Remembering Bill Stumpf

It’s the Friday afternoon before Labor Day, and as the office empties out for the long weekend bad news arrives: Bill Stumpf is gone. I don’t want to believe this, so I contact a couple of trusty sources, hoping that the Web got it wrong. No, word comes back, it is true. He was only 70, young for hardy Midwestern stock. One of his grandfathers lived into his eighties. Frank Lloyd Wright finished the Guggenheim Museum in his nineties. I expected Bill to be around for a long time.

Why should the passing of an industrial designer who lived in a rural Wisconsin town touch me so deeply? We’d met only fleetingly, at some design function or another, and we talked perhaps a few times on the phone. We weren’t friends. We were barely acquaintances. But I consider him one of my mentors, a person of lasting value.

I loved—still love—reading his book, The Ice Palace That Melted Away: Restoring Civility and Other Lost Virtues to Everyday Life (Pantheon Books, 1998), where he revealed the roots of his deep and abiding humanism as a designer. As a young boy in St. Louis, Bill lived in a house without working locks and roamed the streets without fear. Clearly he understood the value of trust. The parents who trusted that no evil would come through the front door; the child who trusted that he’d meet only adventure, knowledge, and fun on the city streets. The trust of everyone in the goodwill of the community. I can picture his precise Swiss grandfather, educated as an engineer, who later became a Protestant preacher and emigrated to America in 1910. Through his exemplary stewardship he taught Bill to respect his possessions: Grandpa’s mail-order shoes from Sears lasted for ten years, his car for 20.

It is no wonder then that Bill’s ideas about industrial design were much broader than simply serving manufacturing capabilities and marketing trends. When he said that people in his profession were “terminally preoccupied with the quality of life and human artifacts,” he was speaking of the best, the most ethical, and the most hopeful of his kind. An environmentalist at heart, this well-read, well-traveled, worldly designer with solid Midwestern roots inspired designers working at every scale. He was truly, as he liked to say of his profession, a “guardian of good experiences.”

One of those good experiences—one he wanted us all to have—is eating sweet, freshly picked corn. Though our taste buds have been dulled by having the fructose-injected kind, preserved to sit for weeks on supermarket shelves, we yearn for the real. An ear of corn can make us think about how we want to live. Bill asked us to ponder this: “In the crucial pursuit of extending the shelf life of tomatoes or sweet corn, why is chemical technology enlisted as the most immediate and desirable solution, as opposed to encouraging local agriculture, food distribution systems, and food markets to deliver the real stuff in a fresh, unadulterated state, on time?” Why indeed.

On October 18, when Bill Stumpf’s name is called as a recipient of the National Design Award, someone else will have to accept it. But anyone who has found inspiration in his words or comfort in an ergonomic chair will rejoice for him. As I sit here in my Aeron, which he designed with Don Chadwick for Herman Miller, I think of how lucky I am to learn about life and design from an exemplary human being, a man I knew only through the work and values he left behind.

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