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

Posted inDesigner Interviews

The featured image above pictures Jeff Shelton’s El Jardin, photographed by Jason Rick.

Just about 40 years ago, architect Jeff Shelton was overcome by an unshakable urge to build a giant pencil. 

Shelton was a senior in the School of Architecture at the University of Arizona at the time, fast-approaching graduation and the great unknown outside of college. “I’ve had an obsession with the pencil my whole life,” he shared in a blog post on his website about the project. “As far as I’m concerned, all ideas seep from the tip of a pencil. In 1983, my pencil fever spiked, and a voice inside me said I HAD TO BUILD A GIANT PENCIL.”

Shocking to no one familiar with his character, Shelton did exactly that. Along with some architect buddies and his future wife, Karin, he constructed a 72-foot long replica of a No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil and then hung it up from the ceiling of the Centrum at the School of Architecture. “We put a lot of love into that,” he told me over the phone, four decades later. “My wife and I used our bed as the eraser— we folded it up!” 

Photo by Pete Grigorov

The Giant Pencil is emblematic of the audacious architect Shelton would become. “I just get obsessed quickly, and do stuff without asking questions,” he said with a cheeky grin I could feel through the receiver. This attitude has served him well over the 30 or so years he’s worked in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, where he’s designed 61 buildings.

Shelton grew up in the hills of Santa Barbara as the youngest of four boys in a family of artists. His dad was a jazz musician who played the piano and trumpet every day at home. “It was always an improvisation of something,” said Shelton. “I guess that sort of passes on. Whatever I do, it’s not unusual— it’s just what we do as a family. We all do something odd.”

Over the years, Santa Barbara has evolved from Shelton’s home into his architectural playground, as he’s never ventured too far for his work. “I’ve kept it local. Early on, I had two little kids, so I didn’t really want to leave, and I kept getting jobs right next to my office. There was really no reason not to stay here. I was fortunate,” he told me. He’s fully embraced the idiosyncrasies of the city, including the Spanish revival design requirements of downtown, put in place to honor its origins.

“The whole so-called ‘Spanish history’ here is interesting. First it was the Chumash that were here, then the Spanish took over, then the Mexicans took over, and then the Americans stole it. Everyone’s stolen from somebody,” explained Shelton. “A lot of architects here complain about the design requirements, and I say, ‘Well, you’re in the wrong town then.’ What bothers me about the way some people treat it is they try to copy some Spanish thing. They usually just beige it all out and turn it into this boring thing. I love Southern Spain, but what’s so great about those buildings is that they were built by hand. They were mainly built by non-architects; just by people putting up these villages. You can see everybody’s handiwork in every one of those buildings, and there’s tile and ironwork. So I take those elements and keep them alive. I don’t just copy something, I keep things going forward. We’re not Spain. That’s bullshit.” 

In addition to the influence of his creative home environment and the history of Santa Barbara, Shelton told me that the sensibilities of his free-spirited neighbors made a lasting impression on him as well. “I got turned on by the beatniks and hippies living right next to us who were building houses out of bottles, mud, adobe, and used materials,” he said. “That idea of creating a nest for your family was really inspiring.” This handmade, human element permeated Shelton’s personal aesthetic, and is infused within each and every detail of his many impressive projects. 

“My question is, why isn’t this exciting to everybody? Humans building nests; humans building homes,” Shelton said of his affinity for that handcrafted look and feel. “All my drawings are done with either ink or pencil, and that shows. It comes out of a human, onto the paper; it’s delicious. We strive to build it the way it ends up on paper, and it’s built by hand— it’s not a catalog building. People put their heart and soul into it, just as I do into the drawings and ideas.”

Preserving the human touch in his work is central to Shelton’s ethos as an architect. There’s an indelible warmth and playfulness imbued into his designs as a result, from every organic archway to each loopy staircase railing. “This architecture is a reflection of humanity,” he said. “We’re getting so animated and specialized that we forget there’s a human. I strive to make sure that in the shadows or the color, there is some sort of celebration of life. And it all comes from a pencil to me; that ends up reflecting the whole way through.”

Shelton understands that his philosophies are unique, and maybe even relics of the past, but that’s what makes his work all the more important. Modern architecture is too often crisp, eerily precise, and laser-cut. “Some people might say, ‘Come on, luddite, get with the system.’ Well, look at the buildings that are done without that thought process,” he said. “You can feel it— or you can’t feel it. It ends up destroying a town or a city. Things can be sharp and well-done modern, absolutely. They need to be seductive though. They need to be done in a grand way, to entice people and encourage people to live and celebrate life. I happen to be doing it this way, but there are many other ways of doing it.”

In a sea of cookie-cutter mediocrity, the refreshingly raw and whimsical quality of Shelton’s work has captivated many. ​​“People see stuff that I believe they’re starved for,” he explained. “I think that’s some of the reaction to my work. It’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve been starving for all of these years. Look at the crap architecture that I’ve been fed in these malls and this urban planning.’ There’s great stuff out there, don’t get me wrong, but in general a lot of crap gets put up that doesn’t care about your moment.” 

“I liken it to listening to an over-produced album, but then you go and hear the same person live, acoustic in a little coffee shop,” he continued. “My god, you can’t repeat that! That one moment, the crispness of it, the one take. So I call my work the acoustic version— let’s keep things acoustic here!”  

Another way Shelton is able to build such distinct, fully-realized worlds within his projects is by exclusively using his own creations for the other design elements in the spaces. “Everything you see, we design,” he told me. This includes original light fixtures, textiles, tiles, and even iron work that his brother David helps bring to life. “All that crazy stuff, that doesn’t get done without my brother,” said Shelton. “I would still have fun architecture, but it wouldn’t look like this if it weren’t for my brother, because I wouldn’t attempt certain things.”  

Tile design became one of Shelton’s many obsessions, thanks to his fascination with repeatable patterns, tessellations, and triangles. His tiles are asymmetrical, and designed so that each one can be laid out in any direction. “The patterns are alive,” he said. “If I gave you forty tiles, you would lay them differently than someone next door.”

Arbolado House

True to form, Shelton is adamant on ensuring that the lines of his tile designs remain handmade, and not over-refined at any point in the production process. “Early on, when I started having my tile designs made for buildings, I would get phone calls from the manufacturer, asking me if it was okay to ‘straighten out and fix my patterns.’ I would tell them, ‘Whatever you do, do not fix anything. Make it like it is when I send it to you.’”  

In this way, Shelton harnesses complete control over every last detail of his projects, never compromising his vision by accepting a limitation. “I can sit here, and if I need a new design, I just sketch it up, send it out to our manufacturer, and tell them not to straighten the lines out,” he said. “It’s easier that way; I don’t have to go to stores.”  

Shelton offered me advice at the end of our conversation. “Don’t let inspiration go once you’ve got it,” he said. “You’ve gotta write it down fast, no matter where you are, or what the timing might be. You’ll catch up to everything else, but this idea might slip away if you don’t at least sketch it out and get it going.”