That article is pretty old, dating from 2011, but what Torvalds calls for, a Gnome fork, exists in MATE. Simple, clean, fast and relatively light. Also fairly configurable, possibly not to the extent of KDE or XFCE, but enough to do most of the things that you want. I think that his comment about the way he uses his computer - keyboard for typing and mouse for other things, is also reflective of what most people do, certainly the masses who've come through the Windows system, at least to Win7.
I started with Gnome, too but the move to Gnome 3 lost me, just as Unity drove me away from Ubuntu.
Surely the lesson is out there to be learnt - that a pretty, but difficult to use, non-intuitive interface really isn't what most users want.
What is your desktop anyway? The way I see it, it's just a platform on which the applications/programs that you use to do the real work, reside. It needs to provide a fast and efficient way of accessing those programs and, ideally, keeping them reasonably consistent in look and feel, so that common actions are similar across the range. For some it's a place to hang a pretty picture, although personally I find this terribly distracting and makes finding stuff on the desktop difficult at times since icons get lost in the picture. That's just me, though. A desktop also needs to provide access to panels which are the most popular way of instant access to basic information and commonly used tasks. That's pretty much it from a basic user's perspective. Of course, it does more that isn't quite so apparent, but as Garry notes, much of this can be achieved with a simple window manager.
Of course, then there's the other type of user - the one that is less likely to use the computer for work and demands Steam and everything else that goes with SNS syndrome. Gnome is possibly quite appealing to them.