Steven Shell is driving. Driving, driving, driving. Six thousand miles he goes, up and down the East Coast and across the southern states, all the while looking for the perfect American town in which to anchor his family and his business. If you live here, you’re already thinking what I’m thinking: “Mount Pleasant is the perfect American town, get out of the car and slurp some oysters with us, bro.” Except maybe you don’t call people “bro,” but I do, and this is my story.
So, Steven Shell is driving, driving, driving, and finally he pulls into Charleston. Then Charleston does that thing where she grabs your heart quick and all you can do is order another Bloody Mary and call a realtor. That’s the short story of how Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, managed to land the only Steven Shell Living retail store in the entire world.
The Steven Shell showroom is something that must be experienced firsthand. The furniture is custom made, and the designs are courtesy of Shell’s incredibly receptive brain, which is inspired by everything from gothic Victorian architecture and 1940s fashion to old Hollywood and the 1950s Cote d’Azure. Pieces are stacked nearly floor-to-ceiling with tight isles separating the delightfully organized chaos. I am in a modern-day cabinet of curiosities and I don’t know where to look first.
Here is an end table from the Archeologist’s line. It’s distressed wood with metal edging and round spoke wheels. I might call it Coastal Steampunk. Next to it is a chest of drawers called the Florence Commode that lands squarely in the “eclectic as all get out” category. This dresser is tutu pink, and the “pastiche de jour” design features black ink profiles of a stately bulldog and King George, a crest of two rampant lions, butterflies, feathers, a fly, stars, stripes and the word “Elizabeth” in Gothic script. I want it for my guest room. No my bedroom. No, the front porch, because everyone should get to see this. Next is a pickled headboard with a round cutout window featuring a watercolor etching of … is that Monticello or Villa Borghese behind the glass? Strange and wonderful chandeliers hang from the ceiling, traditional-with-a-twist side tables support funky lamps and accessories. It’s as if the Mad Hatter went tastefully wild in the Palace of Versailles.
Steven Shell, the dignified Mad Hatter himself, was born in London and began dealing in antiques when he was 15 years old. He grew up in the era of what is now iconic British fashion, and that influence can clearly be seen in his furniture and accessories. In the day, he was a familiar on King’s Road, he bought his shoes from Vivienne Westwood herself and he saw The Clash perform more times than he can count on two hands. He marinated in design, all the while dreaming of opening an antiques store in America. Eighteen years ago that dream came true when he began designing, producing and supplying his eclectic furniture and accessories to 22 countries around the world, including the United States.
Even though he’s enjoyed enormous success, he keeps a firm grip on high principles. Those principles start with a commitment to employees. He regularly visits his production facility in Java, Indonesia, where he employs over 2,000 people. “Everyone earns double the minimum wage and everyone has medical insurance,” Shell says. He spends three months out of every year in the factory, checking in on the employees and going over the next year’s line.
Shell has a commitment to quality. His master craftsmen use techniques handed down through generations of woodworkers to construct each piece of furniture. That commitment goes hand-in-glove with his commitment to customers. “We give them everything or we give them nothing,” Shell says. “That means we design unique furniture and create it out of solid, sustainable wood. If someone isn’t happy with something they bought from us, we’ll make it right. We don’t make fake promises.”
He also has a commitment to the environment. The company plants a tree for every single piece of furniture they sell, uses sustainable products and participates in Indonesia’s reforestation program. “We recycle virtually everything in the factory down to the sawdust,” Shell says. “We’ve planted half a million trees. We don’t use toxic paint. We have high standards for how our materials are sourced.” Shell’s standards are so high that an executive at Ikea recently stated that all companies should have the same standard of social responsibility as Steven Shell.
The other unique thing about Steven Shell’s furniture is that it can be customized. It comes in 600 models and anything can be custom finished. Shell offers hundreds of unique art options. (Good luck choosing between vintage octopus, antique postage stamps and the Asian cats painting stripes on each other.) You can also choose from dozens of upholstery fabrics and solid or distressed paint colors.
And how is he finding life in Mount Pleasant? “I love it here. I love my life. I am truly blessed and fortunate to get to travel, meet interesting people and be creative all the time. I love being me. I love living in America and I love Americans. I could live anywhere in the world, but this is my favorite place,” Shell says.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.