D. Lee DuSell
1927 –  Class of 2014  Visual Arts
Not only is D. Lee (“Lee”) DuSell “an artist of all trades,” he is truly a master of most of them.  At 87 years of age, Lee has been producing spectacular artwork in multiple mediums for more than 6 decades, moving comfortably among such focuses as painter and printmaker to fashion illustrator to art instructor to businessman, to woodworker and metal smith, to college professor, and back-and-forth.  Lee DuSell’s remarkable designs and artwork can be found throughout the United States as well as in Japan and Saudi Arabia.

On his letterhead is listed the word “Artist,” but he is so much more than that. Like many creative people in the later years, he readily admits that he remains “always more interested in what I haven’t done than in what I have done.”

Lee was born in Aurora, Illinois, on June 26, 1927. Today he lives on a farm near Syracuse, New York.  A 1944 graduate of East Aurora High School, he attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago, first in 1944, and then again from 1946 to 1947, after his military service. With “kinfolk in Aurora (he still has relatives in the area) and art school in Chicago,” Lee has never ignored or forgotten his Midwest roots.

Delbert Peterson and his wife, Jeanne, nominated Lee for the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame.  A 2012 inductee himself, Delbert was a former classmate of Lee’s and fellow artist from high school.  Lee also was best man at Delbert and Jeanne Peterson’s wedding.

Lee served in the U.S. Navy, where he was more engaged in painting portraits of officers than participating in combat. Upon discharge, a former teacher encouraged him to go paint in Mexico, which he did, for 6 months.

During his stay in Mexico, Lee was able to visit and meet muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.  Working on a large wall with his thick glasses and rumpled work clothes, the muralist, who had only one arm, was inspirational as an artist spreading his ideas out where everyone could observe and study them.

Lee remembered that during the visit Orozco was asked to identify a superior art school.  His answer was, “What is an art school?”  Lee realized then that, to a large extent, artists are essentially self-taught.  “As a teacher, I was convinced that my first priority was to assist the student in discovering their individual art and helping them to develop that important commodity. Art is much more than 2 + 2 = 4.”

After Lee returned to the states from studying in Mexico at the Escuella De Bellas Artes, his paintings were exhibited at the Aurora YMCA.  His high school biology teacher, Roy Davis, happened to view them, and was so impressed that he asked Lee to do the illustrations for the biology book he was writing.

Another friend recommended, after Mexico, that Lee consider the Cranbrook Academy for college and, at the age of 22, he was accepted there on the basis of his portfolio only.  Lee met his future wife, Mary, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where they had painting studios across from each other.

When they married, Mary was working in metal, specifically jewelry, and Lee said he became “enamored” by how she crafted the pieces.  According to one of Mary’s accounts, Lee’s “early art experiences began to shape a philosophy” at a time when Saarinen, Eames, Bertoia, and Milles were close to the Cranbrook community – they were all showing the “interaction of art and everyday life on very lofty levels.”  

The DuSells left Cranbrook at the end of the school year in 1950 and were married in the fall after Lee was offered a job as director of the Art Barn School of Art in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The new position lasted about a year.  

Again, Mary explained their reason for returning to Aurora:  “life had a way of moving us out of those comfortable situations and throwing us off in a new direction.” Because of a medical emergency, Lee began running the business side of his father’s garment factory during the day, and building furniture in the basement of the DuSell family home in the evenings.

His father had worked for Kaufmann Brothers on the east side, but opted to start his own clothing company, Aurora Garment Company, as a subcontractor manufacturing dresses for R & M Kaufmann, his former employer. Lee worked for his father for 5 years.  Newly married, Lee and Mary needed furniture, so he set about designing and building it himself in the evenings after coming home from work.

When a young friend in architecture recommended that Lee enter the first Designer Craftsman USA competition at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts in New York in 1953, he submitted a table he built in the basement of his family home in Aurora. This extraordinary birch-top dining table with high, arching cast-aluminum
legs was subsequently featured in the October 2, 1956, edition of Look magazine in a two-page spread showing the elegant table, along with another smaller DuSell table and other furniture pieces under the title “The Platinum Look – Practical aluminum and stainless steel give home furnishings a cool, billion-dollar look.”

Decades later the Boston Museum of Fine Arts hosted an exhibit called “The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940 – 1990.”  The curator for the exhibit phoned Lee and requested a negative of the original photograph of the table for use in the book to be published with the exhibit.  Ultimately, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston purchased the restored original prototype table, making it part of their permanent collection in 2005.

“Having the opportunity to acquaint Minoru Yamasaki, architect, with my work, I drove to Detroit with a station wagon full of my things to show him.  He seemed impressed and invited me to visit his McGregor Conference Center, which was under construction on the campus of Wayne State University, while I was in Detroit.  I was very impressed by what I saw.  Eight
exterior doors were required.  Upon returning to my studio I built a jewelry quality model of my proposal and shipped it to him.  When he received it, he immediately telephoned to express his pleasure and approval of the design.  This was my first serious collaboration with an architect.  It was not always that simple – beginner’s luck. Thereafter, the McGregor door model was permanently displayed in his personal office for thirty years.”

While associated with architect Minoru Yamasaki as a consultant, Lee designed the Bimah area for the North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois (1961-1964), created the lighting fixture for the arches of the Federal Science Pavilion for the Seattle World’s Fair (1962), designed the elevator doors, desks, and hardware accoutrements for the World Trade Center Twin Towers (1965-1968), created the bronze entryway and window grilles for the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (1976-1978), and created the altar wall, god house doors, and furniture for the Shiga Sacred Garden in Shigaraki, Japan (1980-1983), among many other notable projects.

One of his most difficult projects upon which he collaborated with Yamasaki was the Saudi Arabian monetary building.  Many symbols and forms were prohibited.  Lee learned that the two-story high decorative window grilles were a ground level security factor and no openings were permitted that were large enough to insert a monkey that was trained to open locks with keys.

Without question, D. Lee DuSell has excelled in multiple artistic fields.  Installations of his unique artwork can be seen throughout the world in office buildings, campuses, government buildings, and sacred places.  Nine of the United States and its capital (Michigan, Illinois, California, New York, Washington, Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and
Washington, DC), plus Japan and Saudi Arabia are settings for his architectural elements and enhancements, furniture, sculpture, and drawings.

As the first chairman of the Experimental Studios at the Syracuse University School of Art in New York (1965-1992), Professor DuSell has given us 30 years as an artist consultant and 30 years instructing other budding artists, designers, and craftsmen.  As son Brian described it, “My father engaged in both the commissions and professorship for over 30 years.  Apart from these endeavors, my father has created a significant body of artwork purely for his own artistic exploration.  Most of this is inspired by his Christian faith and is often expressed in the form of angels.”

Mildred Fagen offered these words when Lee DuSell was honored by the Guild for Religious Architecture on May 15, 1967:  “Though endowed with rich and many-sided talents as designer, craftsman, artist and sculptor, D. Lee DuSell is a man of uncommon modesty.  He executes his commissions within a wide span of disciplines – from the lyric to the epic, from the dynamic to the mystic, but always with a deep sensitivity and devotion to the specific problem.  In making him an honorary member we enrich ourselves as his work consistently has integrity of material, beauty of concept and exaltation of purpose.”

In addition to this honorary membership, in 1979, Lee DuSell was named an Honorary Member of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art & Architecture, American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.).  In 1987, he received the Honor Award for Art in Architecture from the Detroit Chapter of the A.I.A.

Lee is an artist who entered art school solely on his portfolio, who commenced teaching industrial design at Syracuse University without academic credentials, and who was elected to be Chairman of Experimental Studios Department, with a faculty of 6, for the Syracuse University School of Art.  

When asked about his architectural design work, Lee responded, “I attempt to produce work at human scale which enhances the spirit of the architecture.”

The following excerpt from the textbook, Makers: A History of American Studio Craft  © The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, Inc., described Lee’s philosophy well:

D. Lee DuSell, who taught design at Syracuse University, made some very interesting furniture in the mid 1950s.  He had studied painting and printmaking at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the late ‘40s and was influenced by the idea that design could be a comprehensive gathering of art, craft, and architecture.  He did not identify himself as a woodworker, feeling closer to the tradition of progressive 1930s designers like Walter von Nesson and Donald Deskey, who used metal freely. Working in the basement of his family home in 1953, he made a gorgeous aluminum and birch table that took advantage of the inherent strength of cast aluminum for legs and understructure far thinner than possible with wood.  The birch tabletop, hardly worked at all, seem to float above the structure, defying gravity…DuSell went on to become an architectural consultant, generating metal architectural elements such as doors, screens and liturgical fittings for more than 30 years…”

During Lee’s 30-year association as a consultant to architect Minoru Yamasaki, his other projects included the design of the Bimah area for the North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois (1961-64); creating the lighting fixture used in the arches of the Federal Science Pavilion for the Seattle World’s Fair (1962); designing the main lobby, reception desk, the elevator doors, ceiling, and other hardware accoutrements for the  Michigan Consolidated Gas building in Detroit, Michigan (1960-63); designing the typical office door hardware and elevator call buttons for the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York (1965-68); creating the 100-foot high bronze entry wall and two-story high bronze window grilles for the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1976-78); and designing the bronze altar wall, special doors covered in gold leaf, altar table, and seating for the Shiga Sacred Garden temple, Shigaraki, Japan (1980-83). A final project in Japan was a Shrine Altar for a remarkable building designed by the Japanese architect, Tadayoshi Ito.
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 Award-winning dining table featured in Look Magazine, 1956;