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Modest Modernist

Duluth architect David Salmela has brought brash, contemporary design to the cabins and lake houses of the North Shore. But his modernism has a distinctly Minnesotan twist.

Modest Modernist
Photo by David Getty

(page 1 of 2)

Like any good Minnesotan, David Salmela keeps a fire pit out back. But his isn’t a ring of stone or a wrought-iron cage. It’s a minimalist totem pole: a 12-foot-tall concrete shaft, stark white and rectangular. On first approach, it’s as alien as the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A narrow trough slices down its front, and when the sun dips low, Salmela packs the base with logs, sets them aflame, and watches the smoke climb through the open-faced pillar. He calls it an “un-chimney.” When most people have a fire, they’re left with only a mess of char. When Salmela and his wife, Gladys, have one, they get a piece of art to go with it. Today, the “un-chimney” is empty of wood. But a ghostly black smear creeps up the interior walls.

“The idea is that you have the fire at night, and then the next day you have the memory of the fire,” the architect explains. Then, perhaps concerned he’s come off as too poetic, he adds, “Because most of the time with a campfire, you get up in the morning, and it’s kind of ugly.”

Salmela, who just turned 60, is leery of pretension. It’s his hallmark. Unlike some of his contemporaries, whose open, glass-walled rooms communicate an urbane, gallery-like refinement, Salmela keeps it woodsy. He takes distinctly modernist traits—the cantilevered floors of Frank Lloyd Wright, the austere functionality of the Bauhaus, the strong horizontal lines of the Futurists—and stews them in the regional flavors of the North Shore. Some unfinished basswood slats here. A little native prairie grass there. His own home, a stack of pitch-black boxes wedged into a hillside overlooking Lake Superior in Duluth, even incorporates pieces of the Canadian Shield into its design. Existing boulders, which form the house’s foundation, hide Salmela’s house from the street. A glacier of granite spills into the garage. Long balconies, made from unfinished wood the same color of the hillside brush, provide further camouflage.

This reverence for the region, a counterpoint to the daring design, has made Salmela Minnesota’s most famous living architect. (Just this May, his national prize total climbed to 28. No other single Minnesota architect has won as many.) It’s also made him a beguiling contradiction.

“I’m always struck by how David manages to be regionally sensitive, culturally appropriate, and yet totally modern at the same time,” says Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. In May, Fisher published The Invisible Element of Place, a detailed look at Salmela’s 50 most recent projects, the vast majority of them cabins and country homes.

Modern architecture was once meant to be universal, a style to be dropped into any metropolis worldwide and instantly signal progress. But Salmela’s buildings, unusual as they are, could only ever exist in the Upper Midwest. In fact, minus a handful of rare outliers—projects in the works include a retreat on the coast of Ireland; an equestrian community in Dutchess County, New York; a Wyoming ranch; and a Virginia farm—they do only exist in the Upper Midwest.

In other words, Salmela’s un-chimney may smack of white-cube artiness, but, singed by fire, it smells unmistakably of Minnesota.

Salmela has recently grown a moustache. Right now he’s playing with it, pinching a few well-trimmed white hairs at the corner. It’s a great everyman gesture: the farmer chewing the blade of grass. “I wanted to be an architect,” he begins. “But, how would I say it? I’m Finnish. I’m also Minnesotan. We tend to underrate ourselves. ‘Are we really good enough to do this?’” We’re sitting in the Salmelas’ dining room, which isn’t a dining room at all, just a table placed at the center of their open-plan living space—a skybox of blond wood and clean sunlight. Three walls of windows offer a cockpit view of the water below. Park Point’s ribbon of island stretches off into Superior Bay.

Salmela is tracing his career trajectory and, perhaps, burnishing his mystique. As many design students know, Salmela is famously self-trained. He dropped out of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities after only one semester, not even setting foot in the school of architecture (though it would later grant him an honorary doctorate). In 1985, when he won his first award from the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects for a project in Cohasset, Minnesota, it was the first time in 25 years that a practitioner from outside the Twin Cities had been so highly honored. Consider also that Salmela builds mostly on a small scale—his residential projects average only around 3,000 to 5,000 square feet—and for an Upper Midwest clientele whose wealth pales in comparison to most big-city design consumers, and it’s easy to see him as a folk hero, the rural Robin Hood bringing modernism to the north woods. Fisher calls him “the architectural equivalent of Garrison Keillor.”

But the renegade streak is there. You can see it in his eyes. Or rather, his eyewear—dark, elegantly rounded frames, the same kind worn by Le Corbusier. And sure enough, even growing up on a farm, a second-generation Finn in tiny Sebeka, Minnesota, the seeds of a design career were incubating. “Nobody was professing to be artistic,” he says of his childhood. But his dad was a good dresser, and his mother prided herself on her immaculate gardens. “But there was certainly a refined elegance.”

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