Ep. 32: Craig Steely

Architect Craig Steely grew up tinkering in a family whose motto was ‘custom anything’ so it’s not all that surprising that he’s scaled that idea up to the design of buildings. It’s refreshing to hear him talk about how that mentality has informed not only his work, but the very nature of his architecture practice; a small, personal, agile practice that focuses on meaning, relationships, and… hot lava! Listen:

What is your earliest memory?

My grandfather and I are standing under a walnut tree, he cuts a sappy little branch and with a few cuts hands me a whistle!  I can still taste the walnut.  The memory of the taste is as strong as the visual.

How do you feel about democratic design?

The easy answer is I’m all for it, but the deeper question concerns consumerism and the fact that most people don’t have the ability or desire to make something they need or want themselves.

Lavaflow 7, a cast in place concrete house on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Bruce Damonte

Lavaflow 7, a cast in place concrete house on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo by Bruce Damonte

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?

How about, “There’s nothing as depressing as good advice”… I think I’m quoting a Growlers song.  Hmmm, I suppose the best advice I’ve ever received I gave myself—“Low expectations and a high pain tolerance level are the secrets to happiness.”

How do you record your ideas?

Sketches in a Muji dot grid A6 notebook and quick paper study models.

Pam and Paul’s house, Cupertino. Photo by Darren Bradley

Pam and Paul’s house, Cupertino. Photo by Darren Bradley

What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?

Drawing for the pleasure of drawing again.

What book is on your nightstand? 

I read every night, but not in bed.  I bag 50 pages. It’s a routine, like doing daily pushups. I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and started Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  I’m not so patiently waiting for My Struggle: Book Six by Karl Ove Knausgaard to come out in English.

The sunken office at Pam and Paul’s House, Cupertino. Photo by Darren Bradley

The sunken office at Pam and Paul’s House, Cupertino. Photo by Darren Bradley

Why is authenticity in design important?

Truth is in short supply these days. As a culture we are in danger of not even knowing what authenticity is.

Favorite restaurant in your city?

Ippuku in Berkeley.  

Craig and his wife Cathy skating with their son Zane. Photo by Thayer Gowdy

Craig and his wife Cathy skating with their son Zane. Photo by Thayer Gowdy

What might we find on your desk right now?

Scanning from left to right, a knife sharpener, my Buck pocket knife, a hair clip, the laptop I’m writing on right now, a half built model on a cutting board surrounded by scraps of paper, my ancient Dieter Rams designed Braun calculator, various pencils and pens, a roll of canary yellow tracing paper, a box of drafting dots.

Who do you look up to and why?

Anyone who is really good at what they do.

Roof deck of our home and studio in San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Karp

Roof deck of our home and studio in San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Karp

What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?

I don’t look back much.  I enjoy the process and move on. It sounds like a cliché but my favorite projects are ones we are working on right now. The ideas are new and untried, a bit scary and uncertain and each day our explorations take us farther. I can hardly wait to get back into them.

What are the last five songs you listened to?

I tend to listen to albums.  Right now I’m listening to Phil Manzanera, Diamondhead.


To see more of Craig's work, go to craigsteely.com or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.


Thanks to our sponsor, BenchMade Modern, who makes affordable, custom-sized, modern sofas in days... not months. Use code CLEVER for 15% off your order at benchmademodern.com.

Also, thanks to the The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for sponsoring this episode.


Special thanks to Chris Modl of Yore Studio for editing this episode.
Music in this episode courtesy of El Ten Eleven—hear more on Bandcamp.
Shoutout to Jenny Rask for designing the Clever logo.