From Steger's mind's eye to a real house in the woods

Will Steger
Will Steger at his exhibit "Inside an Explorer's Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design" Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 at Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minneapolis. It runs through Oct. 6 and features photographs, video, journal entries, clothing and other equipment used during his polar expeditions.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

An exhibit at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design looks at a lesser-known side of polar explorer Will Steger: his work as a sustainable designer.

The exhibit, titled "Inside An Explorer's Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design — A Will Steger Exhibition," includes video, drawing, photos, woodwork and other artifacts related to Steger's career. According to a Web introduction to the exhibit, Steger "has designed or adapted clothing, equipment, and technology to withstand difficult Arctic conditions."

And it was on one of his trips that Steger reportedly conceived his biggest design project: a building in the woods near Ely, Minn., that he calls the Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership. He wants the center to serve as a retreat facility or small-group place for people to meet and discuss issues related to climate change.

"I'm a designer by function, for one," Steger told Tom Weber on The Daily Circuit. "In the Arctic, I designed all the clothing and sleds. But I'm also a builder — all my life I've been a woodworker. I'm building a center in Ely ... which I've been working on for nearly 30 years. And I'm coming out of the closet, so to speak, as a designer here at the MCAD show."

Steger Wilderness Center
Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership, located near Ely, Minn.
Photo courtesy of Steger Wilderness Center

Steger, now 69, told Weber that he has spent his entire adult life developing the Ely property.

"I bought this property when I was 19," he said. "It was three miles from the nearest road. I built my home there and moved up in 1970, when I was 25 years old, and made my homestead, raised my own food. I actually started a dogsledding and skiing school to make a living, and I eventually branched out on that [to organize] many expeditions that people are familiar with."

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"The biggest compromise of my life was putting a road in," he said. "I never thought I'd ever do that. And I did compromise my entire life and my values to do that."

Steger said he designed the distinctive, five-story structure during long periods of solitude on an Antarctic expedition. "It's quite a challenge to do a five story building and have it blend into the wilderness," he said. "I designed this when I crossed Antarctica. ... It was during that 220-day trip when I was able to totally empty my mind out."

"I actually was in such a present mode that during the hard days," he said, that "I was actually in that building. I was in the rooms, I watched the sunset at different times of the year and different seasons. And I designed around that."

And although he has lived much of his life in solitary, he had different ideas for the wilderness center.

"All the way through Antarctica, I designed it around the interaction of seven or eight people," he said. "What happens when you're in concentration? What happens when you have dinner? Most of your decisions happen when you're out leaning over the railing, looking at the lake at night. I pretty much designed it around that function: small groups, interaction, inspiration and also hard work."

Steger said he hopes the MCAD exhibit, which closes this weekend, will help get the word out about the center, which he is still finishing. "I'm looking for the resources, the counsel, the advice of others," he said.