A Design Skilled Makes Area for Instruments and Reminiscences
This article is part of our latest design special about expanding the possibilities of your home.
Building your dream home is a wonderful thing. But what if the dream changes?
Just ask David Kelley, founder of the global design company IDEO. In 2000, he was one of only three people in the US to have a house designed by Ettore Sottsass, the legendary Italian architect, industrial designer and founder of the postmodern Memphis design collective, whose name refers to both ancient Egypt and Elvis Presley.
The 6,000-square-foot Silicon Valley house, a collection of separate pavilions connected by a glass atrium, was designed with Marco Zanini, a partner at Sottsass Associati, and featured in several magazines as well as a 2001 article in The New York Times. But in 2018, Mr Kelley sold the house. “My whole life has been expansive,” he said, “but I’m 70 and I’m trying to make life easier.”
This goal included the proximity to the campus of Stanford University, where, in addition to his work at IDEO, Mr. Kelley taught design at the engineering school for 42 years and there founded the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school. He bought a much smaller house in a campus enclave dedicated solely to Stanford faculty. “I just wanted something a little less expansive,” he said. “The living room in the old house was the size of the entire new house.” He also wanted a studio where he could make things and keep some of his extensive collections of – well, all sorts of things, which more about later.
But less expansive didn’t mean it wasn’t designed. To do this, Mr. Kelley turned to two people he knew well. Mark Jensen, the founder of the San Francisco company Jensen Architects, worked with the artist Ann Hamilton to design the IDEO offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco as well as projects such as the roof terrace at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a tower.
Johanna Grawunder, an artist and designer who creates installations with light as well as actual lights and furniture for companies like Flos and Glas Italia, worked with Sottsass for 16 years (12 of them as partners in his company) and designed the lighting for Mr. Kelleys former house. (Mr. Jensen and Ms. Grawunder have been a couple for 20 years, and while she was a consultant light artist on some of his projects, the two had just one great collaboration at their Sonoma County weekend home.)
“It was a very humble, generic California ranch house surrounded by beautiful trees,” Jensen recalled. “Our approach was more about subtraction – what else can we take away?” While the interior was gutted with two bedrooms and the living area was designed to be open and loft-like, the exterior, with its asphalt roof and weathered vertical plywood cladding – now painted dark gray – remained largely unchanged. A new garage door is flush with the outside wall to “emphasize” its “traditional primacy,” said Jensen. A wide, swiveling front door made of cedar wood provides a striking design element. The company Surfacedesign in San Francisco was responsible for the green landscape. Ms. Grawunder said it improves the flow between inside and outside.
As you walk through the doorway, there’s a light piece of Mrs. Grawunder on one wall, and a manhole cover from the factory she makes for Stanford – a souvenir of one of Mr. Kelley’s students – is set in the brick floor. An atrium with comfortable furniture and retractable shade sails leads to the kitchen and living area and has been found useful for safe outdoor gatherings during the pandemic.
In the house, Mr. Jensen added skylights with large trapezoidal openings to maximize daylight and installed sliding glass doors. The floors are made of reclaimed wood that Mrs. Grawunder and Mr. Kelley found and that was recovered from a submerged pier in San Francisco Bay. Mr. Jensen called his contrasts of light and dark “right on the edge of the disorder”. The kitchen with its pistachio green walls has a central island where you can collect more than you can cook. It also has a cedar slatted wall that slides left to hide the shelves or right to hide Mr. Kelley’s bedroom, right in front of which is one of Sottsass’s tartar console tables for Memphis.
Other Sottsass pieces from the old house include a dining table that Mr. Kelley cut off and painted black; Bookshelves in living and dining areas; a Beverly sideboard, also for Memphis, in the living area; and a large totem in the breeze between the living area and the studio. The dining chairs were designed by Naoto Fukasawa, who is known for his furniture but once worked at IDEO and opened his Tokyo office in 1996.
Ms. Grawunder, who redesigned the floor plan of the existing house and worked with Mr. Kelley on the placement of the furniture, described her role in the project as “essential and minimal – essential because of my friendship with David when I was working on the Sottsass house. “She designed a small U-shaped outdoor seating area with a tall cedar fence in front of the sliding glass door in Mr. Kelley’s bedroom, which had no privacy from the street. The floor is covered with mint green glazed bricks, which are used in an inner courtyard of the Sottsass house. Ms. Grawunder called the house “a living organism”, with the studio being “the heart of the matter”.
The studio, which is right behind the house, “is who I am,” said Mr. Kelley. The “organized clutter” in the 25 foot high room includes objects such as tools and bicycles that “tell a story or recall a memory.” Its unusual shape wasn’t part of the original design, which was a glass box, and was rejected by Stanford planners, who said the building must have a sloped roof and wood paneling – “which led to something more interesting,” said Mr. Said Jensen. He designed an umbrella out of cedar wood – a waterproof membrane with eastern red cedar boards over it – that looks like one side of the roof just goes further down and out. (A separate workshop for activities like sawing and drilling is behind the garage.) “The project went from being a remodel to a full live work connection. Or village, ”said Frau Grawunder.
Mr. Kelley’s lifelong attachment to meaningful possessions is embodied in the compilation of things – including, but by no means limited to, his grandmother’s matchstick holder, a clutch pedal from the Caterpillar factory he worked at as a student, his childhood sledge, and Ohio license plates from the His family’s car – mounted and framed on one wall of the atrium. There’s a Ruth Orkin photo of Albert Einstein in his minimalist white bathroom, “which I’ve had in my bathrooms since 1988,” he said.
When Sottsass designed the old house, Mr. Kelley wanted to bring in some of his collections (which include vintage tractors, pickups and sports cars, like the 1961 Mercedes 300SL convertible now parked in its driveway). But Sottsass said no. “I’m going to build you a house for now,” he explained, and Mr. Kelley stored his collections in a barn on the property. “I didn’t want an Ohio kid watering his big ideas,” Kelley recalled.
“He was Picasso, and who should I say to put more green in the painting?” Still, the maestro, who passed away in 2007, may have considered that someone whose head is very much in the present (and future) could also have a heart that cherishes the past.