Architect Jeff Shelton Brings His Wildest Dreams to Life on the Streets of Santa Barbara

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The featured representation supra pictures Jeff Shelton’s El Jardin, photographed by Jason Rick.

Just astir 40 years ago, designer Jeff Shelton was flooded by an unshakable impulse to physique a elephantine pencil. 

Shelton was a elder successful the School of Architecture astatine the University of Arizona astatine the time, fast-approaching graduation and the large chartless extracurricular of college. “I’ve had an obsession with the pencil my full life,” helium shared successful a blog post connected his website astir the project. “As acold arsenic I’m concerned, each ideas seep from the extremity of a pencil. In 1983, my pencil fever spiked, and a dependable wrong maine said I HAD TO BUILD A GIANT PENCIL.”

Photos by Pete Grigorov

Shocking to nary 1 acquainted with his character, Shelton did precisely that. Along with immoderate designer buddies and his aboriginal wife, Karin, helium constructed a 72-foot agelong replica of a No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil and past hung it up from the ceiling of the Centrum astatine the School of Architecture. “We enactment a batch of emotion into that,” helium told maine implicit the phone, 4 decades later. “My woman and I utilized our furniture arsenic the eraser— we folded it up!” 

Photo by Pete Grigorov

The Giant Pencil is emblematic of the audacious designer Shelton would become. “I conscionable get obsessed quickly, and bash worldly without asking questions,” helium said with a cheeky grin I could consciousness done the receiver. This cognition has served him good implicit the 30 oregon truthful years he’s worked successful his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, wherever he’s designed 61 buildings.

Shelton grew up successful the hills of Santa Barbara arsenic the youngest of 4 boys successful a household of artists. His dada was a jazz instrumentalist who played the soft and trumpet each time astatine home. “It was ever an improvisation of something,” said Shelton. “I conjecture that benignant of passes on. Whatever I do, it’s not unusual— it’s conscionable what we bash arsenic a family. We each bash thing odd.”

Ablitt Tower; photograph by Jim Bartsch, watercolor by Jeff Shelton

Over the years, Santa Barbara has evolved from Shelton’s location into his architectural playground, arsenic he’s ne'er ventured excessively acold for his work. “I’ve kept it local. Early on, I had 2 small kids, truthful I didn’t truly privation to leave, and I kept getting jobs close adjacent to my office. There was truly nary crushed not to enactment here. I was fortunate,” helium told me. He’s afloat embraced the idiosyncrasies of the city, including the Spanish revival plan requirements of downtown, enactment successful spot to grant its origins.

“The full alleged ‘Spanish history’ present is interesting. First it was the Chumash that were here, past the Spanish took over, past the Mexicans took over, and past the Americans stole it. Everyone’s stolen from somebody,” explained Shelton. “A batch of architects present kick astir the plan requirements, and I say, ‘Well, you’re successful the incorrect municipality then.’ What bothers maine astir the mode immoderate radical dainty it is they effort to transcript immoderate Spanish thing. They usually conscionable beige it each retired and crook it into this boring thing. I emotion Southern Spain, but what’s truthful large astir those buildings is that they were built by hand. They were chiefly built by non-architects; conscionable by radical putting up these villages. You tin spot everybody’s handiwork successful each 1 of those buildings, and there’s tile and ironwork. So I instrumentality those elements and support them alive. I don’t conscionable transcript something, I support things going forward. We’re not Spain. That’s bullshit.” 

El Andaluz; Photo by Photo by Alex Nye, watercolor by Jeff Shelton

In summation to the power of his originative location situation and the past of Santa Barbara, Shelton told maine that the sensibilities of his free-spirited neighbors made a lasting content connected him arsenic well. “I got turned connected by the beatniks and hippies surviving close adjacent to america who were gathering houses retired of bottles, mud, adobe, and utilized materials,” helium said. “That thought of creating a nest for your household was truly inspiring.” This handmade, quality constituent permeated Shelton’s idiosyncratic aesthetic, and is infused wrong each and each item of his galore awesome projects. 

“My question is, wherefore isn’t this breathtaking to everybody? Humans gathering nests; humans gathering homes,” Shelton said of his affinity for that handcrafted look and feel. “All my drawings are done with either ink oregon pencil, and that shows. It comes retired of a human, onto the paper; it’s delicious. We strive to physique it the mode it ends up connected paper, and it’s built by hand— it’s not a catalog building. People enactment their bosom and psyche into it, conscionable arsenic I bash into the drawings and ideas.”

El Jardin; Photo by Jason Rick, watercolor by Jeff Shelton

Preserving the quality interaction successful his enactment is cardinal to Shelton’s ethos arsenic an architect. There’s an indelible warmth and playfulness imbued into his designs arsenic a result, from each integrated archway to each loopy staircase railing. “This architecture is simply a reflection of humanity,” helium said. “We’re getting truthful animated and specialized that we hide there’s a human. I strive to marque definite that successful the shadows oregon the color, determination is immoderate benignant of solemnisation of life. And it each comes from a pencil to me; that ends up reflecting the full mode through.”

Shelton understands that his philosophies are unique, and possibly adjacent relics of the past, but that’s what makes his enactment each the much important. Modern architecture is excessively often crisp, eerily precise, and laser-cut. “Some radical mightiness say, ‘Come on, luddite, get with the system.’ Well, look astatine the buildings that are done without that thought process,” helium said. “You tin consciousness it— oregon you can’t feel it. It ends up destroying a municipality oregon a city. Things tin beryllium crisp and well-done modern, absolutely. They request to beryllium seductive though. They request to beryllium done successful a expansive way, to entice radical and promote radical to unrecorded and observe life. I hap to beryllium doing it this way, but determination are galore different ways of doing it.”

In a oversea of cookie-cutter mediocrity, the refreshingly earthy and whimsical prime of Shelton’s enactment has captivated many. ​​“People spot worldly that I judge they’re starved for,” helium explained. “I deliberation that’s immoderate of the absorption to my work. It’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve been starving for each of these years. Look astatine the crap architecture that I’ve been fed successful these malls and this municipality planning.’ There’s large worldly retired there, don’t get maine wrong, but successful wide a batch of crap gets enactment up that doesn’t attraction astir your moment.” 

“I liken it to listening to an over-produced album, but past you spell and perceive the aforesaid idiosyncratic live, acoustic successful a small java shop,” helium continued. “My god, you can’t repetition that! That 1 moment, the crispness of it, the 1 take. So I telephone my enactment the acoustic version— let’s support things acoustic here!”  

Another mode Shelton is capable to physique specified distinct, fully-realized worlds wrong his projects is by exclusively utilizing his ain creations for the different plan elements successful the spaces. “Everything you see, we design,” helium told me. This includes archetypal airy fixtures, textiles, tiles, and adjacent robust enactment that his member David helps bring to life. “All that brainsick stuff, that doesn’t get done without my brother,” said Shelton. “I would inactive person amusive architecture, but it wouldn’t look similar this if it weren’t for my brother, due to the fact that I wouldn’t effort definite things.”  

Pistachio House; Photos by Thomas J. Story for Sunset Magazine

Tile design became 1 of Shelton’s galore obsessions, acknowledgment to his fascination with repeatable patterns, tessellations, and triangles. His tiles are asymmetrical, and designed truthful that each 1 tin beryllium laid retired successful immoderate direction. “The patterns are alive,” helium said. “If I gave you forty tiles, you would laic them otherwise than idiosyncratic adjacent door.”

Arbolado House

True to form, Shelton is adamant connected ensuring that the lines of his tile designs stay handmade, and not over-refined astatine immoderate constituent successful the accumulation process. “Early on, erstwhile I started having my tile designs made for buildings, I would get telephone calls from the manufacturer, asking maine if it was good to ‘straighten retired and hole my patterns.’ I would archer them, ‘Whatever you do, do not hole anything. Make it similar it is erstwhile I nonstop it to you.’”  

Stone House

In this way, Shelton harnesses implicit power implicit each past item of his projects, ne'er compromising his imaginativeness by accepting a limitation. “I tin beryllium here, and if I request a caller design, I conscionable sketch it up, nonstop it retired to our manufacturer, and archer them not to straighten the lines out,” helium said. “It’s easier that way; I don’t person to spell to stores.”  

Shelton offered maine proposal astatine the extremity of our conversation. “Don’t fto inspiration spell erstwhile you’ve got it,” helium said. “You’ve gotta constitute it down fast, nary substance wherever you are, oregon what the timing mightiness be. You’ll drawback up to everything else, but this thought mightiness gaffe distant if you don’t astatine slightest sketch it retired and get it going.”

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