where you’d find an artist now who could produce a lithograph on an actual stone. It’s just not done anymore.”
But the point of his exhibit, which he said didn’t attempt to cover all ages of printing, was to interest and intrigue the Print Show visitor. And that it did. But in other areas of the exhibition hall, some presses and been set up and made operable while others were simply “static.”
POWELL, WHO VOTES REPUBLICAN and occasionally attends the United Church of Christ, once had a major struggle for economic survival right at the time he was committed to building his $48,000 home.
Following a disagreement with an employer, he launched “a thing I always wanted to do – my own company.”
It was 1957 and the road to success would take seven or eight years. In those early days he sometimes told his wife, the former Betty Hays, and their three children, Gregg, now 22; Janine, now 20; and Sherry, now 18, “we have $40 in the checking account. That will have to do us for the next week. And they were great about it.”
The sum might not seem too much of a hardship, but a home was under construction and Powell, the artist in him rising up, must have driven the builder nuts. He ultimately changed everything except the four walls.
To help, his wife Betty went to work at B. F. Goodrich in Avon Lake. She continues to work, even today.
“And that,” said Franc Powell, “really made a difference.”
FRANCIS POWELL was born in Elwood City, Pa., “a little steel town,” and grew up in time to march off to service. His entire formal education came from the GI Bill of Rights, he said, and it wasn’t until four years after he was married that he graduated from the college which has since changed its name to Carnegie-Mellon Institute.
He moved to Avon Lake even though he was teaching at Lakewood Madison Elementary School and attending Western Reserve University in search of a master’s degree in art.
“But halfway through I decided I didn’t need it.”
He had a five-year plan. It terminated after three years when two fine job offers came along. He joined Andrews - Bartlett, a Cleveland-based company, and handled general decorations for the firm that handled the the entire conventions.
“Convention buildings were generally unsightly,” he said, “and we transformed them into things of beauty. We did it with brightly colored drapes, ceiling hangings, all kinds of sham. But sometimes we went too far.
“Sometimes they came out gaudy,” he laughed.
During this era, from the time he moved to Avon Lake to the early 50’s, Powell designed stage sets for the Avon Lake Players. Those who remember Walberg Brown as the portly bishop in “See How They Run,” were looking at a Powell-designed set. Other plays he handled included “Heaven Can Wait,” “George Washington Slept Here,” “Leave Her to Heaven,” to mention a few.
“It was an avocation,” he smiled. “I did it for fun.”
A few years later he joined Gallo Displays in Cleveland and began designing exhibit displays. His first, for Youngstown Kitchens in 1957, won an award. But he left Gallo in 1961 to form Franc Powell Design.
And almost go broke.
THE HISTORY of trade shows, Powell says, “dates from almost the end of World War II. Prior to that, an agent came in, rented a small booth and piled a table high with product. When you stopped by, he talked about it.
“Today a thousand square feet is pidling. Companies rent 150 by 50 feet and set up machinery that works. Some shows are vast. At the recent Tulsa Oil Show, companies came in and set up huge equipment right before the customer’s eyes.”
He enjoys the pomp and pageantry, the challenge of a new concept in display and the competition of others. Back in service days, his IQ was rated 136, which isn’t genius, but it’s far from a dummy. It only took a 115 IQ then to qualify for Office Candidate School.
Although Powell says music turns him on the most, he doesn’t play despite both a piano and organ in the family living room in the four-level home at 151 Vinewood. His son “dives into the piano when he’s home from the University of Michigan, and Jan plays the organ when she’s home from Thiel College at Greenville, Pa. Betty (his wife) plays a little...”
What turns Powell off – the most – is bigotry.
“Not so much in the field of art. You see it, but there it’s relatively easy to overcome. You see it as well in politics, racial problems and even the generation gap.
“Pespective in a painting depends upon where you’re standing. I see a father here (not himself) watching what his children are doing, and not seeing the same scene from around the wall. Nor does he see it from his children’s eyes. To him, it looks awfully plain.
“But it isn’t.”
He is dismayed that whites are prejudiced against blacks “because of what a few wrong blacks have done. And blacks are prejudiced against whites because of the whole history of wrong things done.
“But it doesn’t mean the differences can’t be worked out if both sides were willing to look at the situation from the other’s viewpoint.”
He cited another case of twisted perspective.
“I heard a radio interview with one of the (Cleveland) Juvenile Court caseworkers fired by Judge Walter Whitlach when the court employees went on strike. The man was complaining the judge’s decision had ‘deprived’ the kids of counseling.
“I say the man going on strike deprived the kids himself, yet here he was complaining about the judge...”
But he sees our biggest national problem today as a selfish side of man, a demanding of rights “regardless of who gets hurt. I think racism is only one manifestation of this.”
Powell isn’t a strongman type. He sees many other ills in society but says “they’re not for print,” although he’ll talk about them in private conversation.
IN SHORT, HIS PUBLIC LIFE is bright and beautiful. It spills over into his magnificently decorated home – his own work from teakwood carved as a heron, to abstracts in a host of media. He prefers sculpture and has an acre in back for his Japanese garden, objects of art and little brick walks. On the north wall of the living room is his sailboat painting which offers multiple reflections as though it’s in motion.
He has no windows in front, or on the street side. He moved them all to the back except for one tall church-like side-window which reaches more than 12 feet toward the cathedral ceiling.
But, within the perspective of this beauty and originality, Franc Powell remembers all is not in perspective with the world.
And, where it touches his heart, he makes his protests known in quiet, conversational ways. Never in his art.
|Recent view of the United Church of Christ |
sculpture on Electric Boulevard
It's kind of funny how I ended up working for Franc Powell back in the early 1980s.
I had graduated from Ohio State in December 1981, right into the recession that was underway at that time. After many months, I wasn’t having any luck finding a job with my degree in Visual Communication Design. Potential employers looked at my art portfolio (consisting of my student projects with an illogical Swiss design flavor, courtesy of OSU’s European professors) and couldn’t quite figure out what I could do.
That’s when my father stepped in to help. Dad mentioned that Betty Powell, a secretary at BF Goodrich (where he worked) had a husband who was a successful artist. Dad had talked to her about my difficulty finding a job, and she said that perhaps her husband could give me some career advice.
And that’s how I met Franc Powell. He invited me to come out to his house in Avon Lake and show him my portfolio.
I remember being pretty nervous sitting in his very formal living room, looking around at all of the pieces of art that he had either carved or painted. He looked at my portfolio very politely, but was confused as anyone else as to what I could do.
"Can you do marker renderings?” he asked. I replied that, yes, we had used magic markers in school.
“Well, I don’t see that in your portfolio,” he explained. He suggested that I find some common objects around my house to render with markers and create some new samples.
Franc offered advice on other ways to improve my portfolio and wished me good luck with my career. During the next few weeks, I added several new marker renderings to my portfolio, including one of my parents' Revere Ware coffee pot.
I was very surprised a few months later when Franc called, and asked if I was interested in freelancing at his company for a while. And thus launched my career at National Displays on Triskett Road in Cleveland, where I continued to work for the next few years.
While employed there, I was Franc’s extra set of hands. I did perspective drawings of proposed trade show exhibits that he designed, rendering them in magic markers. He then used the drawing to sell the concept to the prospective client. I also did construction drawings of the exhibits for the carpenters in the plant to follow. I was responsible for coordinating the creation of all graphics, whether I had to cut a frisket by hand with an X-Acto knife, or order a huge color transparency from a commercial photo lab.
Franc was a great guy to work for, and he was usually very low-key and amiable. I only remember him getting mad at me once, when he didn’t like the kerning I did on some vinyl lettering that I had applied on a sign board.
Working at National Displays was an interesting job, but after a few years I realized I really didn’t have a knack for exhibit design. Plus, the industry seemed to be leaning less towards custom built displays and more towards systems bought out of a catalog.
When I finally gave my notice in late 1984 that I was leaving, Franc was happy. He revealed that he had just signed the papers that week to merge National Displays with Ohio Displays, one of our competitors in Cleveland. The combined company would retain the Ohio Displays name. But with the duplication of staff, Franc hadn’t been sure that I would still have a job. So it was a good time for me to move on.
I ran into Franc several years later at the Dairy Queen in Avon Lake, and he was happy to see me. Our chance meeting gave me another opportunity to thank him for giving me my first job out of college.
|The former National Displays property at 12250 Triskett Road |
was demolished several years ago
Franc Powell passed away in February 1994.
Next: In Part 2 of this series, we fast forward to January 2005 to learn how two of Franc Powell’s Aqua Marine etched glass creations found new homes.