By the time Residential Architect profiled him in our July 2005 issue, David Salmela, FAIA, had already achieved national respect for his sensitive regional modernism. Since then, rather than rest on his laurels, the Duluth, Minn.-based Salmela has continued to evolve as an architect. Always attuned to the intricacies of the local and regional context, he’s been able to express those attributes on a deeper level. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, the sensitivity to the culture may have been a more visible connection of the obvious, the familiar,” he says. “Now the connection is more subtle. You’re not sure what it is that makes it blend into the context. It’s more emotionally perceived.”

Salmela’s portfolio has changed, too, to include more non-residential work. His four-person firm recently completed a factory for Loll Designs, a Duluth outdoor furniture company. This project led to a commission to design a series of Loll furniture pieces, the first two of which were introduced at ICFF 2012. And Salmela Architect has three commercial projects under way in Minneapolis: an ice cream factory and shop, a restaurant, and a renovation and expansion of an office for an advertising agency. “The biggest surprise for me has been how many interesting commercial projects we have,” Salmela says. Of course, residential design remains a mainstay of the firm, which operates out of an office space in his Duluth home. (One of the three project architects, Malini Srivastava, AIA, works remotely from Fargo, N.D.) A handful of residential projects currently are under construction, with several more in the design process and three in construction documentation.

A commitment to building regionally has always characterized Salmela’s work and sets him apart from the increasingly globalized architectural establishment. “I’m not trying to be a world architect,” he explains. “I’m not even trying to be a national architect.” The vast majority of his projects are located in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, although he does have one house under way in Colorado. “Philosophically, I feel my whole career over the last 30 years has been about interpreting what the architecture of this region should be,” he says. “Because we understand it culturally. Can I do my best work in projects that are somewhere else, where I don’t understand the culture? Architects’ best work is always done where they are.”

Born and bred in Minnesota to a Finnish farming family, Salmela finds more than enough layers of culture to mine in his home state alone. “Because there are a lot of natural resources in Minnesota, immigrants came from over 50 countries. They came here because there was work here. Imagine the diversity. I’ve found that when you listen to people and talk to people you find out that they are subconsciously connected to their roots.” Salmela doesn’t hold a formal architecture degree and has shied away from teaching—but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t influenced a younger generation. In addition to the considerable impact of his built work, he’s watched three of his five children enter the fields of architecture and landscape architecture. The other two are accomplished biathletes. “I lead a pretty boring life compared with them,” he says, tongue in cheek.

Thomas Fisher’s 2011 book on Salmela’s architecture is called The Invisible Element of Place, and the title perfectly fits its subject. There’s an intriguing sense of mystery present in Salmela’s houses, a spiritual quality that’s hard to identify or label. “We do contemporary buildings, but there’s something about the culture that’s in them,” Salmela says. “How do you find that element that’s about the place but doesn’t visibly exist yet? How do you feel when you are there? That’s what interests me.” He credits his clients’ open minds, too. “The uniqueness of the people comes through in the process. To have the place where they dwell represent them—it’s something they’ve always wanted and probably never dared to think in those terms.”

See the accompanying slideshows for images of David Salmela’s past and recent work.

Firm Specs

Years in practice: 21 / Currently active projects: 16 / Projects completed in 2012: 5 / Firm size: 4

Past articles on Salmela Architect


 Light from Both Sides

 2008 RADA
The Streeter House, Duluth, Minn.


 2010 RADA
Yingst Retreat, Empire, Mich.

2005 RADA
Matthew Residence, Brainerd, Minn.

2009 RADA
The Clure Project

Studio Visit (ARCHITECT magazine)

University Classroom Building (ECOSTRUCTURE magazine)