Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass only built three homes in the United States throughout his illustrious career. One of those homes, in Silicon Valley, was for the family of David Kelley, cofounder and chairman of the design firm Ideo, which has developed projects for the likes of Apple, Coca-Cola, and Ford. The 6,000-square-foot, three-bedroom abode, which was completed in 2000, was among the last homes Sottsass designed before his death in 2007 at age 90. Not only a quiet exemplar of the Memphis Group leader’s work, it’s also a personal reflection on the friendship of the designer with the man who commissioned him to create it. Here, Kelley opens up the doors to the rarely seen 15-year-old property, discussing how it came to be and what his hopes are for it in the future.
I always say I didn’t have any choice in which architect to use. Sottsass would have killed me if I didn’t have him design my house. I met him through [venture capitalist and art collector] Jean Pigozzi, who I had met through Steve Jobs. Jean and I were sitting in my office one time, and he said, “You have to meet Ettore!” It was like he had some epiphany that the two of us would get along, and we did. In ’82, at the [Salone del Mobile] furniture fair, the year after the Memphis Group began, I met Ettore. One day, when my wife came home, she said she had found the perfect property for herself—it was a horse property with a barn, a riding ring, and a stable. There was no substantial house on the property. She said I could build the house I’d always wanted to build there.
I was so close to Ettore—I’d spent so many hours with him riding on trains to Venice and just being around him. He was one of the few people in my life with whom I felt like I was in the presence of greatness. I had seen what my friend [and fellow Ideo cofounder] Bill Moggridge had done for his house: He had made a book. So I made a large-format book for Ettore. I don’t know how many hours I spent making it, taking pictures of things, writing about what I cared about. I was very proud of this book. I took it to Milan to brief Ettore. He kind of thumbed through it very casually and said, “This is a house about the past. Let’s build a house for the present.” My brief was wasted completely.
Of course, we talked and talked over many meals about what to do. I did get to say how many rooms I wanted, but in general Ettore was given the benefit of the doubt. He thought because he knew me so well that he could do a better job deciding what I needed than I could. There wasn’t much of a brief; it was more like suggestions that were ignored.
Sottsass hated American houses that had the garage in front. He hated any kind of house that was showing off or saying, “Look at me! Look how precious and important I am!” My house is absolutely plain on the front—it’s a brick wall with a “Welcome” awning. Ettore’s point was to say, “You’re welcome here—but it’s a private house.” I think Ettore got this idea from Milan; when you’re walking down the street, there are all these nondescript wood doors, and you can’t tell what’s behind them.
The house has six separate pavilions and terraces, and each of the pavilions is held together by a glass atrium. Each one of these buildings is completely different—a different shape, a different material, and a different attitude. Sottsass’s idea was: Why should everything line up and be the same mood?
Ettore and I fought about the main room. I wanted a big, New York loft–style space, but he said that wasn’t right for this. He combined a kitchen, dining room, and living room, but broke it up with a forest of human-sized cabinets.
Every once in a while I’ll notice an Ettore detail here that makes me smile. You kind of have Memphis on your mind when you’re thinking about Ettore, but the house is different from that. It’s comfortable, easy to look at and easy to be in. Then all of a sudden you run into something quirky. I think people come into my house and say, “Oh, you paid good money for that plastic laminate?! Where’s the mahogany? Where’s the preciousness?” There’s no preciousness. They don’t know that the laminate was custom-made for Ettore to be exactly what he wanted.
We shopped for every piece of furniture here in Milan at the showrooms of companies like Cassina and Poltrona Frau. Most of the furniture in the house was custom-made. In a gymnasium somewhere in Italy, they laid out the rooms and built all of the furniture there. Then they disassembled it, put it on a boat, and shipped it over. We also sent over the guys who built it in Italy; they lived here for a few months and reassembled it. There are Antonio Citterio–designed couches and Jasper Morrison lamps—it’s not all by Ettore—but he brought all of the custom stuff to the table.
The house has held up incredibly well, but I’ve seen the need to repaint it after some years. We had a leak in the living room, and it ruined the ceiling and a few walls in different rooms. A lot of the walls are now freshly painted after fixing that leak. I guess it’s Ettore’s fault. Didn’t somebody once say that if your roof doesn’t leak you didn’t use a good enough architect? I’m 65. This is on a big piece of property, and it’s a lot to maintain. So it’s not that long before I’ll want to downsize. The prospect of leaving the house saddens me, but I’ve started to think about it. Sottsass is not the kind of world famous architect that every kid who works at Google wants to have, so passing it to the right person will be important for me.
I feel Sottsass’s presence here all the time. There’s emotion here because of our friendship. There’s the architectural part of the house, and then there’s the personal part of it. It’s intermixed. I’ve never lost my awe of Ettore, his gentle way of being.