The raucous patterns, wild shapes, and vivid colors associated with the Memphis Group—a cadre of anti-establishment designers active in the 1980s—were a brash rebuttal to the stuffy high modernism that came before it. The iconic Italian designer Ettore Sottsass was the leader of this postmodern collective, and while he’s probably best known for his work at the typewriter company Olivetti and for his furniture, he also designed a more than 20 houses.
And one of only three that he built in the United States belongs to Ideo cofounder David Kelley.
The 6,000-square-foot house is featured in Surface magazine’s inaugural Builders issue, which is on newsstands now. Kelley was a longtime friend of Sottsass and recounts the story of working with “one of the few people in my life with whom I felt like I was in the presence of greatness,” he tells Surface.
Though Ideo is all about the design process and iterating, Sottsass took somewhat of a unilateral approach to the design–and Kelley surrendered to the architect’s method of working. “He thought because he knew me so well that he could do a better job deciding what I needed than I could,” Kelley tells Surface. “There wasn’t much of a brief; it was more like suggestions that were ignored.”
In true Sottsass fashion, the house brimming with irreverent details. In fact, it’s more like a complex of pavilions, each with its own personality. The architect clad much of the interior in his vibrantly hued laminate—his signature material—but also incorporated a fleet of other textures: brick, stucco, wood, and exposed steel. Sottsass also designed the house to have unexpected geometric moments, like a series of freestanding large cabinets set askew in the great room.
“It’s like a temple in some ways,” Sottsass told The New York Times in 2001. “You are working. You are thinking. You are concentrating. So it has a certain solidity…The design of this house is a metaphor of life. But that’s what I’m trying always to do, to design as near as possible to life.”
Sottsass’s approach worked. The design still feels fresh today—thanks in part to a peak-Memphis revival recently. Though Kelley gushes over how well the house as worked for himself and his family over the years, he does allude to putting it on the market in the future. Any takers?