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Painting off the wall

News | January 1, 2011 | By:

Bill Moss is more than an artist when it comes to fabric structures.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1991 issue of Fabric Architecture. Bill Moss died in 1994 at age 71.

Talking to Bill Moss, one senses he is more comfortable with a curving line than a straight one. Since the late 1940s, his career has been taking unusual turns. And in following that curving career path he has crossed boundaries between business fields, even between cultures.

For example, Moss visited the Middle East a number of times in the 1970s to study and develop fabric housing; he served the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill as a consultant on the Haj airport terminal in Saudi Arabia; and his work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris, as well as other museums and galleries.

A single title isn’t sufficient to encompass his varied roles: at times he has been painter, sculptor, corporate art director, inventor, fabric artist, marketer, businessman, student, teacher.

Born in Michigan, he attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, a Detroit suburb and worked as art director of Ford Times magazine for Ford Motor Co. before getting into the tent and tensile structure business. It may not seem like a logical progression, but it was.

“I would go into a gallery and I would see rich people buying my paintings and taking them home and hanging them in their bathrooms and that’s as far as they would go,” Moss says. “Art in my opinion could go further than that. So I decided to quit painting, to quit galleries.”

What resulted was the pop tent, invented in 1955.

“The pop tent was a piece of art; it wasn’t a tent,” he explains. “It was a painting, a dome painting…I built this dome tent. I wasn’t a camper; I didn’t know a thing about it. I was a painter and painters were coming off the wall, making their paintings go out and do different things. And I came right off the wall and did a dome and painted the inside as a 360-degree painting. You sit in a chair and look at it. And somebody said, ‘Hey, you can sleep in this.’ And that was it.”

When representatives at the now defunct Abercrombie & Fitch sporting goods told him he was crazy to think the public would buy a round tent in colors brighter than olive drab, he took the tent to Life magazine offices. There he erected it in an office crowded with reporters’ desks and received a full page article as reward for his daring. And Moss Tent works, now Moss Inc. in Maine, was born from a piece of art in which he saw a function and applied it.

“I kept that as a philosophy and I’m doing the same thing today,” he says.

Moss left Moss Inc. nearly two years ago to live full-time in Arizona, where he had been teaching during winters at Arizona State University (ASU), later at Taliesin West where he is still an artist-in-residence. [See FA, Nov/Dec, 2010 “Shading at Taliesin West”] The primary focus of Bill Moss Inc., the business he runs out of Scottsdale, is sculptural canopies used as shade structures. In the Southwestern United States, he explains, shade is a commodity.

“There isn’t anything on the market other than awnings,” he says. “I have the feeling that an awning can do a lot more than just be an awning. It does a job but it isn’t very imaginative. There hasn’t been much done with awnings throughout history…And I figured something could create shade that could be more artistic, such as these, which are sculptures. So I started entering my awnings in art competitions, sculpture competitions, and winning awards as art, art in public places.”

The basis of his current company is custom pieces. But after designing “a product I believe in or a product I think will sell or I think is important,” Moss constructs a model, builds the piece with the help of several stitchers, and markets it to a larger company that may license the product and mass produce it.

Such arrangements allow him to have many projects in the works at any time. For instance, he continues to sculpt non-functional canvas pieces on a commission basis, designed the 2,000-square-foot tent under which California governor Pete Wilson celebrated his election last fall, and is looking into carports as another potential fabric structure market. He recently completed an interior ceiling tensile structure for a Milwaukee firm, where his next project will be tensioned fabric space articulators to divide a large room into smaller office areas. He also has projects in the works in Italy and France and is preparing for a one-man show at ASU.

Moss brings an artist’s eye to his projects. He carries a notebook or two in his car and explains that usually being in a place is enough to give him an idea for a shade structure or other project. He may begin sketching ideas at the site and show clients to see whether it’s what they have in mind. Amid the project sketches, small portrait sketches and “visual puns” occasionally appear.

Such a crossover between fine art and fabric art hasn’t always been easily accepted. In the past, galleries responded, “This is a nice piece of sculpture, but the minute you put a chair in it, it becomes a product. And we don’t want a product in our gallery,” he says, adding that this attitude has changed.

“To me, that means I’ve made a breakthrough in the art world or I’ve made a breakthrough in the industrial design world,” he says. “As long as I’ve done it, I don’t give a damn what they call it as long as it’s making someone’s life better.”

As an artist, he explains, the purpose of doing a painting is to achieve artistic satisfaction, which may involve many emotions as the painter goes through the process of painting. In doing a fabric structure, the satisfaction goes beyond artistic. “The additional satisfaction comes when I walk into a factory and see 300 or 400 people employed making a tent.” Or when he receives letters from mountaineers who claim the tent saved their lives or goes to the Middle East and sees people living in the tents as their homes.

“Then the satisfaction becomes three-fold,” he says. “That’s what I’m dedicating the balance of my life to, in part to teaching, a small amount, and building these things and getting them out.”

One of the ongoing projects receiving such dedication is affordable housing—a cause he began working for nearly 20 years ago.

Moss recalls, “I developed a folding structure that the Red Cross took on for disaster housing. And then I started inventing stuff. I invented a house that would drop out of the sky and erect itself on the way down.” This last he patented 15 years ago. It has never been used, although he says, “I still feel very strongly about it so I’m still pushing it with various government agencies.”

“I need to sell my work. I don’t want to do this stuff and just have it sit on the shelf all the time. My airdrop disaster housing concept was really important and works. I’ve made more than 50 air drops with it. And the patents right now are close to running out.”

Moss says recent events, however, such as the hurricane and flooding in North Carolina, a major earthquake in San Francisco, and the war in the Persian Gulf, have increased interest in lightweight relocatable shelters.

“And this is what I’ve been looking toward for years—not to make houses for people but to make basic shelter,” he exclaims. “I learned this in the Middle East where just on the shady side of a tree—and there aren’t too many trees or bushes in the Middle East—the shadowed side there would always be a person there hunkered down with his robes up over him. That’s a house. That’s minimum. Their own garments become shelters. They literally pull them up and get down in them and they become shelters.”

Moss has used fabric, cardboard and combinations of the two to construct minimalist housing, including a fabric home where he lived in Maine, special shelters for earthquake victims made as research and development projects for the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, and recently a 25-foot-wide cardboard dome he erected temporarily at Taliesin.

Generally speaking, he says, people think that to be warm walls have to be very thick. He layers three pieces of fabric to create a wall. Air space between can be closed to be made dead or open to be kept moving, “which is more important for this application, to move air continually across the surface,” he explains.

During the past two years, he has been developing a cardboard dome that erects in four minutes using a folding technique. The dome, which is 13 feet in diameter and can sleep four people, has no superstructure; the way it is folded becomes the superstructure. Because of its size, it could be air-dropped wherever shelter was needed.

“I’ll put three or four of these up and over this I’ll put a big shade structure,” which he refers to as membrane layering, he explains. “And that creates a microclimate underneath. It also gives ethnic areas for large groups to separate cultures or groups within a given area. I do these as large public art pieces. To me this is sculpture, but it’s sculpture you live in. As far as I’m concerned, I want to have people live in art. Why not?”

The next step as Moss sees it, is to add a mechanical package, including plumbing and heating, to make such a shelter comfortable for long-term use. He is already working on this with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) and Growth Design Co. in Milwaukee and several other corporations. WHEDA builds houses, restores old houses and helps people who aren’t eligible for traditional financing for a house.

He is also looking at the prospect of doing low-income desert housing in San Francisco for Biothermal Energy, which has drilling operations in the Mojave Desert. The company drills into the earth to get heat for use as a secondary source of energy. Employees of the company have to have housing that can be relocated as drilling sites change.

Moss doesn’t usually hire an engineer for his projects. After working with it so long, he feels he understands what the fabric can do.

To help his architecture apprentices at Taliesin better understand what fabric can do, he insists they work with their hands, shape the fabric, get a feel for it.

“I try to get them off the drawing board into physically building this stuff.” Moss begins his classes with a two-hour project in which the students use sticks and a limited amount of cotton sheeting to create mini-tension structure shelters before sundown. Moss says it’s fascinating for him to see the imaginative shapes the students create. The project also tends to change their attitudes, making them less conservative, skeptical or hesitant to work with fabric, he says.

His next class will be building its own fabric structure dormitories. The students will learn everything from using the sewing machine to buying grommets.

Having something like the dormitories erected “gives me some credibility, it gives me some selling power, and it’s all working,” Moss explains. “To get the word out—that’s the only reason I teach. I think fabric eventually will become the alternative to housing, not replacing it but being the alternative.”

Getting that word out can be exciting but also frustrating. Even when an architect is convinced of the benefit of using fabric, many other people have to be convinced, including those financing the project and those who ultimately will use the building.

“The pop tent was my most gratifying work,” Moss says. “I designed that for the Middle East; it’s a desert tent. I put a little tent community up in Kuwait.” It lasted about a week before being blown down by 100 mph winds. He went back to the drawing board and worked on putting together the best parts of each of the tents. The result was the Op tent—the optimum of all the tents he had designed. Taking the Op tent back to the Middle East was “kind of frightening. It was kind of like taking coals to Newcastle.” But people there liked it because the shape reminded them of their mosques—fact, they assumed that is why he chose to use that shape.

Actually, he says, “I used the philosophy that form follows climate and climate follows form. I’ll go into an area like I do here, which is low desert conditions, and study the wind, the shade, and all that stuff and that determines what the shade structures will be. I don’t copy churches.”

Interesting people in the United States or other Western cultures, where fabric isn’t part of culture, is more difficult and more frustrating than gaining interest in his products in the Middle East.

When he brought the Op tent back to the United States and held a party under it, “people said, ‘I love it. I wouldn’t want to live in it, but I love it.’ ” Moss says that in contrast, he had received an order for 7,000 from Pakistan, but in the United States the tent didn’t receive such acceptance.

“This is our culture. And here I am left with a challenge: I want to bring these cultures together,” Moss says. He admits that that is a pretty tall order but says, “It’s worth it. It’s not setting the world on fire, but each year I sell more or get more interest than the year before. And this year has been a big year.”

The difficulty of the task can make it more rewarding, however. Moss explains, “If I sell someone on the idea of using fabric, then I have made a contribution to a whole philosophy of living.”

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