Bill Stumpf und Don Chadwick


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Bill Stumpf:

Bill Stumpf once said, "I work best when I'm pushed to the edge. When I'm at the point where my pride is subdued, where I'm innocent again. Herman Miller knows how to push me that way, mainly because the company still believes—years after D.J. De Pree first told me—that good design isn't just good business, it's a moral obligation. Now that's pressure."

Stumpf's association with Herman Miller began in 1970 when he joined the staff of the Herman Miller Research Corporation. After establishing his own firm in 1972, Stumpf created the Ergon chair, the first ergonomic work chair. Later, in collaboration with Don Chadwick, he produced the groundbreaking Equa and iconic Aeron chairs. He also was principal designer for the Ethospace system.

"I enjoy myself, and I do it through design," Stumpf declared in an interview a few years ago. "I love beauty, and I love the availability of beautiful things and useful things immediately around me."

When he looked around, though, too often he saw design that "denies the human spirit," architecture that acknowledged money and not people, offices that were "hermetically sealed in artificial space." He constantly battled against such designed indignity—a battle that began in the 1960s at the University of Wisconsin.

"Everything goes back to those days at the University of Wisconsin," he said recently, referring to the postgraduate years he spent studying and teaching at the university's Environmental Design Center. "Everything was about freeing up the body, designing away constraints."

It was there where Stumpf, working with specialists in orthopedic and vascular medicine, conducted extensive research into ways people sit—and the ways they should sit. In 1974, Herman Miller commissioned him to apply his research to office seating. Two years later, the Ergon chair was introduced.

During his lifetime, Stumpf—a key figure in Herman Miller's transformation into a research-based, problem-solving innovator—received numerous awards for this work. He was named the winner of the 2006 National Design Award in Product Design, an award presented posthumously by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Stumpf died in 2006.


Don Chadwick:



Don Chadwick isn't one of those designers who say that their "real" studio is in their mind. Chadwick's real studio is in Santa Monica, thank you, and anyway, he prefers to call it "an experimental lab."

"We're set up to get dirty and take chances," he says.

His lab apparatus includes saws and grinders, lathes and drill presses and vises—and not one computer-numerically-controlled anything. Computer technology, Chadwick allows, is great for some things, but when he hears someone suggest that a new chair could have just as effectively been designed by computer, he says, politely, "You're out of your mind!"

"The only way to be sure a chair is comfortable is to actually sit in it and make changes along the way," Chadwick says. "A computer can't deal with the subtleties of chair design. Good chairs are too complex."

Too complex? Yes, and not just for computers.

"Most industrial designers don't take furniture design seriously," he says. "They're not trained to get into that kind of detail. It's too personal, too much like surgery. And besides, you have to be in love with this kind of work."

Chadwick's love for furniture design goes back to his childhood, when his cabinetmaker grandfather taught him how to use the tools of the trade—hand tools that required skill, precision, and patience. Later, unlike the other industrial design students at UCLA in the mid-1950s, he focused on furniture. And after hearing a Charles and Ray Eames lecture there, Chadwick was convinced: Furniture offered designers, even industrial designers, the chance to use materials in new, innovative ways—and to make a "real difference" in people's lives.

He attributes at least some of this optimism to the "LA recklessness" he's experienced as a lifelong resident of Southern California. "There's less fear of failure out here, so people are more apt to take risks. It's fertile ground for innovation."

For over two decades now, Chadwick has had a partner in recklessness. "Herman Miller isn't afraid to take chances on new ideas. That's why the company's been successful for so long, and that's one reason why it's challenging to work for them."

The Santa Monica-Zeeland connection continues, the experimental lab whirling with the sounds of belt sanders and power saws. That, after all, is what real design studios do.