“I don’t think of myself as a collector, I just keep the stuff that happens in my life," Kelley says. And what happens over the course of a life in design adds up.
Kelley, who founded IDEO 40 years ago and went on to launch Stanford's d.school, has a lot of stories to tell, and most of them are connected to stuff—stuff IDEO made, stuff given to him by other designers and architects like Ettore Sottsass (who also designed Kelley's house), stuff that unlocks memories and, not infrequently, gets him choked up. (SPOILER ALERT: skip to 1:54 where he points out a picture from his wedding. One of the guests is IDEO cofounder Bill Moggridge, the father of interaction design, who died in 2012.)
The wall of wooden cubbies in Kelley's small Palo Alto office is crowded with prototypes, model automobiles (Kelley is also a car buff who owns about 20 vehicles, including a 1954 Chevy pickup), and other curios like a giant "I" that lights up and is inscribed with his life's story. His coworkers fabricated it for him in the company shop for his 50th birthday.
In fact, Kelley has a small museum of birthday keepsakes that IDEO designers have given him over the years: a giant spotlight, an old motorcycle, and one of those mechanical horses that costs a dime to ride, purchased from a grocery store.
Inspiration and materials for those gifts often came from University Art, the Palo Alto supply store down the street from the studio. "There was a guy named Jim, lovely white haired guy," Kelley says. Jim was the store manager, and when Kelley told him he was starting a new company down the street and would like to open an account, Jim replied that they'd have to charge $50 a month to qualify. Kelley admitted he didn't know if they'd be able to do that. "Fast forward a few years, Jim was still there and we had about 350 employees and we were charging $50 a minute. Jim would always remind me of that story..."
Kelley's collecting gene runs in his family. His mother used to call it "shopping in the basement." She'd go down to the first floor of the house and dig up something from Kelley's past and send it to him for his birthday.
"Things would show up in the mail: My leather pouch that I would keep my marbles in when I was a little boy; my boy scout uniform. I'm kind of in that same vein as my mother. I'm keeping things that are meaningful. When I am sitting around, I can look at the model we made of the first mouse or the Christmas card we made in 1993 and I just think, it's pleasurable now; it's going to be even more pleasurable as I get older."