Despite twice confirming our meeting, Michael Sturtz was out when I arrived at Voltage, the motorcycle repair and metalworking shop behind his Victorian home near downtown Alameda. He showed up a few minutes later, towing a piano on a trailer. “It’s a gift for my girlfriend. She’s a gifted pianist.” I helped Michael unload the piano and unhitch the trailer. For the next hour he checked the piano’s innards and polished its wood finish. He looked at me, at most, three times. He never stood still. But he talked continuously. Michael Sturtz’s hands and body can work completely independent of his mind and mouth. I was the not first person chasing Michael’s story; he’d told it before. Nonetheless, our conversation was fresh and thoughtful.
Maybe the world would be mad creative if all boys had dual father figures. Michael Sturtz’ dad was an orthopedic surgeon who groomed his son to follow in his footsteps. His step-dad owned an auto body shop where young Michael spent most of his time. Michael found outlets for creative tinkering at Alfred University where art, ceramics and engineering intermingle, and the Art Institute of Chicago. “I never found the teacher I wanted, so I decided to become that teacher.” At age 26, Michael got a $1,750 grant and started The Crucible. “Foolishness and bravery are really close together.” Fifteen years later, The Crucible is the nation’s largest non-profit industrial arts educator.
A few years ago Michael left The Crucible to become what he calls, ‘California retired.’ “I tried it while I was young and healthy, but it didn’t stick.” Michael wanted more than tinkering and inventing at Voltage, so he founded Stanford’s Ignition Lab at Autodesk, and now directs a cross-disciplinary mash-up of high-tech and vo-tech, ivory tower and grease pit, digitally generated and hand crafted. Or, as he puts in collegiate verse, “Our mission is the exploration of visual, experimental, and embodied thinking to influence the future around design and making.”
The Ignition Lab is only six months old, but Michael is excited about getting Stanford students out of their bubble and into real world innovation at Autodesk’s digital fabrication shop, which is the digital version of The Crucible. “We are interested in everything that is not measured by SAT scores. I see them as my agents of change.”
There’s a chameleon quality to Michael, the Stanford-affiliated grease monkey piano polisher. But his agenda, whether in the workshop or classroom, is always the same. “My nature is to find alternative ways to get people together. I might have started an alternative medical school instead of The Crucible if I had gone to med school instead of art school. I want the collaborative team aspects of The Crucible to get applied to the next generation. I want technology to bring people together.” With that, the piano gleamed like new and our time was finished.
How will we live tomorrow?
“My first thought is, will we live tomorrow? Commuting to Stanford three times per week gives me a dystopian view of the world. People in their own vehicles, on their phones, disconnected.
“I hope the way we live tomorrow is a world in which we are much more connected to our creative selves. I like how the Greeks valued philosophy and the Arts. I want the products of our society to be good design in every way – the means of production has to be as elegant and sustainable as the product. Take the iPhone. It’s good design at one level, but its production and environmental impact is not good.
“I want my way of doing things to inspire the next generation to do things differently.”