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Book Review / Non-Fiction

The Musings of a Dissatisfied '90s Designer

THE ICE PALACE THAT MELTED AWAY, Restoring Civility and Other Lost Virtuesto Everyday Life, by Bill Stumpf, Pantheon $21, 170 pages

October 28, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

"Life is missing something more than modernity and yes, post-modernity, has a mind to deliver," Bill Stumpf suggests. He writes as a successful designer who believes that design, as it is practiced, ought to enhance civility and grace but may very well hinder them.

There is something engaging in a professional's skepticism about his own profession: the surgeon who hesitates to cut, the general who pronounces war hell (admittedly, after making it so), the gardener who slips a gulp of fertilizer to a weed. Some of the best moments in Stumpf's small book of reflections come in his doubts about the work of colleagues who believe that doing something has got to be better than just standing there.

Those of us who wonder about the baroque vertical tizzies into which stylish chefs torment our food, or can't locate in the teardrop interiors of today's cars a flat surface to lay a pencil, or are unable to read dials and switches designed into elegant invisibility, will sympathize with Stumpf's citing Jay Doblin, a fellow designer, on "the curse of aesthetics."

Stumpf believes design should enhance civility, that civility depends on a respect for user comfort and that comfort (he quotes William Gass) consists in considerable part of "unawareness." Not what we notice but what we don't notice, perhaps because in some remarkable way it has noticed us.

He is an advocate, for instance, of "touching up" rather than radical redesign and replacement, citing a Norwegian house painter who patches and daubs worn spots on Stumpf's house each year rather than do a total repainting every five.

It saves money, of course, but there is something else. Whether it is a paint job, a toy, a car, "our relationships with things that refuse to die for mere fashion's sake take on more meaning for us than our affairs with things that become premature junk," he writes. "Maybe our hunger to remain forever young could be satisfied if everything around us wasn't vanishing into the atmosphere."

Stumpf's premise that design should have a humane, not simply aesthetic, value (humaneness including restraint in change) makes an appealing theme. Unfortunately, his book rambles too comfortably to deliver very much of it. The author writes a great many amiable generalities that wander rather far from the notion of design.

In front-porch-rocking-chair fashion, he touches on the loss of safe, familiar neighborhoods such as he grew up in, the lost visibility that making things used to have--his father used to take him to the brewery where he worked--and the voyeur culture of the contemporary media. He deplores the decline of public facilities and a loss of faith in what can be communally shared, wryly citing the spectacle of trucks delivering bottled water in Aspen, pristine capital of the Rockies.

Stumpf's belief in community goes beyond the obvious. It is important precisely because of its power to elevate the individual. It can confer "public signs of esteem," he writes, and recalls having a beer in a British pub while waiting for a friend to pick him up. When the friend arrived and Stumpf got up to leave, the man beside him suggested he tell the pub-keeper that he wasn't coming back. Otherwise--quite opposite to what would happen in an American bar--his place would be kept.

"I have never felt such sovereignty over a drink or a place on a bar stool," he recalls. It takes community to confer kingliness.

When Stumpf, author of the Aeron ergonometric chair, gets around to talking about design specifically rather than generally, he is oddly lackadaisical. There is a nice point about the grim institutional appearance of our police stations, comparing them to the central police station in Basel, Switzerland, with lace curtains on the door. Design, he notes, can serve either to separate or link an institution to the life of the community.

He is correct though not original about the uncomfortable arrangements of airliners and American taxis, but his solutions seem arch, to say the least. Passengers on big airplanes lose the sensation of flying, being compressed in the fuselage with hardly a view of sky or the land below. Fair enough, but the Boeing 747 he draws, with passenger windows in the wings and on top of the tail, would likely fly upside down.

He sketches a whimsical taxi: tall, spacious, with big windows, a skylight, passengers facing each other and the driver in a bubble in front. He proposes a multichannel sound system and drivers who can communicate over it in four languages. Where are the humane linkages? Who could afford the fare for such an expensive taxi and for the wages of such refined drivers? Would Stumpf cosset the rich? Or would he bleed them for lavish tax-financed subsidies?

His musings, even the better ones, are very much those of someone on holiday. They can be fun and especially, perhaps, for him. A reader may be disappointed that in playing with his theme--modern design and modern life--he did not give it a little more work to do.

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