Stephen Shadley

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So easy to talk to designer Stephen Shadley, too easy: we stayed so long we ended up taking down his recipe for salad dressing and perusing The Big Book of Penises, a gift from his great friend, Diane Keaton. He’s designed six houses for her as well as a house for Jennifer Aniston and a townhouse for Woody Allen, another friend.

We’re trying to figure out why this space seems so calming …

It’s our vibe. We’re all very calm—nobody ever yells. [laughs]

Upon exiting the industrial gated elevator in Stephen’s live-work space in Chelsea.
Off the elevator entrance: Rubber hooks for our coats.
L. to r.: A convex mirror made from a Bausch & Lomb headlamp cover of a US Naval aircraft. ; A twisted-trunk tree lamp.

So you don’t mind having people come into to your home to work, this blending of work and home space?

It’s just that I’ve always done it. I moved into this building as a tenant, like 30-something years ago and my business evolved.

Well let’s go back to the beginning when you were a scenic painter in Hollywood—how did you get into that?

I studied art and wanted to be an animator when I was a kid. I needed to get a job and I worked first for Twentieth Century Fox, painting backdrops.

One of two Shadley designed conference tables with vintage Shaw Walker office chairs, Stephen’s Eames desk chair, and George Nelson Bubble Lamp fitted with adjustable cord.

Office shelving fitted with roller shades to conceal files and equipment, a collection of vintage mid-century lamp bases on top of shelves, a photograph of New York subway shoe-shine chairs taken by Diane Keaton (1978), and an iron painter’s stool from Culver City Studios.

What do you have to show or do in order to get a job like that?

Well, I was getting out of the army—this was like the Vietnam era—and a friend who was an actor said, “You could be a scenic artist.” So I just, you know, took myself down to Twentieth Century Fox and I went up to the guard and I said, “Can I go and talk to somebody about scenic art.” And he said, “No.” He did say there was a union and I called the union rep—he just put me off—it’s a very nepotistic kind of arrangement with all those jobs. But I would call repeatedly—I called one day and I said, “Will you be in the office for the next ten minutes.” He said, “ Well, yes,’ and I said, “Great, I’ll be right there!” And I just hung up. I had my portfolio and I stuck it in my Volkswagen bug and I was up there in a minute.

Was it because you were desperate or are you just naturally persistent?

I think I’m naturally persistent. Sometimes it works …

[Sian] Well it doesn’t hurt to try
[Lesley] It does hurt to try … that’s why people give up.

That’s true—it hurts. But he liked my work and he was very impressed. He sent me off that day to Twentieth Century Fox. But in the beginning for weeks and weeks all I did was mix the paints and make coffee, which I didn’t drink, so I had to learn to make coffee in an old percolator for the grumpy old men. They were amazing guys though. I remember this guy, Gordon Butcher, and he had painted The Yellow Brick Road!

That’s quite something! Did that kind of work inform your eye in some way?

It made you think big.

Yes, your sense of scale is generous. What’s entailed in designing the green rooms you did for the Emmys and the Oscars?

Well they give me parameters—how much seating is going to be needed or whether there is a bar [for example]—and then for the most part there might be five key product people that you have to include, the sponsors. But then you bring all your own design.

What’s the atmosphere like in a green room for an event like the Oscars?

I didn’t get to hang out—but I peeked in (I made windows) and it’s as everybody is ready to go on, they go in there and just chill out. And then they all go back there after they’ve won—so it’s a kind of hangout.

Two design stations behind a low wall.
Shadley’s desk and conference table, vintage mid-century metal-art desk lamp, Jasper Johns print on vellum “Foirades & Fizzies” (1976) gifted by artist.

here’s a kind West Coast 70s vibe to your work—it’s not dated or anything but there’s something there that you either consciously or unconsciously include.

Well it’s who I am and I grew up on the West Coast—that was a big part of my life. And I remember all those TV shows. And film has a big impact on me. I remember doing a house in rural Pennsylvania and it was situated on the side of a low mountain and I thought of that house in North By Northwest.

Oh that house is the star of the movie!

Yes! For me it was but a lot of people don’t even remember it but I went back and looked at that and would freeze frame it so that I could study stuff. When it ran in AD, I think they called it Northeast By Northeast.

You’re sort of part of an era …

Yeah … I feel like that era is coming to an end! [laughs]. But it’s kind of cool to look back.

L. to r.: Filing shelves with vintage Blenko yellow glass vase. ; A custom daybed with vintage 1964 Bruno Munari “Faukland” hanging lamp behind.
A Noguchi paper table lamp stands on one side of the daybed.
Cast aluminum wall sculpture by Dennis Anderson and Jonsterk steel bird sculpture, 1971.

What are your favorite 70s songs?

I love jazz from that period, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny … Stan Getz although that goes way back to the 50s and 60s. My friend Katherine Altman, Bob’s widow, is really into jazz and I’ve gone with her to things but I don’t go out much. I go to my house upstate.

Why are you here rather than there?

Oh, I moved out here to seek my fortune in the art world, to be a painter. I did it for a while and it was really solitary.

What were you living on if you’d come here to be an artist?

Unemployment! And I was living here—this was like $200 and something a month! The economy was so bad then that no one was taking commercial spaces and so the landlords were knowingly giving [commercial] leases to people that they knew were going to reside. For years I didn’t get heat after five o’clock and half day on Saturday and none on Sunday. In the 90s we became a condo and I bought the space for a ridiculously low price.

View from Stephen’s office over North Chelsea.

So when did you hit the big time with the big names—Jennifer Aniston, Diane Keaton, Woody Allen …?

Diane was someone I met through an artist from California—she dated him after she and Woody broke up. He brought her to my place and I really was smitten with her. She had made “Annie Hall” but it hadn’t come out, so she wasn’t [so famous].

She seems such an appealing person.

She has no security or anything—drives herself around and always has, even at the height of her career. Over the years, because she has such an interest in design, I ended up doing homes with her. She’s so full of ideas. Whenever I go to LA I stay with her and the kids are my godchildren. She’s one of my best friends. We were talking about this—I was out there a few weeks ago—and we went on a long, long walk and Diane said, “Who would have thought that 30-something years later, we would still be friends?” But she said it’s the fact that we worked together, we’ve done so many houses together.

L. to r.: In Stephen’s bathroom, a La Gardo Tackett architectural pot.; The Galley kitchen with openings above to bedroom beyond.
A holiday blender.
The existing dye-stained concrete floors from printing factory (early 20th century).

When did you get to work with Woody Allen?

I’d met him over the years and Diane told me at one point that he was looking for a new place. He needed somebody to work with and she said, “I think you’d be good.” She said, “He’ll be so easy.”

And he was?

He was. He was the easiest person in the world. The great thing about Woody is that he is as funny as you would hope to find him. And charming. When I met with him I remember sitting in this room and saying, “Well … if you want to work with me …” And he said, “Oh, no, no—Diane recommended you. I am going to work with you.” And I remember thinking, Wow! I just got the job! They invite me to lunch usually once a month and I get to sit in the dining room I designed.

You seem like you’re someone, well you know that New York thing—what can this person do for me? You don’t seem to have that.

Well with Woody when the whole job was over, I thought, God, I’d love to be able to publish this but I can’t imagine that’s going to happen. He said, “It’s fine with me but you’ve gotta talk to Soon-Yi.” I stayed behind with Soon-Yi and I asked her and she said, “Oh no Stephen,” and I said, “Really? People would love to see your home, and quite frankly, you know it would be nice for me to show the work I’ve done.” And she said, “Oh … oh okay.” And that was it. They did a Hollywood AD issue and they had Diane’s place and Woody’s in the same issue.

Peeking into the bedroom.
Stephen’s bedroom consists of custom bookshelves, a pair of bedside Raymond Loewy sconces, and an oil on canvas by Bhaskar Krag above the bed.
Oil on canvas portrait “Merilee” (1976) painted by Shadley.

So what do you do when you’re not working? Do you read?

I love to listen to books when I’m driving. I’m listening the Steve Jobs biography. To me [the products] are just art, pure art. He’d get so mean and if he didn’t get his way, he would cry … a tantrum but also extreme passion.

It’s interesting how much you can learn from just one person.

In high school for me it was my art teacher. I grew up pretty poor, really lower middle class, but I was his star art student. There was so much that I learned from him about the possibilities in life.

Would he have been proud of you now?

He is! He’s still alive. He’s still smart as a whip

Stephen’s closet is hidden behind a mechanical roller shade.

A mirror and flatscreen TV make up the rest of the bedroom.
Shadley’s iPad with current construction photo of his soon-to-be residence, “Potic Castle,” in Greene County, NY.

Are you a cook or do you go out to eat?

I do cook, usually non-meat stuff. Brad [one of Stephen’s employees] and his three-year-old son and his mother came over the weekend. I do this great rice pasta and the three-year-old loved the arugula salad. He ate, like an entire portion of it.

What?!! Did all the adults fall silent?

[Brad shouts out: I think it was the dressing!]

Give us the recipe! 

Here is Stephen Shadley’s Salad Dressing:

Whizz in a blender —
Olive oil
Lemon juice (equal parts oil to juice)
Sauteed shallots and onions
A little club soda
Parmesan cheese
A few drops balsamic vinegar

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