Bill Stumpf

U.S.A. (1936–2006)
Bill Stumpf
What does jazz have to do with design? Everything, according to Bill Stumpf, who once said that he liked to collaborate with other designers the way a jazz trio improvises, playing together with no fixed destination. The approach requires complete attention, and you have to trust your instincts. Design should make room for spontaneity and discovery, said Stumpf, “blending the pleasure and pain of life into something wonderful.”

Stumpf trained at the University of Illinois and then studied environmental design at the University of Wisconsin. Soon after, he was commissioned by Herman Miller to design an office chair to be sold alongside the Action Office II workstation. The resulting Ergon Chair was one of the first chairs whose design was based on ergonomics – the way people sit. In 1994, Stumpf and Don Chadwick co-designed the revolutionary Aeron Chair for Herman Miller, earning themselves and the chair a place in the permanent design collection of New York’s MoMA.

Stumpf was a skillful innovator and something of a philosopher who envisioned a world where design serves civility. And yet, when he looked around, he saw design that too often “denies the human spirit” and “architecture that acknowledges money and not people.”

He addressed those issues in his book, The Ice Palace That Melted Away: Restoring Civility and Other Lost Virtues to Everyday Life. Civility, according to Stumpf, “is the something extra – comfort, hidden goodness, personal worth, helping others, play – the joy we take in our achievements and the compassion we show toward our all-too-human faults.” His work is certainly evidence of those concerns.

In his work for Herman Miller, as Stumpf transformed the company’s approach to problem solving and research, he also had profound influence on the way people work in office environments around the world.
Bill Stumpf
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