The Ice Palace
That Melted Away

How Good Design
Enhances Our Lives

Bill Stumpf
Bill Stumpf likes London taxis because they are big and non-aerodynamic and comfortable --- and when you take them, you don't think, you KNOW you are going for a ride. He has even designed a taxi that could serve as more people-friendly transportation in the United States, rather than a lurching, rattletrap affair painted school bus yellow, with dirty upholstery, road-grime-splattered windows, permeated with noxious odors from assorted air fresheners, and driven by indifferent driver-rogues, blissfully ignorant of destinations beyond convention centers, airports, and hotels.

He dislikes being shoved into a jet and sitting with too many people and too little to look at except stupid movies or the head of the guy in front of you. He suggests that the Boeings Corporation, when they put together the next edition of their 747, offer pods out there on the wings [See Fig. 1, above] --- or up in the nose of the plane, or on top, or back at the back --- so that when we are flying we can look at the stars or the ground or where we are going or where we've been.

He also likes lace curtains. He said he found some in the police stations in Switzerland, along with a fine carved doors. He says that he waved at a prisoner looking out the window at the street life, and wondered why, in the United States, we stuff people away in prisons set out in the desert or on some bare hunk of nowhere land. Let the prisoners see what they are missing, he says, and for God's sakes let them have some contact with the world they've left behind, so that when they come out they don't go into shock and (as usual) back into crime. He even, wild man that he is, says that arrested juveniles should be incarcerated in a wing of nearby schools --- preferably their own --- so they can keep in touch with their friends, and be acutely aware of the freedom they are missing.

When he is not designing furniture (or redesigning jets and jails), Stumpf tries to get people to give their neighborhoods something in the way of humanity. He admits to his own personal weaknesses:

    I am disposed to reëxplore our relationship with fresh sweet corn, down pillows, open convertibles, real grass ball-parks, trains, and the idea of making the environment a child's garden to play and work within.

He describes growing up in the St. Louis of more than a half-a-century ago, a world where kids could go all over the city, alone, on their bicycles, where the soul and heart of it could be found in the farmers' market called Soulard:

    I can't believe that the great presence and personality of these markets aren't worth reviving. Gone in most of America and in these European cities is another facet of civil life --- a vibrant celebration of quantity, freshness, and variety housed in significant architecture; a design theatre for food and its essential connection to everyday folks and the fecundity of nature... What we have are thrice-removed, efficient, clean, modularized, systematic, overly decorated, smell- and taste-free supermarkets.

Stumpf wants, most of all, that we return to the days of civility. He says that he visits Scotland so he can learn to converse, to be civil again. He remembers a visit to an older couple on the Isle of Skye who knitted and sold wool socks. They invited him in --- he, a total stranger --- and gave him tea and talked with him for two hours. And he left with socks which, after three years, he still wears. He also wears the warm memory of their generosity, the welcoming they gave him and, most of all, the fact that they were retired but very very lively. He points out the vast difference between their active world and our own colonies for the aged:

America now has its ghettos of silver hairs and worse, its ghettos of the elderly devoid of any mixed-age daily activity. Living in what amounts to planned stages of death hardly supports the idea of sustainability. It smacks of planned obsolescence.

Stumpf is a gracious writer. He is also an optimist. He includes a chapter on how the McDonald's corporation could have restaurants where rolls are baked on the premises, where we could see the beef being ground, where the preparation "machines making ketchup, mashing tomatoes, and spouting steam" all would be a feast for the eyes. Our appetites would be whetted by the smell of baking bread, our eyes fed on the activities all around us.

This convinces us that this guy is not only a designer, he's a lunatic optimist. You and I know that McDonald's would not, for one instant, do anything that would screw up their bottom line --- especially something as original and interesting as this. The word for Stumpf is "eccentric," which he readily admits to.

"Just before midnight while delayed in Denver, Colorado, on a cross-country Amtrak train a few years ago, she [his wife] was shocked to see me in my pajamas in the dead of winter washing our compartment's filthy window from the station platform. I was determined to see the glory of the Rocky Mountains the next morning through clean windows."

And that wasn't all:

    Even worse, I proceeded to clean the entire compartment with bar soap and tissue, for it was equally dirty.

This is a man, God love him, who believes not only in civility, but in direct action, even if it means getting out of the train late at night, in your pajamas, to clean the windows --- and everything else in sight. The Ice Palace that Melted is a genteel and generous piece of writing --- and it deserves your attention and your affection.

--- Lolita Lark
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