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SEGD Founder, Past President from 1986-1987 and a 1987 SEGD Fellow
James Lafferty Glass, a founder of SEGD and the Kelvin Group creative community in Houston, died April 15, 2010 of heart and diabetes complications.
Glass was one of the three designers who met on July 3, 1973, to compare notes on the growing importance of “architectural signage,” and ultimately created a new field of design.
“I think it’s fair to say that without Jim Glass there would be no SEGD,” says Richard Burns, who along with Glass and John Berry, was present for the initial informal meeting that seeded the establishment of SEGD. In April 1974, the second meeting of the fledgling group was in Glass’ hometown of Houston, and 18 designers convened to plan the development of a national organization devoted to sign design.
Glass was a lightning rod for the group. “Jim’s passion, his intellectual curiosity about signage, his creative and technical insight, and the energy he brought to the group were the catalyst for all that followed,” says Burns. “Houston was the real birthplace of SEGD and Jim was instrumental in those proceedings.”
Many considered Glass, who founded the Kelvin Group in 1960, as a mentor and statesman among his design peers. Steve Neumann, who worked as Glass’ lead designer at the Kelvin Group before forming his own company, The Design Office of Steve Neumann & Friends, modeled his practice after Glass’ professionalism and guidance.
“For 36 years, in the back of my mind, I would ask the question, ‘What would Glass do?’ when confronting a difficult obstacle in my practice,” says Neumann.
Glass believed in the importance of sharing information to advance the burgeoning profession of environmental graphic design, and this was perhaps his most important legacy to SEGD. He drafted SEGD’s first Technical Sourcebooks—the reference books that codified materials, techniques, manufacturers, and fabricators for signage and environmental graphic design. While serving as president of SEGD, he set up a technical hotline and helped define a system of sign types and lexicons.
Sarah Speare, SEGD’s first paid executive director, remembers Glass’ large stature, his “huge heart,” and his sense of humor. “When I became pregnant with my first son, he gave me a baby gift of a yellow shirt with the old SEGD ‘Sedgwick’ logo with a baby crawling and the arrow pointing to the diaper!” Appropriately, he organized the national conference in Dallas in 1995 with the theme “Thinking Big.”
“He was full of humility and kindness and had the biggest smile….a 12-year-old lived in him forever,” she recalls.
Past SEGD President John Muhlhausen met Glass in 1977 at an exhibit hosted by SEGD and a long, enduring professional friendship developed over the years. In 2003, the friendship became more personal when Muhlhausen arrived in Houston as a cancer patient seeking a second opinion at M.D. Anderson Medical Center. Typical of Glass’ warmth and generosity, says Muhlhausen, “Jim and his wife, Gail, took me in like a son and offered a guest house they owned nearby M.D. Anderson where my wife and I could stay, free of charge, while I could have surgery and receive the six to nine months of required treatment.” Muhlhausen decided to be treated in his home of Atlanta instead, but will never forget Glass’ big heart.
Muhlhausen returned to Houston in 2008 hoping to drive Glass to the SEGD Conference + Expo in Austin, where SEGD’s 35th anniversary was being celebrated. But Glass, who had been wheelchair-bound for several years, was too ill to travel. Instead, Muhlhausen visited him after the conference and shared the 35th anniversary video. “He enjoyed it immensely. The den wall in his home was covered with photos from the ‘old days’ of SEGD,” says Muhlhausen. “SEGD was an important chapter in his life, and he was certainly central to its very existence.”
“We owe a huge debt to Jim Glass for his vision, energy, technical expertise, and passion, which made the very existence of the SEGD community possible,” says Leslie Gallery Dilworth, SEGD’s CEO. Glass was named the first SEGD Fellow in 1987.
After studying in Paris and Mexico City, Glass received a BFA from the University of Houston and served in both the U.S. Naval Reserve and the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He founded the Kelvin Group in 1960 and his career as a designer was marked by numerous awards and honors.
He was appointed to the Houston Municipal Arts Commission in 1976 and served as its chairman. Besides design and his service to his parish, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Houston, Glass’ passion was Texas history, and he served on the Harris County Historical Commission, the Harris County Historical Society, and the Harris County Heritage Society as well as on the boards of local museums and arts organizations. He authored numerous research papers and articles about Houston history and also drew and published historical maps.
In lieu of remembrances, contributions in Glass’ honor may be made to the St. Vincent de Paul Adopt-a-Student Program, providing scholarships for underprivileged students. Call 713.667.9111 for information or forward contributions to St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Adopt-a-Student Program, 6800 Buffalo Speedway, Houston, Texas 77025.