Joy oozes through the walls of every Jeff Shelton project — the delight is in the details. From the Moroccan tile carpets of Pistachio House to the Escher-like staircase of El Jardin, the Seussian shapes of Ablitt House, and the quirky art-covered Vera Cruz building, touches of his fairy dust are sprinkled around town. The artistry and zest for life infused in Jeff Shelton’s buildings are hard to miss.
While there’s some debate about whether Pearl Chase, Bernhard Hoffmann, James Osborne Craig, and the other founding fellows of Santa Barbara’s aesthetic would be toasting Shelton’s evolution of the town’s traditional style or tearing out their hair out by its Spanish-Mediterranean-Moorish roots, there’s no doubt that this native son has made his mark on our town. After almost 30 years of “Sheltifying” Santa Barbara’s cityscape, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Current projects in the works include residences in Mission Canyon, Carpinteria, and on Cota Street, as well as the State Street undercrossing project (expect to see vibrantly tiled columns and fancifully loopy iron fences guiding pedestrians from the beach to downtown), and a tequila bar at the corner of Ortega and State.
“I just try to find good clients,” said Shelton. “It’s no fun with clients that don’t understand the process. I’ve been pretty lucky. Clients are the ones who make it work. They pay for everything, but they also have to have faith in this crazy bunch of people they’re getting into working with.”
Mary Beth Myers, whose Tower House was the first to be rebuilt in Montecito after the 2018 mudslides, had nothing but raves about Shelton and his team. “Jeff’s just a peach — he’s so creative, he has such minimal ego, and is so cooperative,” she said. “After all is said and done, the building process was an absolute joy. They’re just like a group of happy elves.”
Chief among the Shelton collaborative team — they call themselves a “guild” but have no financial connection — is Dan Upton, the contractor who (with Leon Olson) offered Shelton a project at 1021 Laguna Street in 1994. They’ve worked together ever since.
“We are problem solvers,” said Upton. “Jeff comes up with these optimistic, fun ways of thinking and fun ways of building and … we are just happy to do the fun things. He sketches, and we say, ‘Make it as fun and interesting as you want, and we’ll figure out how to build it.’”
For a man who specializes in creating the curvy and colorful, Shelton’s a pretty straight shooter. He loves his town, his team, and his work — and it shows. As for his method of staying true to his artistic vision and navigating his way through Santa Barbara’s notoriously complicated approval process, “I just do what I think is best for each building and each lot,” he explained. “My palette is the code and the site and the city and the people around the neighborhood. It’s an art, but ultimately nobody cares about all those details in the end. They just want to be able to have a glass of wine comfortably and happily in their house.”
A Guide to the Guild
“First the tractors come in, and they grade the site,” explained Shelton of how one client described the work of his guild, “and then this merry band of artisans show up, and they laugh and they enjoy the work, and it’s like that until they leave.”
It certainly sounds like a joyful process. The Upton Construction team has played a huge part in Shelton’s work, with Matt Metcalfe recently taking over the day-to-day business as founder Dan Upton is mostly retired.
Jeff’s brother’s architectural ironwork, lamps, and other elements from David Shelton Studios are an integral part of Jeff’s buildings. “I just say, ‘Dave, I’m going to do a balcony.’ I don’t even need to draw, and he knows what to do,” laughed Shelton.
Jeff’s wife, Karin Shelton, an accomplished fine artist in her own right, wields her brush on various architectural projects and also helps with the Shelton line of fabrics, tiles, and books. Their daughter Mattie Shelton is part of the team as well, working on the fabrics, tiles, and her own line of unique shelters called Shelton Huts. (Their other daughter, Elena Shelton, works as a doula.)
The “merry band” also includes sculptor/mason Andy Johnson; woodworker David Moseley; window and door specialist Royce Woodbury; lamp shades by Saul Alcaraz of Santa Barbara Art Glass; ceramicist Linda Hail Godlis; California Pottery & Tile Works; Villa Lagoon Tile; Specialty Team Plastering; and artists Richard Wilke, Court Johnson, Katie Upton, and Ben Ciccati, among others.
For about the past 15 years, the group has been meeting at the James Joyce on Tuesday afternoons. “Jeff keeps a really accurate tally of who shows up at James Joyce and when they come,” said Upton. “And at the end of the year, you get a medal if you were there the most frequently or least frequently.”
“I’m a big believer in pubs,” said Shelton. “They should be every half mile, like a community living room that’s a place where people of all ages can meet and hang out.”
Added Upton, “It’s been one of the great pleasures of my life to have this collaboration with Jeff to build the buildings that we have built.”