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Vol. 15, no. 6
Dec. 2012 / Jan. 2013


The Stylish Stylus 

Story by Dawn Southard

Photos by Sue Hudelson


I am obsessed with pens.
I’m drawn to the architectural elegance of the desk pens from the 1920s, to the luxury of a bulky fountain pen, to the ingenuity of nesting pens that store neatly in a purse. It’s an aesthetic rooted in sleek Art Nouveau and Art Deco design. That the pens write is a bonus.


Recently a friend sent me a link to the website of ACME Studio, a design company that has a very different take on the pen. Scrolling through their archives is like visiting the Museum of Modern Art: a Lifesavers pen by Danish designer Verner Panton; a stained glass design by Frank Lloyd Wright; an etched steel beauty by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. Then I noticed that ACME Studio, this bastion of modernity and hipness, is located in Kula. For the aficionado like me, that meant only one thing: interisland flight.


Adrian Olabuenaga and Lesley Bailey, the husband-and-wife designers who founded the company, keep a low profile. At the gate of their Kula compound, there’s no sign that this is anything more than another Upcountry Maui estate. “None of our neighbors even know what we do in here,” Lesley says. Once inside, though, you’re transported to a fantasy world of highbrow design and pop art. The centerpiece of this fairyland is the house itself.


Casa Maui, as they call it, would fit in among the great modern houses of Southern California. Ettore Sottsass, the great furniture (and pen) designer and a friend of Lesley and Adrian, designed the house on the slopes of Haleakala for them. It’s an assemblage of boxy shapes, stacked and intersecting like child’s toys. A brilliant red gable overhangs the entrance, and the glass-walled great room overlooks Ma‘alaea Bay and the West Maui mountains. The house has been featured in Metropolitan Home and graced the cover of one of Sottsass’ last books.


The day I arrive, rainclouds have socked Kula in, blocking the views, so instead of taking a tour, Lesley, Adrian and I settle in the great room. Although their lives are all about fine art and design, Adrian and Lesley are anything but pretentious; they’re the kind of couple that finishes one another’s sentences, and the story of ACME spills out in a delightful mix of pride and gratitude. I take notes with a clunky Echo computer pen (a gift from my husband) and long for the elegance of a Sottsass or an Olabuenaga.