A Visit with Bradford Shellhammer
by Elvis Maynard
Art collector Bradford Shellhammer has just moved into a new apartment. It’s 8pm on a Monday when we meet. The door of a yellow cab opens up in front of Quad Cinemas, and out comes a dashing gent, sharply dressed, and perfectly coiffed. He left halfway through a company dinner with eBay’s international team to let us into the new space. We’ve never met before, and after a short exchange of formalities, the friendly energy he exudes can already be felt. The elevator opens directly inside the fourth floor apartment, and we are immediately engulfed in a vivid world of his own making. Colors flow over us, emanating from an as-far-as-the-eye-can-see collection of furniture and art. The space is long, running the full length of the building. South, west, and north facing windows let the last bits of sunset afterglow in from the streets. In 1971, this space was the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, where the American father of method acting taught classes and seminars to new and established actors.
A New York Magazine article from that year describes one of the workshops that took place here, in which John Strasberg – Lee’s son, an actor and director himself – asked a class to describe an object from memory, encouraging them to use emotional terminology. For example, rather than “sky blue,” he urged the students to describe how the color made them feel and use words like “happy blue,” “warm blue,” or “tired blue.” By opening themselves up to this process, students were able to infuse performance with emotion. “By just working on these things, an actor can open up their imagination. Drama comes out of this,” John said about this technique. It seems fitting that the space in which Lee Strasberg taught students to become the judges of their own work, rather than turn to teachers for approval, would become Bradford Shellhammer’s new residence.
When he moved in, there were still two wooden stages in the space. He kept one and turned it into a bedroom platform. The other was leveled to create the kitchen. It seems fitting too, because of how theatrical the elements of decor are in the redesigned space. Perfectly crafted vignettes – the Yves Klein blue living room, the orange Le Corbusier sitting nook – tell stories about the new owner and his interests. What hits you first is the sheer quantity of “stuff.” There’s no doubt that this apartment belongs to a collector. One hundred and forty seven framed works of art – including nineteen original Warhols and eight Keith Harings – cover every inch of wall space. Some of this art is being displayed for the first time, and a lot of it comes from centralizing a collection that was previously divided between three properties : an apartment in San Francisco, another apartment in New York City, and a house in upstate New York.
Forty minutes into our tour, the elevator doors open again, and in comes Georgi, Bradford’s husband. In many ways, Georgi is the yang to Bradford’s yin. He’s encouraged a slight toning down of the style of their living space, and encouraged displaying their collection in a balanced way. Of their previous apartment, Georgi says “you needed to wear sunglasses to enter” because of how overpowering the decor was. And if most of what can be seen has been selected by Bradford, Georgi’s presence is felt as well. His floral arrangements grace several side tables, and although they designed the kitchen together, Georgi is clearly the chef de cuisine here. It is heartwarming to see the two men side by side. The one, so outgoing and loud – at one point he literally screams “I don’t know if I’m creative, but I know I’m LOUD” – and the other quite professional in his perfectly tailored gray suit and round eyeglasses.
They’ve been together for 10 years, and watching them interact against the super-charged backdrop of their home makes sense somehow. They’ve found the formula to pull each other into a balanced exuberance. For someone who has just met the two men, the intersection of their shared interests is most obvious in the ways they’ve decorated and arranged their new home.
A lot of the artworks that cover the walls are sharp and emotional – a collection of framed pieces from an AIDS / ACT UP gallery auction, Warhol prints of his Superstars. Others are playful – a Harry Allen for Areaware piggy bank, a Jean Paul Gaultier mask, a collection of model airplanes for every airline the couple has flown on together.
There’s no doubt that the pieces have been curated from the heart. Pieces by queer artists, representations of once marginalized music icons, and an affinity for pop art, flashy colors, and designer tchotchkes. To better understand the space, we need to rewind for a moment and address who Bradford Shellhammer is. Wired once called him the “Eames of E-Commerce.” He was the founder of Fab.com, Bezar, and Queerty, as well as the chief design officer at Backcountry.com. Today, he works for eBay as the GM of their New York City office and Vice President of their Buyer Experience. What does that mean? In Bradford’s words “I try to make people fall in love with their eBay.” How? By developing tools and experiences that allow them to find objects that they love.
A lot of Shellhammer’s collection was pieced together using the website. He jokingly says that his home is a shrine to eBay, and that thanks to the platform, “you can live The Life for half the price.” But the collecting goes beyond furniture and art. In his office, books and designer figurines line the walls. In his bedroom, there’s a shelf of perfectly displayed jewelry. In the hallway, wall to wall closets are filled with perfectly organized clothes, shoes, and accessories. This clothing collection seems over the top at first, because of just how much there is, but on closer inspection, there are no redundancies. From left to right, there is one closet for jackets and costumes, two closets for shoes – sorted by color and style – two more for tops, one for matched ensembles, one for shorts and pants, another for accessories, and a rack of hats. The last closet is Georgi’s. Of this display, Bradford says “I don’t care about fashion, I care about clothes.” And it’s true.
Although there are some big name brands – pieces by Comme des Garçons, Gucci, and Prada are attention grabbers – a lot of the collection comes from independent designers, thrifting, or eBay. And Bradford has a story for each item I pull out – a pleated vest, for example, which he found on Etsy, was originally a handmade piece from a Star Wars costume. There’s a sense of playfulness and freedom that emanates from all of this. So how does he explain this self-searching game he’s played his entire life? He looks back on his teenage years, a time when he was living in Maryland with a drug addicted father, figuring out that he was gay, and trying to piece his truth together. It all started with music. “It’s 1987, I’m trying to make sense of my life, and all I have is music. One song would lead to a record, a record would lead to a Billboard chart, and that’s how I discovered everything. I romanticize it, because the process to figure out what mattered to me was trial and error, and that was a romantic process.” His idols are people that started out as misfits and made the world fall in love with them.
He lists Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Boy George, Klaus Nomi, Nina Hagen, and Andy Bell as some of his heroes. People who did things their way and were not afraid to disrupt. “Music is my deepest inspiration, he says. It opened my eyes to expressing myself. Whatever you do, touching a person or audience, that’s what it’s all about.” Everything Bradford talks about relates to finding one’s truth and sharing it with others. In a way, his home is a well curated ode to this ideal. Bradford has pieced together a collection that empowers each one of our narratives, no matter how removed from convention, and reminds us that nothing is forever. “I could lose it all, he says. You might not have it tomorrow, but you’re here today. So soak it up.”
Photographer : Aaron Williams
Art Director : Elvis Maynard
Stylist : Kate March
Assisted by : Joe Everest Andersen
Make Up : Montana Tantum
Hair : Li Murillo