Ettore Sottsass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century and David Kelley founded the design firm that ushered us into the 21st. But more than an ocean and a generation separates these two creative iconoclasts: Kelley is an unpretentious engineer from blue-collar Ohio who enjoys nothing more than a good tuna melt. Sottsass was the epitome of the Italian designer—mercurial, oracular, and slightly mischievous. Sottsass never knew what to make of Americans who eat fish out of cans (and then put cheese on it). Yet they remained the best of friends.
So in 2001, Kelley, flush with the success of his design firm, IDEO, asked Sottsass to build him a house in the horsey foothills above Silicon Valley, and Sottsass agreed. What followed was an elaborate courtship as the 80-something Italian architect and the 50-something American client, each of whom casts a long shadow across contemporary design, circled and sparred, thrust and parried, and together created an extraordinary house.
The friendship between Kelley and Sottsass goes back a couple of decades to the glory days of Silicon Valley when “disruption” was not the only thing on everyone’s minds and interesting people were naturally gravitating toward each other. Kelley had just founded what was then David Kelley Design, and a mutual friend—Was it Steve Jobs? Was it the art collector Johnny Pigozzi?— suggested that he seek out the legendary architect who had just jolted Milan’s fashionable design world with the opening of Memphis.
Each was, in his own way, a bit of a renegade: Kelley had barreled out of Carnegie Mellon University with an electrical engineering degree and visions of rewiring the world. After six months spent at Boeing designing the circuitry for the “Lavatory Occupied” sign on the 747 he decided that this was not for him, and migrated toward the Valley just as the digital revolution was confronting designers with an endless wave of unprecedented challenges. First he formed the Intergalactic Destruction Company; then Hovey-Kelley Design; then David Kelley Design, and finally IDEO. Sottsass, meanwhile, had just reinvented himself for the umpteenth time: The Memphis collection—with its bizarre collection of furniture objects crafted out of rare Brazilian hardwoods overlaid with cheap American formica, chrome tubing, and a red lightbulb—was only the latest provocation. At the opening of the Memphis showroom in 1981 one of Italy’s most revered furniture designers was heard to whisper, “You see? This lot has screwed us up for the next twenty years.”
As opposites attract, they were drawn to each other by a kind of mutual fascination. Sottsass lectured Kelley about the importance of metaphor while his muse, Barbara Radice, curled up on a sofa translating Sanskrit poetry. Kelley, not to be outdone, presented Sottsass with a package of Jiffy-Pop, which the architect spent days cleaning off the ceiling of his apartment in the Via Pontaccio. They liked each other, they respected each other, they complemented each other, but most of all, each got what the other was about without yielding one inch.
Once they even decided to go into business together, launching a venture—Enorme—that would have been fatal to any normal friendship. The first product was a telephone: Sottsass designed a pure objet, accented with hints of Mondrian, Rietveldt and de Stijl, while Kelley’s firm handled the engineering. The Enorme telephone, with its logo of a gigantic Sumo wrestler, was instantly acquired by museum curators around the world—and by nobody else. From opposite sides of the Atlantic the partners watched in dismay as it passed from design to art, which is to say, became magnificently useless.
The friendship flourished, however, even as the partnership collapsed, and both began to think about what came next. Sottsass returned to architecture and to his newly-formed firm of Sottsass Associati. Riding the wave of Silicon Valley innovation, IDEO grew steadily to become certainly the largest and arguably the most influential design consultancy in history. In time Kelley decided to move out of his loft in downtown Palo Alto and build himself a house. He did not spend a lot of time looking for an architect.
Sottsass had already done some building in the United States—most notably a house in Ridgway, Colorado (1987-89) for the art collector Daniel Wolf and his wife, the celebrated sculptor-designer Maya Lin. But neither architect nor client had reckoned with the perversities of Silicon Valley, whose culture of technological adventurism is matched only by its hidebound architectural conservatism. After endless applications, negotiations, inspections, and outright threats, the village elders of Woodside yielded, plans were approved, permits issued, contractors contracted, and the project got underway.
Ettore Sottsass, who believed that he understood David Kelley better than Kelley understood himself, did not begin by asking his client how many bathrooms he wanted. He asked him about his point of view on love, on food, on politics. Design, after all, is not about marrying form and functionality. It is, as he once reflected, “a way of discussing life.” Kelley tried to be helpful: He and his wife created a detailed process book of their daily life; they rented a helicopter and supplied aerial photographs of the building site; he shuttled back-and-forth to Milan, and fired off thousands of faxes. His confidence in Sottsass was great, and his requirements few: The only thing he specified was plenty of space to showcase his stuff.
David Kelley had, after all, spent twenty years at the forward edge of design, and a fair amount of stuff had come his way: a canary-yellow Ducati that he parked in his living room; a coin-operated mechanical horse (“Sandy”) spirited away from outside of a grocery store; a 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox; an old bathroom scale that gives you honest weight and your fortune for a nickel; a shoebox containing the world’s first commercial mouse (which IDEO designed for Apple); a Braille edition of Playboy, complete with a pointillist bas-relief centerfold.
Sottsass told him to get rid of it. All of it. A house is for interrogating the present, he insisted, not memorializing the past. It is a space for meditating, for conjuring, for plotting against one’s enemies, and for writing a poem. It is not a machine for living in, as the Modernists had claimed, much less a warehouse of machines for living with. And so they circled one another, warily, tentatively, like a pair of giant Sumo wrestlers.
In The Art of War, the 4th century military strategist Sun Tzu argued that the most decisive victory is one in which your opponent believes that he has won. So it is with the house, which manages to express the intellectual vision of both architect and client. In contrast to the sprawling trophy houses built for the princelings of the Silicon Valley dotconomy, the Kelley residence is not precious, lavishly-appointed, or large. It takes the form, rather, of a spatial meditation on what is distinctive about California, and that proves to be the landscape.
The result is a house consisting of five inside rooms with five outside “rooms”—courtyards, patios, play areas—negatively defined by the articulations of the building itself and blurred together on a single grade. Seen from the hillside above, there is absolutely no focal point, axis, or grid. Seen from a distance, it looks more like a village of little buildings than a house, with each room governed by a different architectural idiom: shingles on one, wood siding on another, brick on a third; there is a room with a flat roof, a room with a pitched roof, and a room with a barrel vault; a child’s room resembles a stylized playhouse—much as a child might have drawn it.
The interior, likewise, bears the marks not of compromise but of a series of negotiated solutions. Kelley’s approach to furniture is that of a hard-wired engineer: (1) go to the store; (2) look at what they’ve got; (3) choose one. Sottsass takes a different approach: articulate a vision, then do what is necessary to make it happen. Kelley wanted smart-looking “Italian” chairs around the kitchen table. Sottsass refused: “No,” he thundered! “You want stupid American chairs,” and the solution was for Kelley to select a domestic icon—the ubiquitous, ladder-backed “schoolteacher’s chair” from which Mrs. Wormwood might have presided over the third grade. Kelley said he wanted a large open space for entertaining, but Sottsass forbade it because large rooms violate the human scale. The solution is to break up the expansive living room-dining room-kitchen space with a forest of mysterious six-foot towers—“inscrutable Japanese boxes that make you wonder what’s in them”—that articulate the space without interrupting it.
But on one account Sottsass prevailed: The collection of industrial detritus that is Kelley’s pride and joy has been exiled to his office, relegated to his garage, given to his friends, and consigned to the landfill. In their place stands a collection of Sottsass’ own ceramics, the architect’s secret first love but in their very uselessness an affront to the practical engineer: I have always imagined them, Sottsass once wrote, as “catalysts of perception,” emblems of a cosmos that is “neither measurable nor predictable nor controllable.” Ceramics are “older than the Bible, older than all the poems ever written, older than goats and cats, older than metals, older than houses.”
Older, even, than houses.
This essay was originally conceived as the Kelley-Sottsass house was being completed in 2001. Ettore Sottsass died in 2007 at the age of ninety, and David Kelley has recently moved onto the campus of Stanford University, where he is a professor. The house is now on the market.