Written by Paul O’Neil
A visit with experimental architect and designer David Sellers reveals his then-radical ideas of creating a home in the 1960s. Earning the moniker "Father of the Design-Build Movement," he established the antiestablishment commune Prickly Mountain on 450 acres (182 hectares) of farmland in Vermont.
"We really didn’t know what we were doing when we got here," says David Sellers, describing those first days in the Mad River Valley of Vermont, when he was experimenting not only with a radical idea of what makes a home but also an entirely novel approach to the practice of design and building.
Breaking ground in the sixties
It was the early sixties, a period when art and science turned experimental and people were driven by a desire to break with the norm. Sellers and his business partner, Bill Reineke, landed in the mountains of Warren, Vermont, smack-dab in the middle of the decade and smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. The freshly minted Yale architecture graduates each had a thousand dollars in their pockets and a dream to start something completely new. They purchased 450 acres (182 hectares) of cheap land—fallow fields of blueberry bush—and convinced some students to camp out with them for a summer. They dreamed of reinvigorating the architecture discipline.
They built a series of houses, all with funny names—the Tack House, the Pyramid House, the Bridge House—and developed a community called Prickly Mountain. The goal was "to create buildings where design was the driving force in construction," explains Sellers. Their process was described as "design-build"—instead of building to preexisting designs and plans, they designed as they built. "We wanted to make something special in our time, the twentieth century, with the materials and tools available," says Sellers. "The chief aim was participation, learning as you go." It was a community of exploration and collaboration.
"The chief aim was participation, learning as you go."
Sellers’s design-build process was organic in nature, much more like sculpturing. The unique, interactive structures were unlike anything else built at the time: Circular ladders sliced through the interior of buildings to create landings for sleeping nooks or to capture the morning sunlight; elevated walking bridges connected structures on land that was once considered unbuildable; and climbing pegs were attached to living room walls as a new means of traveling from floor to floor.
The buildings, with angled roofs and constructed from unconventional materials, not only stood out in the countryside, they attracted attention from others in the profession and were published in the likes of Forbes, Time, Progressive Architecture, and even House Beautiful.
Their first building, the Tack House, was made entirely of plywood and found objects. There were no blueprints beyond a rough sketch of the foundation based upon the remaining pilings at the site where a neighbor had previously secured equipment, or tack, for her ten Arabian horses.
You design it, you build it
Sellers’s second building, the Pyramid House, unfolds into the Vermont hillside as if it were alive and growing. The towering structure captures views of the valley and the neighboring Sugarbush ski resort. It was built with only one parameter—that its Plexiglas skylights would allow the inhabitants to sleep under the stars. This improvisational approach to building gave Sellers the designation of "Father of the Design-Build Movement." But Sellers has never been impressed with the title. "That’s what people have been doing for 10,000 years…the person who was designing the building was also making it," he explains.
This points to one of the essential elements of Sellers’s philosophy: The designer must know how to make things. His time interning under a prominent architect while at Yale was pivotal, as he observed the contractors and tradesmen ridiculing the architect for lacking practical construction knowledge. Sellers says of his own formal education, "I could bluff my way through construction, but I didn’t really learn what was necessary to build." Prickly Mountain became the on-the-job training that allowed him to deliver on his philosophy.
Now, with bushy salt-and-pepper hair topped by a paint-splotched beret from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Sellers sports a relaxed, professorial air (and indeed he has had stints as a professor at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michigan State University, among others). We met for dinner at Tracks Bar in the basement of the Pitcher Inn, a boutique hotel in Warren. Sellers played a pivotal role in its design and construction, and the bar got its name from the tracks of local animals stamped into its wet concrete by high school students. It’s this kind of whimsy that Sellers brings to his life and work. Indeed, as I look down at the tracks in the floor, I notice his bright red Puma sneakers.
Frank Lloyd Wright and a gut feeling
At seventy-seven years old, Sellers, a master craftsman, waxes nostalgic about his past and his path. He traces the beginnings of his design evolution to his childhood in Wilmette, Illinois. On his bike ride to elementary school, he would zigzag from surface streets to back alleys, taking different paths so he could discover new things. He remembers watching how the light and the shadows fell as the seasons turned, and he was especially intrigued by a black-and-white house that stuck out from all the others. That house is the Frank J. Baker House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, though Sellers didn’t know it at the time.
In reflecting on those bike rides, the multitalented creative draws a connection: There were rarely clear signals to get to where he was going, so he trusted his gut. He would "follow that sense and see what was there."
His current process is not much different. "It becomes a search or exploration to unravel a direction that incorporates and holds all the clues as they emerge," he says. He feels that every time you build, you give birth to something new. "Most of the time there was nothing other than the feeling I was on the right track," he says. "If you plan it out in advance, it loses its energy, and you’re following some code and ideas you’ve already planned. But if it’s all up in the air, you can listen to what it tells you and change it along the way." To illustrate his process, he describes the development of his light-filled studio, affectionately called the Temple of Dendur because it was inspired by that Egyptian structure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City: "I thought to myself, how do I hold this up? And I decided that I was going to hold it up with trees. Because we had a low budget, and we had a lot of trees we had to cut down, so let’s just use the trees. So, I put these trees up and put a beam along the trees and put a roof over it." His design solved a problem, on the spot. "And based on that, there are a lot of choices on how to do the next thing. And that’s what I mean by the building speaking to me." Although this sort of unpredictable building process may seem to bear risk, Sellers doesn’t look at it that way. "Risk implies that failure is one of the possible results," he says. "Focus on the positive instead of the negative. Don’t use the word risk; look at it as an opportunity to get to a place where you can find great joy.
"You need to get comfortable with the fact that you don’t know what you are doing," he says, "and you’re not sure where things are going, and you find joy in that uncertainty—joy in the probability of it being a success later."
"Most of the time there was nothing other than the feeling I was on the right track."
The joy in design as the act of building certainly reaches beyond the discipline of architecture. Sellers himself has designed everything from shoes to snow sleds, and has opened the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design, a venture that represents a lifetime of appreciation for and devotion to good design. The building, beside a 200-year- old covered bridge in neighboring Waitsfield, Vermont, houses "the best designed and most artistic manufactured objects," a collection that includes items including "the best wheelbarrow ever made."
The Madsonian enterprise connects with Sellers’s commitment to things that last and a dedication to sustainability. "Industrial designers and architects have a role in deciding what we should make out of our resources. They have a huge impact on how this planet is going to last," says Sellers. "All the easily extracted resources have already been taken. So you think, how is this going to last? It’s not, unless we rethink how we apply our creativity to the things we require." His current project, called the Home Run House, is testament to this conviction. The project aims to deliver a building that will "last five hundred years, with no fuel bill, no cost, and no maintenance."
In describing the Home Run House project, Sellers appears to have the same enthusiasm and sense of discovery as he did back in the sixties. The foundation of the house has been poured. "Now it has its own voice," he says. "If you look at it—what is going on here—I try to massage it. I feed it, and I look at it again. It begins to take on a life of its own."
As he walks onto the construction site, "It’s almost like I haven’t seen it before," he says. "I imagine it as if it were alive. I’m mesmerized by it. At some point, in the process of looking at it, there’s a sense of order that emerges…It’s like I’m having a conversation with it, making it tell me what it wants to do, to help it become its best self."