Bill Stumpf, designer of ergonomic chairs

  • Article by: LINDA MACK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2006 - 9:11 PM

The Minnesota-based industrial designer changed the way the American worker sits. His Ergon, made in 1976, was the first chair based on ergonomics.

CNN anchors, TV stars, corporate presidents and millions of ordinary office workers sit in the ubiquitous high-backed black mesh chair called the Aeron. Few know it was designed by Minnesota industrial designer Bill Stumpf.

Stumpf, who lived and worked in Stockholm, Wis., in recent years, died Wednesday of complications from abdominal surgery. He was 70.

"He had all kinds of ideas about the way things work, not just how they look," said Mickey Friedman, a former design curator at the Walker Art Center. She featured Stumpf's work in a playful 1984 exhibit called "A Serious Chair" and published a famously fun issue of Design Quarterly he wrote about Julia Child's kitchen.

To research that project, Stumpf moved in with Child and her husband, Paul, to watch them cook for several days, "so he could really understand what they did," said Clark Malcolm, a friend and longtime colleague at the Herman Miller Co.

"He had enormous notebooks full of sketches, quotes and data gathered from anthropologists, biostatisticians, back surgeons and human-factors experts," he recalled. "All of that went into that big hopper of his brain and out came designs."

Born in St. Louis in 1936 and educated at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and at the University of Wisconsin, Stumpf "loved the Midwest, its humanity and its humility," Malcolm said.

On the other hand, things that were ugly or didn't work made him mad.

"He once got out of an Amtrak train and washed the windows," Malcolm said. "He just couldn't help it."

In 1970, Stumpf started working for the research corporation of Herman Miller, one of the world's preeminent office furniture companies. Stumpf founded his own studio in Winona, Minn., in 1972, and designed for Herman Miller for more than 30 years.

The 1976 Ergon was the first chair based on research into how the body moves, the discipline known as ergonomics.

His second chair, the Equa, was lighter and more light-hearted, Malcolm said. The Aeron, which Stumpf designed with Don Chadwick, has become one of the best-selling office chairs in the world.

His studio, Stumpf, Weber & Associates, also designed Pur Water Filtration devices and products for Lexmark International.

His accomplishments earned Stumpf the 2006 Product Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. The award will be presented posthumously in October.

In 2001, Stumpf received a Personal Recognition Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America. His 1998 book, "The Ice Palace that Melted Away," has become a classic design textbook.

Stumpf's daughter, Carol, said that, even while he was in St. Marys Hospital in Rochester this summer, he was "analyzing things, how could they be better, why couldn't they be better?"He was designing a pool for his back yard right up to the end, drawing on napkins," she said.

Besides his daughter, Stumpf is survived by his wife, Sharon, and son, Jon. A private service is planned in Stockholm.

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