It’s a truism that iconic designs outlive their designers. It proved to be the case again on August 30 when industrial designer Bill Stumpf died at 70 of complications stemming from abdominal surgery. He didn’t regard himself as ergonomist, yet made his special mark on office furniture design as a pioneer in ergonomic seating.
Furniture manufacturer Herman Miller describes Stumpf as one of the Michigan-based company’s most gifted design partners, and Stumpf’s Ergon chair, designed in 1976, as the first modern ergonomic work chair. He is best known for his 1994 collaboration with designer Don Chadwick on the Aeron chair, an aesthetic and ergonomic innovation that quickly became part of the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Stumpf, who was born March 1, 1936, in St.Louis, joined the staff of Herman Miller in 1970, establishing his own design firm in 1972 while still working for the company.
Fellow industrial designer Jack Kelley was one of the first people at Herman Miller to meet Stumpf. In his tribute to the designer, Kelley recalled that Stumpf was hired to “deal with the scope of issues that were developing in the application of panel system products, namely Action Office, the first modular panel system introduced to the office market by Herman Miller in 1968.” He said he and Stumf became very good friends and worked together to solve office workstation problems. “To me, Bill’s capability of exceptional philosophical problem analysis helped us to develop exceptional and innovative product solutions.”
Kelley said he was Director of Design at Herman Miller in 1979 when Stumf and Chadwick were teamed up to design ergonomic seating solutions. The result was the Equa chair, he explained, the first office chair that came in three sizes to accommodate the wide range of sizes of office workers.
Stumf and Chadwick were teamed up again to design products for the elderly. “They developed a seating solution that had a mechanism that provided an effortless means of adjustment by the user,” Kelley said, “(setting) the groundwork for the Aeron chair mechanisms.”
Kelley and Stumf came together again to work on a Kelly-developed concept called Ethospace Interiors, which Herman Miller introduced in late 1984.
“My memories of Bill will last as long as I live,” Kelley said. “He represented a refreshing mind to work with and he was stimulating as well. He was a designer that didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade.”
Professor Paul Eshelman, who teaches interior and furniture design at Cornell University at Ithica, New York, credits the designer with a milestone. “The first seating product on the United States market designed specifically based on ergonomic information was the Ergon Chair by William Stumpf,” he said in a 2005 interview with The Ergonomics Report