written by:
June 2, 2009
Originally published in Prefab's Promise
as
Live/Work

At work, you don’t usually get to choose where you sit, but at home it’s a different story. Dwell asked designer Bill Stumpf, whose ergonomically sound chairs make overtime okay, to review five desks.

Designer Bill Stumpf

At the time of this writing, Bill Stumpf can be found in one of his favorite places, sitting at his desk working on a manuscript in the home office he keeps in Stockholm, a small town in western Wisconsin’s hilly Coulee Region. For Stumpf, writing is “serious mind work”—a task he considers, in this day and age, better accomplished at home than at the office. Speaking in a rambling first-draft stream of consciousness, he elaborates, “You can take your shoes off. You can dress any way you want. You can have one hand on your dog. You can optimize the place to work and concentrate. I just got fed up with working in an institutional environment—including my own office.”

A seasoned designer whose distinguished tenure for Herman Miller has resulted in the award-winning Ergon, Equa, and dot-com-synonymous/simply ubiquitous Aeron chairs (with Don Chadwick), Stumpf not only knows enough about offices to be authoritative in their dismissal, he knows a lot about everything. Having previously authored The Ice Palace That Melted Away: Restoring Civility and Other Lost Virtues to Everyday Life, Stumpf’s current manuscript concerns what he calls “the arts of daily living”—a maddeningly broad topic that he approaches with both wizardly acumen and childlike curiosity. In our brief hour-long conversation, Stumpf’s mind raced from his Swiss grandfather’s study to IBM cubicles to beds that rock adults to sleep to an Eames Aluminum Group chair being unearthed in a trash heap of the future to Julia Child’s kitchen to America’s lack of educational programs in design research.

The maelstrom of anecdotes, history, and philosophy is Stumpf’s response to focusing his wide-angled attention on desks—that piece of furniture on the other side of his task chairs. Stumpf asserts that one of the biggest problems in office-furniture design is that while manufacturers regularly produce both desks and chairs, they are rarely conceived by the same designer in tandem. Another frustration, Stumpf says, is that “the serious tools you’ll find in an institutional environment are hard to come by in home offices.” Lamenting the furniture selection in office supply stores, he continues, “If the amount of money being spent on commercial equipment in home kitchens were being spent for use on home offices, you’d see a much higher quality of design.”

At the same time Stumpf remains aloof: “I’m not sure there is a direct correlation between a piece of furniture and productivity.” He adds, “I’m sure Herman Miller wouldn’t want to hear me say that.”

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