Art To Live In: Marilyn Moss + Bill Moss
Marilyn Moss Rockefeller, Bill Moss, and the making of an iconic Maine brand
Marilyn Moss Rockefeller lives in the Camden hills, in a house with many windows, paintings, and dogs. Through the windows of her library, we can see the ocean, and, from this height, the islands of Penobscot Bay. It is March. Winter is loosening its grip on Maine, albeit more in feel than look. Down the road there are people alpine skiing at the Camden Snow Bowl and fishing in ice shacks on Megunticook Lake. Rockefeller is dressed for the cold in black slacks, a black sweater, and an almost undetectable black vest. On her wrists are bracelets of silver and turquoise, and in her demeanor there is the slightest bit of reserve, which is quick to melt away. Her hair is light and her eyes are dark and shining.
I comment on the hills, at the marvel of their proximity to the ocean in this part of the midcoast. I ask her where she grew up and she tells me, “In the mountains of West Virginia.” She’s appropriately situated: an Appalachian girl among hills, living within sight of North Haven island, where she spent some childhood summers (in fact, her forthcoming memoir is entitled From the Appalachian Mountains to the Camden Hills). To the degree that an artistic, adventurous soul can be, she seems content, challenged by her work with the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and her various writing projects. Since “retiring” in 2001, the former president and CEO of Moss Inc, manufacturer of fabric structures, went back to school and received an MFA in creative writing. She has published multiple works, including Walkabout, a compilation of personal essays, “Dancing for Democracy,” an article she co-authored on Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, and, most recently, Bill Moss: Fabric Artist and Designer, which chronicles the life and work of her ex-husband and business partner. The book is beautiful: heavy, hard-covered, and filled with intelligently written recollections and photographs charting the life and times of the prolific artist. If Bill Moss was the idea man behind Moss Inc, Marilyn was responsible for the very real success of the brand.
As one might imagine, this was a difficult book for Marilyn to write. After three decades of handling Bill Moss’s genius, of focusing his abundance of ideas and designs into a lucrative business that could support their family of four, Marilyn found herself, in 2011, retired, happily remarried, and in the process of building a career independent of Moss Inc, facing an attic full of boxes holding vestiges of that genius. “I was looking at a life’s work of a creative, innovative, aberrant mind, spanning 50 years of prodigious designs,” she writes in the introduction to the book. “As keeper of this material and in spite of some of the unhappy memories it kindled, I knew I had to honor and chronicle this artist’s work.”
The impact Bill Moss (1923–1994) made on the camping and fabric architecture markets—as well as sculptors, painters, designers, and adventurers waking up in tents all over the world—is still felt today. “Moss tents still command the highest prices on any Internet auction site and out-perform the latest and greatest models in today’s market,” says Bob Bury, a former buyer for REI. Bill Moss himself is quoted as saying, “A tent to me is a piece of sculpture you can get into,” and this idea rings true in any experience with Moss’s work. Beginning with the Pop-Tent, which inspired the compact, waterproof, portable camping tents of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Moss created a wide variety of alternative, portable spaces, developed groundbreaking tension fabric technology, and, thanks to the business savvy of Marilyn Moss Rockefeller and her colleagues at Moss Inc, changed the game in the world of exhibition spaces for trade shows.
Back in the 1960s, not long after the Pop-Tent had arrived on the scene, Bill Moss was a man on a mission in Ann Arbor, Michigan, applying his painter’s penchant for color and form to the experimental materials being developed in factories around the United States at the time. Almost 20 years his junior, Marilyn was a recent college graduate with high hopes and a fresh resume, that, upon meeting her in the offices of his fledging business, he threw in the trash. She arrived at C. William Moss Associates looking for a job, and she left with a serious crush after an evening spent with Bill drinking cocktails, working ideas out in sketches on cocktail napkins, and indulging in a multi-course gourmet meal. Marilyn got the job and eventually married the man.
Although the business was based in Ann Arbor, throughout the 60s Bill and Marilyn spent summers in a house of two dome-shaped tents (called Upson) set on a 50-by-50-foot-wide and 30-foot-high wooden deck among pines on North Haven island in Maine. Among the islanders, they were known as harmless but somewhat notorious hippies, eating mussels (which no one ate back then) and indulging wild ideas from their tent home in the trees. No one thought the domes would last. “She not only outlasted the first nor’easter,” writes Marilyn, “but also stood proudly for ten harsh Maine winters. Then the material began to fatigue—and so did we.” In 1969, the couple decided to move to Maine full time and raise their kids on fresh ocean air.
At this point, there were already strains on their marriage. With few limits on his extraordinarily creative mind, Bill was perpetually moving on to the next idea, often abandoning projects and also contracts with businesses big and small. The couple’s bank account might be swollen one month and empty the next, a situation too precarious for a couple with two little ones to support. Bill’s charm and raw talent often saved the day—“Bill had an uncanny way of bringing a prospective investor for a new venture home for dinner just when we were running out of money,” writes Marilyn—but things didn’t change for the long term until Marilyn learned to say “no” to some of Bill’s ideas. She began conducting market studies, considering which of Bill’s products would be easiest to manufacture in a streamlined manner and sell at a profit.
“He didn’t really have any boundaries,” she tells me, “and as a result he could think somewhere far beyond where anyone else had ever thought. And it just didn’t occur to him that you don’t try. A paper boat [which he succeeded in making]. A paper fireplace was his obsession for a while. He would stay up working at it, come to bed at two or three in the morning. Each night I’d say, ‘Well, how did it go?’ And each night he said it burned up, but it didn’t stop him from trying it again. His thinking was always—why can’t you? Why can’t we have a paper house for our vacation house? Why can’t we have paper furniture?” They did have paper furniture—beautiful furniture that folded flat. Marilyn made black leather cushions for it, and it fit in with their boho decor. Their lives were filled with materials for their children, Jeff and Genevieve, to play with, and filled with people modeling tremendous passion and creativity and work ethic. Their coffee table was covered in clay, which the kids sculpted into elaborate scenes. At dinner parties, Marilyn, Bill, and their artistically inclined friends would find themselves seated around the table, drinking cocktails and shaping the clay. The midcoast was sleepy, but filled with artists then as it is now—painters and poets who would sometimes abandon their woods and islands for such occasions.
Young artist and designer disciples of Bill’s followed him to Maine, and often took up residence with the Moss family for months on end. At certain points there were a dozen or so people living in their West Rockport home, and some half-dozen dogs. “I would be making big dinners for everyone every night, stepping over all of the dogs to get to the dining room table, and it was just always that way. I felt like the company and our family were all the same,” Marilyn tells me. She kept a large garden, where she grew things like garlic and celery, and peanuts, which had the neighbors shaking their heads. She always loved to paint and sculpt, but learned to funnel a great deal of her creativity into business. Marilyn had been raised by her grandparents. “Perseverance,” her grandmother would say. “Marilyn Rae, you stick to something until you get it done.
A turning point for the company came in 1978. To save money, Moss Inc had made its own trade show exhibit to display its backpacking tents. Like all of Bill Moss’s designs, it was inherently intelligent, lightweight, and easy to put up and take down. While other displays took several sweaty hours to put together, Marilyn managed to erect hers in a matter of minutes, and in high heels. People took note, and soon Moss Inc was receiving custom orders for exhibit spaces for trade shows. Marilyn probed the market, found buyers willing to pay a premium for a quality product to represent their brand, and went on to revolutionize the trade show exhibit industry.
Luckily, Moss Inc’s profit margins grew relatively quickly in this niche around the time their tent sales began steadily dropping. Into the 1970s and 80s, Moss Inc’s competitors in the tent and outdoor equipment industries had started cutting costs by moving labor overseas, while Marilyn remained committed to keeping sewers and welders and designers at work in Maine. At its largest, in the late 90s, the company employed 164 people. When I ask her about the advantages of building a business in Maine, Marilyn responds quickly: “the workforce.” She was something of a fish out of water with no orthodox business training and few CEOs of small manufacturing businesses—and zero female presidents and CEOs—to consult with. Nevertheless, she thrived, blazing a path for businesswomen to come. In response to the book Bill Moss: Fabric Artist and Designer, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) congratulated Marilyn Moss Rockefeller for “engaging in the creative economy long before people used the term,” and for co-creating a brand that so well represented “made in Maine” ideals, with “spectacular look, feel, and function.”
After their divorce in 1983, Bill moved to Arizona and Marilyn stayed on in Maine, seeing the business through a series of ups and downs, including a total quality management program to increase productivity. In 1994, Marilyn sold the Moss Tents division of the company to REI and focused exclusively on trade show displays. In 2000, with revenues of $15 million, the rest of the company was sold in a successful equity investment transaction.
Throughout all this, Marilyn’s husband of over 30 years, James Rockefeller Jr., has been a tremendous supporter, championing her through a transformative decade at Moss Inc and into a new career. That leads us more or less to the moment I find Marilyn in now, in the hills, piecing through her life once again.
In the wake of retirement, she hadn’t quite known what to do with herself. She’d tried piano, but that alone didn’t quite satisfy her. When she found what would—writing—she got to work, mining no one else’s artistic sensibilities but her own. Meanwhile, she continued to do good work on behalf of the people of midcoast Maine and in communities as far away as southeast Africa. Making the book Bill Moss: Fabric Artist and Designer introduced Marilyn Moss Rockefeller to parts of herself she could only see from a distance. Marilyn’s story, or at least part of it, is about how she brought these products from cocktail napkins to the world, from a factory in Camden to the Cordillera Vilcanota in southern Peru or Canyonlands, Utah. Moments of brilliance and bravery and kindness add up to a brilliant and brave and kind life.
Marilyn and her husband like to fly, they take off on a plane from this hilltop and soar around this town where they’ve made their lives, looking down and up, moving forward. Much has been forgiven, and there is still much to do. “It was really hard to be so bound up in someone else’s life,” Marilyn says, “But then again, I had such rich experiences that have made me who I am, so, you know, I don’t regret any of it.”