Desk jockeys across America should raise their coffee cups in toast to Bill Stumpf MS’68, the ergonomic engineer from the Herman Miller company. Stumpf, who spent his later life working out of a studio in Stockholm in Wisconsin’s Pepin County, helped to design the Aeron: the inspiration for the modern office chair.
A native of Saint Louis, Stumpf grew up in Winona, Minnesota, and after brief service in the U.S. Navy, he earned degrees at the University of Illinois and then at UW–Madison, where he studied environmental design. In 1970, he went to work for Herman Miller, the Michigan-based manufacturer of office furniture.
“Mr. Stumpf … discovered that comfort could be rendered in a delicate and precise and beautifully engineered way that had nothing to do with creating a throne.”
For three decades, Stumpf designed chairs for Herman Miller, always trying to create seats that offered simplicity, comfort, cleanliness, and elegance. He often partnered with industrial designer Don Chadwick, and his creations included the Ergon (the first chair based on anatomical research), the Equa, and the Aeron.
The Aeron featured a sheer-but-resistant fabric back that provided lumbar relief to those who sat at typewriters — and then keyboards — all day. Herman Miller first put the Aeron on sale in 1994, and it became an instant office classic: the “dot-com throne,” according to New York magazine. As of 2016, more than seven million models had been sold — one every 17 seconds. (This very article is being typed by someone sitting on an Aeron.)
The secret of the Aeron, according to Michael Beirut, a juror for the National Design Awards, is the open fabric. “Mr. Stumpf and Mr. Chadwick discovered that comfort could be rendered in a delicate and precise and beautifully engineered way that had nothing to do with creating a throne, but with creating a perfectly calibrated machine for seating,” he told the New York Times.
In 2010, New York’s Museum of Modern Art added the Aeron — not only as furniture, but also as an exhibit.
Stumpf continued to design until his death in 2006, working out of Stumpf, Weber, and Associates — his private “empathic design” firm — and always looking for more ways to keep people comfortable.