Avriel Shull’s logo—her first name written in curving cursive, wrapped around an artist’s palette—suggested that she had ambitions to be more than just an artist, designer, or architect (though she was all three). She wanted to be a brand.
And in midcentury Indiana, without the benefit of formal training or an architecture degree, Shull earned that distinction, designing and decorating an entire subdivision in her progressive, organic style. She was so good that despite the added difficulty of having a unlicensed architect design a home (others had to sign off on blueprints), clients were more than willing to make the sacrifice.
Shull’s success sprang from her skill and drive: She continually worked to expand her reach, from homes to restaurants to apartment buildings, and sold hundreds of home plans (the “Avriel Design”) via national magazines. She was was engaged in everything she did, even helping lay stonework in front of her projects, and didn’t have patience for those who weren’t.
Shull was also half of a local power couple. Her husband was Richard K. Shull, one of the nation’s first syndicated television critics. They were known by locals as “Ave and Arky,” and their wedding made the pages of Life magazine.
“I am horrified by the number of registered architects who profess to be designers and engage in the practice at the sacrifice of the very disciplined elements the word ‘design’ denotes,” Shull once said.
Born Avriel Joy Christie, Shull grew up in a rush to create. A self-described artist from a young age, she began decorating and designing early, sewing her own clothes as a child. After graduating from Carmel High School, she attended both Butler University and the John Herron School of Art, but did not obtain a degree from either. Instead, she opened a commercial art agency in Indianapolis in 1948.
Shull was drawn to architecture after a local builder hired her to trace blueprints and work with scale models. She soon taught herself by looking at other people’s drawings, and by 1953, felt confident enough to open “Avriel,” her own architectural and building firm.
That same year, at 23, she built her first home, the Golden Unicorn, a design as grand as the name suggests. Built in a style that could be called California contemporary, it was outfitted with the finest material (including a namesake 4-foot-tall unicorn statue, designed by Shull, placed near the doorway). Standing out from the ranch and revivalist homes in the area, it was slow to find the right buyer, but more importantly, it paved the way for her most famous project.
For her next project, which she started in 1955, Shull created a suburb on 11 acres of land in Carmel owned by her father. Known as Christie’s Thornhurst, the warren of 21 homes was a complete work. Shull laid out the streets, designed the infrastructure, sketched a series of different home layouts—mostly post-and-beam construction with flat or sloping roofs—and designed and decorated many of the interiors.
The project’s success meant Shull was in demand throughout the ’60s and ’70s, working on high-end homes, apartments, and libraries across the central Indiana and Indianapolis area. She would complete 85 projects in her lifetime, according to Connie Zeigler, a local design and architectural historian, and even begin selling plans through national magazines. Tragically, Shull died suddenly from complications from diabetes in 1976. Zeigler said she had seven plans on her drawing board when she passed away, and for years afterwards, her husband would continue to fill orders for her home plans.
Buildings to know
While Shull would go on to refine her style, Thornhurst still stands as her crowning achievement. Done in a variety of layouts and rooflines, the homes demonstrated not only her command of different disciplines—she did everything from laying out street grid and plumbing to setting stones for the gutters—but showed her to be a shrewd businesswoman. She made sure to design to Fair Housing Association (FHA) standards so returning G.I.s could get favorable loans to move into her new midcentury homes. Built before Carmel became a bedroom community for Indianapolis, the attractive and livable Thornhurst homes are still in high demand today.
Zeigler says that Shull’s multidisciplinary focus helped her understand every aspect of a home, from interior designs to color schemes. By including features such as comfortable, spacious kitchens with extra storage and multiple bathrooms in each home—a rarity in that age—Shull made midcentury homes much more inviting, says Zeigler.
Legacy and reputation today
Zeigler feels that Shull didn’t get nearly the credit she deserved in her lifetime. And, tragically, the Golden Unicorn is no more; it was damaged in 1976 when a new owner tried to remove it and return it to Richard Shull. But there are signs her legacy will be both protected and promoted. Shull homes, especially in Thornhurst, now fetch top dollar (owners often get offers to buy without even putting them on the market), and Zeigler successfully submitted the subdivision to the National Register of Historic Places.