If Bill Moss can teach Arabs how to sew tents, he can probably teach America how to house its homeless.
At least house them temporarily so they won't freeze to death in the long, cold night.
House them in cardboard.
This famous artist-tentmaker-designer doesn't care that some people think he's nuts to apply his talents to a project that will never make him much money. Since moving to the Phoenix area last November, he's met the homeless face to face--helped one man survive the night recently--and he insists he must do this. "If I could save one person from freezing to death, I'd be doing something," he says. "I think artists have to bite the bullet and become more socially minded."
That doesn't mean slapping together ugly cardboard boxes and calling them home, he adds. "There's no reason these temporary houses have to be ugly," he says as he unfolds a model shelter that resembles a dome. It is the latest addition to the line of Bill Moss creations: Some of the country's most popular camping tents, one of which is on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art; fabric sculptures bought by the beautiful people at New York art galleries; stretched canvas pieces pictured in Aramis ads and displayed in the theatre at the Frank Lloyd Wright community of Scottsdale's Taliesin West, which Moss now calls home.
There is no reason, he assures in his best salesman's voice, to worry that his paper structures are too flimsy to save lives. "People think of paper as something you write on or something you wipe your butt with, but not something to live in," he allows. "But you can do anything with paper."
He hopes to prove that statement in March when he tests his temporary paper houses with the homeless of the Phoenix area. "I don't call them homeless shelters, I call them disaster-preparedness shelters," he explains. "Being homeless is just one type of disaster. And it doesn't make any difference why. If you've lost your home because you lost your job or because there was an earthquake, you're still homeless and it's a disaster."
BILL MOSS WILL NEVER forget the night he met John. Moss was helping to serve food to the homeless in Mesa when a friend interrupted, saying there was an emergency. Someone had reported a man desperately ill in a nearby park. "We drove to this park, and, at first, it looked like it was barren," Moss recalls. "But when you got closer to the trees, there were people all over the place. This guy was covered only by an old shirt. He was shaking so bad, he had to be picked up; he couldn't even walk. We got him in the car. He looked at me and said, `Thank you for taking the time.' I didn't know what to say. I don't know how to carry on a conversation with someone who could be dying."
Moss drove to a rundown Mesa hotel that accepts housing vouchers issued by the city. He watched as some of the homeless waiting for rooms gave up their vouchers so John could have a warm place for the night. "I told him, `You've got a lot of friends,' and he said, `The homeless people are the best friends I've ever had.' This guy was about 35, Anglo, well-spoken."
John stayed in the hotel a couple of days--rooms reportedly "very dirty" and hardly habitable but warm enough to give relief. A few days later John came walking through the food line. He was on the streets again, still looking for a job, still finding none. Moss is convinced that "all he really needed to keep from dying was that room."
The experience was one of those that made Moss speed up his designs in order to get his cardboard shelters into immediate production. Another occurred the night he spent with migrant workers in the citrus orchards around Chandler. "I go to the orange groves to see what people need," he explains. "I don't want to go in like the press. They come in, photograph every damn thing and then leave. They don't want to get involved anymore than anyone else."
Moss has gotten involved. "We went out into the orchards, and there were all these people living in the trees," he recalls. "These people have jobs. They're pickers during the day, but they have no shelter. None. They sit around a fire with a pot of beans cooking. They brought things for us to sit on and asked us to stay for dinner. We tried to pay them, telling them we'd have bought dinner anyway, but they wouldn't take anything. I asked them what they needed. They said they needed jackets because they were cold. They said they needed shelter."
Moss went back to Taliesin West that night and spent hours finishing the last design sketches for the cardboard shelters. "I immediately sent them off [to his company headquarters in Minneapolis] so we can get this going," he says.
MOSS HOPES THAT THIS TIME he won't get stymied with bureaucratic red tape. He just wants to get his temporary shelters out to people who need them without somebody's finding some excuse why it can't be done. During the last fifteen years, he says, he's repeatedly run into roadblocks as he tried to show that fabric can be a home, that cardboard can be a lifesaver. Don't get him started on how State Department officials can so dally on an idea it never gets done. Ditto for the Red Cross. Zoning officials haven't figured out how to prevent him from putting his art to good use, but they keep trying.
He remembers one particularly funny battle in New Hampshire where zoning officials were determined to stop him, and he was determined to proceed. "I put up a tent house, and they told me I couldn't construct a permanent structure. I said this wasn't permanent and there were no laws about tents. They came back and said there were laws against camping. I told them, `This isn't camping, it's living.'"
He also faced a stunning excuse when he tried to enter his cardboard design in an art competition in Seattle. Officials turned it back, telling him it wasn't an example of "public art" and, besides, it would attract too much attention to the homeless. "Are you telling me the homeless aren't the public?" he asked. He got the committee to recant and accept his entry. "I didn't win [the competition]," he says, "but I won a political battle."
Now he's come to Wright's desert enclave to recover from a heart attack and tackle the homeless problem head-on. "Some tell me I should use my art to make money, not make houses for the homeless," he says. "One guy told me that my art is beautiful and should be done for beautiful people." Moss shakes his mop of silver hair in disgust.
After years of fighting that kind of thinking, he's obviously grateful for the acceptance he's found in Arizona, including the "creative atmosphere" of Taliesin West. "I've gotten more encouragement for my ideas out here in the West than I ever did back East," he says. (For decades the artist was headquartered in Camden, Maine, where he owned Moss Tent Works, Inc. He has since severed ties with that company.)
Moss had no more than arrived in Arizona last November when he was approached by Joe Hornsby, the construction manager at Taliesin West. "I hear you're interested in helping the homeless," Hornsby said. "So am I." For the last four years, Hornsby and his fellow parishioners of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa have been providing food, clothing and whatever shelter they can find for the homeless through the social outreach program they founded, Paz de Cristo (Peace of Christ). Hornsby invited Moss to come along to help.
The designer is donating the test shelters to Paz de Cristo, which will distribute them where they're needed. "I want to get some true, honest reaction from the people using these shelters," Moss says. "I want to hear myself what people think, not what some official sitting in an office somewhere thinks."
His newest company, Interlock Structures of Minneapolis, will eventually mass-produce the shelters, using cardboard box machinery altered to fit the design. Some 2,000 shelters a day could be produced for a few bucks each, he says, although the first few to be tested in Phoenix will cost about $27 apiece. "I'll take raw corrugated cardboard and put in [chemical] inhibitors so the shelters can be made to last for three days or three weeks or three years," he says. "I'm working toward making them biodegradable."
Two basic designs will be tested in Phoenix: a foldout "dome" that can accommodate six people and a one-person "pod"--both so lightweight and portable that they can be "folded up and carried under your arm." About a half dozen of the large shelters will be set up for families, while about a dozen of the pods will be dropped in the orchards and parks where homeless gather.
Moss hopes his shelters eventually will be used throughout the country, if not the world. "They can be airdropped to disaster victims and can be pushed off flatbed trucks onto the streets where they're needed," he says. Although they will arrive at their needed sites flat, either design can be unfolded into its cozy shape instantly.
Moss' new product will compete with one of his old ones. "Church groups around the country have been buying my [canvas] tents for the homeless," he says. "Some of my tents are among the most expensive tents sold in the country. But they're the wrong thing for the homeless. They don't offer enough insulation. Paper is better."
Because his cardboard shelters are wax-covered, they resist rain and snow. "I can also cover them with perforated foil in the summer to make them cooler, but that's not the real problem--the problem is keeping people from freezing in the winter," he says.
SOMEONE ONCE SAID THAT calling Charles William Moss a tentmaker was like calling Thomas Edison an electrical engineer. Yes, his "pop tent" is the most popular backpacking tent in the country. But, more significant, it revolutionized tent design when its dome shape became the design in the mid-Fifties. Since then, he's done other innovative things with canvas and fabric.
Remember the paper dress that was in vogue for ten minutes about twenty years ago? That was Moss' idea. The only reason it didn't catch on was it wasn't marketed properly, he explains. He still thinks it's a nifty idea--especially to replace expensive eveningwear. Phoenicians know his work from his "space articulators" that shade the Civic Plaza. (Like many artists, he can't resist ridiculous titles for his work.) The stretched canvas pieces went up in 1984 for the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects.
The experiments started when painter Bill Moss grew dissatisfied with the restrictions of a flat, taut canvas. "So I did a 360-degree painting that you could walk into," he remembers. That was in the early 1950's. He still considers himself a painter, as well as a sculptor. "But I'm not an architect," he stresses, even though his work is so architectural, he's holding seminars with the students and staff at Taliesin.
He also admits to being an adventurer who isn't easily ignored. He got his first publicity on the pop tent by walking, unannounced, into the office of Life magazine in New York and setting up the tent.
From weekend camping tents, he moved on to "fabric houses," including one on an island off the coast of Maine that his family lived in for eleven summers. "I went out one winter to look at it and walked right over the top of it--it was covered with snow," he recalls. It withstood the elements, and he was convinced he was onto something. "Then the New York Times did a full page on my fabric house, and I got thousands of inquiries from all over the world. It gave me confidence that I was on the right track."
One place those inquiries took him was to the Middle East, where bringing in a tent was like taking coals to Newcastle. But in the desert of Abu Dhabi, Moss erected a tent city in the early 1980's. "Islamic people came by the hundreds to see my tents," he says. "I asked the interpreter why they came and he told me, `It's very, very simple. They come because this is our culture.'" But Arab officials weren't as thrilled. "They told me they didn't want their people in tents, they wanted their people living in trailers imported from the West." He laughs now, but it was no laughing matter when he was "blacklisted" and ordered to leave the country.
So Moss left and went to Pakistan, introducing the sewing machine to that nation's tentmakers--men who until then had sewed tents for the entire Middle East using their hands and feet. With their new technology they started producing his tent designs. "The first order for my tents, with no PR, was something like 5,000 tents," says Moss, amazed at the instant popularity. Only a few hundred of the same tent design have been sold in the United States in the last six years, he says, noting, "That's our culture--we won't live in a tent."
But people will soon be attending a 500- seat theatre in Colorado that is just a large Moss tent. George Bush has been feted at an ocean-side party under a Moss tent. The artist's old studio in Maine was a tent (as was the home his assistant lived in year round). And the art world thinks enough of his tents that he's received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a National Distinguished Design Sabbatical to further his fabric designs. He's designed a fabric studio he'll erect at Taliesin West. Inside the space--bordered in a pink color because it's the most complimentary to healthy skin--he'll continue his fixation with cardboard.
"I've been asked by the State Department if I'm interested in working on a city of disaster housing in Bangladesh," he says. Of course he's interested, but red tape is not his favorite material. "I get tired of spinning my wheels with the Red Cross and the State Department," he says. "I've been working on the idea of disaster housing for fifteen years, but there was all this red tape, and then I got sick and I dropped it," he says. "But now I'm on my feet again and I'm ready to go."
But even an artist like Moss eventually comes up for air long enough to know he has to support himself. So his design for disaster shelters is being modified for backyard gazebos and even second homes. "One supports the other--I couldn't do the homeless thing without some income." He's also decided that almost everything for the backyard--shade screens, furniture, table settings--could use his touch. "I've got an idea for all these new products to make the lawn and garden more elegant," he says.
In the meantime, he hopes his disaster- shelter experiment in Phoenix will break through the bureaucratic resistance he's encountered elsewhere. During the devastating earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, for example, he was told by officials they didn't want their people living in cardboard. "People were sleeping on the ground, and here's some guy who sits in an office saying he didn't want them to have my shelters," Moss says angrily. "People would be happy to stay warm in cardboard for a few nights rather than freezing to death. To me, it's so basic. That's why I continued."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.