One House, Two Opinionated Designers, and the Joy of Collaboration

One House, Two Opinionated Designers, and the Joy of Collaboration

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 fucked 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.



from 99U99U

How to Redesign an Airline

How to Redesign an Airline


Look up and you’ll know: Air Canada is in the black.

Black bellies are part of its bold, sharp brand-wide redesign by Winkcreative, one both granular (the most gorgeous route map in the biz) and grand (its iconic 1962 rondelle is back). The shop, headed by Tyler Brûlé, has become something of an airline agency. Having renovated Bombardier, Porter Airlines, José Balazs’ StndAir, and Swiss Air, Winkcreative is currently tackling Air Canada, the 300-plus fleet of national carriers celebrating their 80th anniversary. We spoke with Maurus Fraser, their creative director, about what goes into redesigning an airline.


The color black is used throughout the airline’s design color scheme, which is rare for airlines.

What stands out immediately about the Air Canada redesign is the unexpected stark black component. Can you talk about how that came into the mix and how you decided to get out of the red and white colors that Air Canada has been in for a long time?

The opportunity that we saw was to really celebrate the rondelle. Air Canada had a mark designed in 1963 by Hans Kleefeld, the famous Canadian graphic designer, and they had this icon which companies would die for, and they’ve had this for so long. To not have that on the tail of the plane kind of felt like a missed opportunity. Maple leaves are quite used in Canada—you get a maple leaf in the middle of the golden arches of the McDonald’s. They put them on many things.

How did you pick the black color?

We had several versions of black: How black is black? Is it cold black? Is it warm black? When we were looking at the tones that we could use on the plane we had to work with Boeing, with the Boeing colors and they’ve got quite a small palette. Well, they’ve got sort of a wide palette, but it’s limited when you’re in certain color ranges. There was this jet black, which was just perfect for what we wanted.



Black is heavy on the eye, but it’s also literally heavy in an engineering standpoint. In an industry that wants lightness, weightlessness, was that a tough decision to make?

Black is a pigment and actually it’s not heavier than a white, as long as you have an opaque color painted on a plane. You could argue that maybe black absorbs a little bit more heat, but even in those circumstances the aircraft has been designed so powerfully, like most vehicles, that they’re designed to handle these kinds of heats and it doesn’t necessarily get absorbed that much. So we’ve been assured that it’s no heavier in all practicality. There’s a slight metallic fleck that gives it a pearlescent effect, which is actually slightly heavy and going to the clean, just the clean white, not overlaying too many colors, does actually make it much more efficient.

So you’re right. This is at the forefront of all the airlines minds, when the paint’s being painted the engineers are testing the depth of the paint; it can’t be painted at too much depth and the use of black on planes is incredibly rare. You don’t see it. There’s Air New Zealand, and there’s a great airline in Japan called StarFlyer, which is very cool, using black. But no one’s really been using it in this way that we’re doing.

It’s interesting that you mention New Zealand because they just did that flag redesign attempt that kind of went nowhere, but they had that Māori fern design. This black, white and red combination palette can be very tribal; it’s the same sort of color palette that you see on a lot of Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, totem poles.

We’ve definitely been looking at those influences, especially when you look at the nose mask that we’ve designed. We looked at, and studied the shapes of, an indigenous bird, a common loon, that has a red eye. The nose mask is a symbol of confidence and the use of black is charming because it has a bit of personality celebrating the cockpit. The pilot is a key part of this experience and nobody today really celebrates the cockpit and the pilot, although I guess years ago they did, in the World War II planes.

An airline redesign is not just object design or industrial design. It’s also fashion, interior decoration, and architecture. How did you address that breadth?

One of the things we were careful of is rondelle fever. You shouldn’t have rondelles everywhere. It’s scaling things down. Sometimes, you can get to a point where you have a successful symbol and you use it on everything. Then before you know it, you’ve got 10 of them on one application and you’re just scratching your head.

Did Winkcreative have an all hands on deck approach? Or did you bring in any extra staff?

We have been directing a team based in Canada called Mosaic. When it comes to illustration, we’ve been working with a Japanese illustrator. Working alongside our designers and art directors, we have a team of art buyers that help us find illustrators, photographers, film makers, and animators. When we’re working on identities, we’re very careful that we don’t want things to be repetitive. If we’re working with one collaborator on one project, it’s not necessarily the best person to be working with on another. 

The Air Canada redesign included the attire, too.

Did you have lessons that you brought over from being in the airline redesign business, lessons you didn’t realize you had learned until you were unconsciously, subconsciously applying them to the Air Canada project?

Yes. When we were designing Swiss Airlines In 2002, there was a lot of experimentation happening in airline design. British Airways was doing all these different art techniques from different countries. It was very exciting from a design perspective. From a branding perspective, however, it was too much of a compromise for British Airways, because they had planes flying through air that people didn’t ultimately recognize were from British Airways.

When an entity like Air Canada acts as an unofficial ambassador for how their country is perceived around the world, how do you take that responsibility and apply it to tastefully redesigning something like the seat pocket sick bags?

We’re still in the process of working on those pieces, but there’s a series of elements that we’re working on for the brand where we exaggerate a little bit of that character and charm. 

One of my favorite redesigns is the worldwide flight path map on that red graphing paper. It’s very clean, linear, with a circuit board kind of look. Very 70s or 80s, in a good way. How’d that happen?

It goes back to the golden age of travel and the things that inspired us when we go on a plane. Everything was so sharp. All the touchpoints were so well designed. When you look at most airlines, their route maps, it’s a photograph or some sort of image of the world. And then there’s these huge kind of lines that always overlap, and you can’t tell which line is going where. You know its gotten to a point where airlines don’t care.

We drew Air Canada’s route map in-house, probably spending far too much time pouring over each of those routes and angles. It’s a strong moment and opportunity for an airline to communicate to their customers. The moment you get to the pages in the in-flight magazines and you see the route map, that’s when you’re inspired to go somewhere and realize how convenient and simple it is to go there. Air Canada is really enabling you to do that.

Your design will reach a wide range of people, from those traveling to Canada for the first time to the road warriors for whom the plane has become as familiar as an office cubicle. What impact do you hope the design has across the spectrum of flyers?

To ultimately improve people’s lives. That’s an ambition that I think most designers share. If design can make your everyday life just that much bit better, then why not right?

There are some design similarities to Delta’s new branding. To what degree is that coincidental, or was Winkreative inspired by things Delta did?

Delta is a very different design and not something that influenced our work. Our use of red, white and black, the introduction of the mask, placing the rondelle back on the tail— after 24 years—and the distinctive rondelle on the belly, are not something we have seen before. 

from 99U99U