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Tent technology: art you can live in

HIS name is Charles William Moss. He's an artist, and a ``very good one,'' to quote those familiar with his work. But around the world he is known as the consummate tentmaker from Maine -- a genius in the design of tensioned fabric structures that include pop-up tents, houses, portable museums, display booths, and emergency shelters that drop from the sky as their own parachutes. Yet if it hadn't been for the public's misconception over a piece of art back in the 1950s, all the rest might never have come about.

Some three decades ago, Bill Moss brought his paintings ``off the wall,'' as he puts it, and painted a fabric dome. ``It was a 360-degree painting,'' he says, ``but people would look at it and say, `That's a tent.' `No,' I'd say, `that's a painting.' But it got me thinking.''

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That thinking subsequently produced the revolutionary umbrella or pop tent. Mr. Moss has continued ever since to produce a wide variety of sculptured art forms -- all of them tensioned-fabric shapes, most of them functional in that they provide some form of shelter or display space. The beauty of tensioned-fabric construction is that it brings lightweight, flimsy, and flexible components together in such a way as to form a rigid and very strong structure.

More than anything else the instant-up pop tent revolutionized camping in America, turning it from a pastime for the rugged outdoorsman into a great way for the whole family to vacation. Later Moss did similar things for hiking and mountaineering. With a flair for effective shapes (``I found that if it looks right the geometry is right,'' he says), he was able to produce small backpacks that convert into large wind-shedding shelters.

Structural analysis of many Moss designs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology saw all the tents come through ``with flying colors,'' says Marilyn Moss, the company president and former wife of Bill Moss.

Next came larger shelters, notably the ``Optimum 200'' tent, a three-leaf-clover design that provides 192 square feet of living space and weighs a mere 45 pounds. One company employee lived in a ``200'' in the factory grounds on the banks of the Megunticook River for three years, using only a small wood stove for winter heating. The company's own display studio here is fabric, constructed at a little over $3 a square foot, compared with the $35 a square foot it would have cost for a more conventional display area.

But success with these fabric structures did not translate immediately into consistent profitability. For seven years the ink ran red at Moss Tents, until two years ago, when Marilyn Moss steered the company in a new direction -- trade-show exhibit booths.

``In backpacking we were the pioneers,'' Ms. Moss says. ``We did the R&D [research and development] for the industry, and to stay ahead we had to bring out a new design every year.''

Even so, competition from Asian look-alikes and the peaking of the high-tech backpack sales in 1980 meant that the company could not continue as it had.

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``We had two options,'' Ms. Moss says. ``Either we could move the manufacturing overseas to take advantage of low wages, or we could look for a new product, with a big enough profit margin to keep us here.''

At this stage she recalled a request several years previously from Pierre Cardin Shoes. The company wanted a lightweight, pack-it-up-and-go exhibit booth. A design was agreed upon and manufactured, and it became a show hit. Ms. Moss realized, too, that conventions and trade shows were a $2.8 billion growth industry in the United States (up 1,000 to 9,000 shows annually in the past two years). So why not make display booths a principal product?

The switch was a good one. Moss Tents is back in the black. A mainly seasonal factory staff of 18 has risen to 37 year-round employees.

The main reason for the success of tensioned-fabric display booths is that they save money. Frequently they cost less to construct, and shipping and hauling costs always come right down.

With a tensioned-fabric structure, a large structure emerges from a very small package. So, like the backpacker's tent, the display booth can be carry-on luggage at the airport. Backpacking technology also means that the booths can be erected by one person in less than an hour. There's an unzip, shake-it-out, put-in-the-struts simplicity to it all. Dismantling is even quicker. Finally, there's a glow, an aura, about a fabric structure that draws people to such an exhibit.

Moss Tents now has nine stock designs that fit convention-hall booth space. ``We turn out a new one every year to stay ahead of the copiers,'' says Ms. Moss. Then come the custom designs. Du Pont and Del Monte are among the Camden tentmaker's clients.

Bill Moss's preference is to design tensioned-fabric housing. He sees the all-cloth vacation home as a likely possibility, or homes that are part conventional construction and part fabric. A conventional first floor with the second floor and roof of fabric, for example, is one way to go.

Meanwhile, Moss Tents continues to flourish. And while Mr. Moss realizes that public acceptance of fabric homes remains some way off at present, they do have one advantage that could catch on: If you ever have to move, you can just pack up your home and take it with you.

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