Semiconductors & Symbolism: Thomas Stell’s Ceramic Murals for Texas Instruments

Thomas Stell

At the recent annual meeting of the Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art (CASETA) in Dallas this past May, Linda East received an award for her recent thesis on the ceramic works of Thomas M. Stell, Jr. In addition to teaching, Stell was a member of the Dallas Nine, who were regionalist artists active primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. The Hamon blog contacted Linda to congratulate her and ask if she would share some comments about her research on these works sited at Dallas’ Texas Instruments campus. Her post about her thesis on this interesting local collection of art and her research process follows.

 Through research at SMU’s Hamon and DeGolyer and other archival libraries, I completed a Masters’ thesis for the Art History program at University of North Texas. The subject of the paper is a group of ceramic wall hangings by Thomas Stell, Jr. created for the Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building at the suburban edge of Dallas. These thirteen plaques include depictions of scientific references and employees at work with innovative machines. Included in the designs are shapes that resemble electronic symbols, microscopic organisms and chemicals, overlapping matrix grids, a sine wave made with the signature decorated line, and biomorphic forms. All of them include the same color combinations: dull blue, pale yellow and rust, soft green. Many of the thirteen plaques include backgrounds with a texture similar to pebbles. Stell consistently used references to nature, science, and technology in this body of work.

Placed in four garden courts that provide a respite for the company’s scientists, engineers, and other employees, these wall hangings use natural materials, contrasting with the surrounding advanced technological architecture. These outdoor rooms are warm and welcoming spaces that include tables, chairs and plantings.

By bringing these artworks out of obscurity, my research shows that Texas Instruments used the artwork and the architecture surrounding them to promote and portray a cutting edge business with roots in Texas.  Their style connects them to Texas Regionalism and places them within a distinctive regional artistic and economic culture, situating the state and hence, the company, as a progressive center of corporate art patronage in the post-war period. Characteristics found in Texas Regionalism include a connection to the immediate environment, simplification through abstraction, an earthy palette, and the use of symbolic or iconic imagery. Some of the symbols used by Stell were references to TI’s success within the growing electronics industry. Their development of silicon transistors caused an economic spurt within only a few years and placed them as leaders. With the decision to choose O’Neil Ford’s architecture and Tom Stell’s art for the Semiconductor Building, Patrick Haggerty – TI executive in charge of the project – placed the company within corporate trends to include significant design to enhance the environments of their employees.

Existing scholarship describes this phenomenon as it concerns other corporations, but until now, a complete analysis of Stell’s ceramic plaques and their meanings for Texas Instruments, the relationship of the art to the building and the connection to other contemporary businesses has not been done. Using primary resources such as the art and architecture itself, documents from the files of the company, letters and diaries; and secondary sources such as analyses of other companies’ use of art for promotional purposes, my paper strengthens recognition of certain trends and places Texas companies within those trends.

This research and the resulting conclusions were only possible due to outstanding archivists and curators, such as the Hamon with its Jerry Bywaters Collection, the DeGolyer Texas Instruments collection, the UT Alexander Architectural Archival Library with its O’Neil Ford papers, UT-Arlington’s David Dillon papers, and the Denton Public Library Emily Fowler Archival library files, among others. These collections are maintained by librarians who never cease to amaze with their assistance, support, and encouragement. Within the SMU libraries, I especially appreciate Ellen Buie Niewyk, Sam Ratcliffe, and Ada Negraru. Archival research provides the opportunity to use information from original, primary sources such as diaries, newspaper accounts, personal letters, and documentation for biographical publications. The exciting discoveries found while combing through files and boxes bring history, with its personalities and events, back to life.

Another approach to research that can be fulfilling and useful is to conduct personal interviews with artists, architects, authors, corporate executives and even those who knew them.

Personally, now that I have graduated with an MA in Art History, my next step for this research is to find a venue for publication. I am pursuing that goal through a book publisher and a magazine. Perhaps publication will also be possible through full-time employment within the art world. As my life continues to unfold, I will keep you posted through Hamon’s blog site.

Thank you to Linda East for this contribution.

Featured image: 

Thomas M. Stell, Jr. (1898 – 1981)
One of thirteen ceramic wall hangings, 1958.
Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building, Dallas.

Image: contributed by author.


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