Will Steger introduces himself as a designer in new MCAD exhibit
Steger at work on an LED light fixture in the woodshop on the Homestead, flanked by two of his stained glass door designs.
In a room at MCAD on a recent morning, Kerry Morgan, the gallery director, and Jay Coogan, the school's president, sift through material from Will Steger's archives.
They smooth out a variety of high-end arctic uni-suits, one with a knee torn out from wear, and turn over a detachable wolverine fur face ruff. They marvel at the simplicity of a makeshift face mask that is simply a piece of fabric with three holes cut out for the eyes and mouth, and at a sunglasses frame wrapped in mesh fabric to filter out the UV light at the Earth's poles. They explain that a canoe fitted with rudders -- an adaptation that allowed Steger to travel between land and sea when he crossed the Arctic Ocean in 1995 -- is on its way to the gallery.
Much of this gear hasn't left Steger's Homestead up near Ely for years. But now, it's arriving at MCAD in preparation for the exhibit opening up September 14, "Inside an Explorer's Mind: Design, Innovation, Survival."
"I think this exhibit will reveal an entirely different side of him," Coogan says. "Will is a great problem-solver, and design, fundamentally, is about seeing a problem and coming up with a solution."
Some may be surprised to think of Steger -- polar explorer, environmental educator -- as a designer. But as we describe in this week's cover story, for Steger's travels in the most extreme environments on Earth, design isn't purely aesthetic; it's necessary for survival.
"Survival and innovation and design, it's the same thing," Steger says. "In addition to the good team and the dogs, design is what kept me alive and why I was able to do what I did."
"No one's ever seen this part of me," Steger continues. "I'm presenting to the public my new life, and introducing myself as a designer."
Steger's first designs were born from necessity: He wanted to be self-sufficient, and when he moved to to Ely at age 25, he had to plan and build the earliest buildings on his Homestead himself.
Once he started working with dog teams, design became an efficiency. Early on, he adapted the classic dogsled harness to pull more like a horse's, instead of from the dogs' backs. The innovation both protected his team's spines and enabled them to travel farther. Similarly, once he started setting out on expeditions, he needed gear; the solution was to craft much of it himself.
As Steger's expeditions increased in scale and visibility, he started collaborating on clothing designs with the companies that are today synonymous with winter streetwear: North Face, Gore-Tex, Patagonia. Later, they incorporated Steger's designs -- like vertical zippers to keep out snow in place of the more-common diagonal ones, or reflective strips for visibility -- into their mainstream gear.
In the MCAD exhibit, many of these arctic adaptations will be on display, along with written explanations from Steger on how he tweaked each design and where in the world he used it. Along with the gear, Steger has pulled never-before-seen quotes from his journals that capture the way extreme wilderness not only makes his innovations necessary, but also clears his mind in such a way that inspires them.
His biggest inspiration, the designs for the Will Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership, came on the 1989-1990 International Trans-Antrarctica Expedition. Along with his polar wear, MCAD's galleries will also feature photos of the castle-like building taken by photographer John Ratzloff, who published a book on the Center, Will Steger: A Wilderness Vision Coming to Life, this May.
"Watch people when they look at this building," Steger said one recent morning up at the Center. "I wanted to build a building that would make something happen to people. And I thought, the way I would do that was through design, and putting in tens and hundreds and thousands of craftsmen hours. Design is everything."
IF YOU GO:
"Inside an Explorer's Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design--A Will Steger Exhibition"
September 14 to October 6
Talk by Steger on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m., Auditorium 150
Closing reception with Steger on Friday, Oct. 4, 6-8 p.m.
2501 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis
Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 12-5 p.m.
For more information, 612-874-3667 or online
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.