If a home is a reflection of your personality, then Joe Pabst is a little bit too much—in all the right ways.
Let’s get this out of the way from the jump: Joe may be the great-great grandson of Capt. Frederick Pabst, founder of Pabst Brewing Co., but his business is art.
His last name certainly carries special weight in Wisconsin, but the Milwaukee-based Pabst has spent much of his life distinguishing himself for his own interests and work. He’s a designer, an arts patron, and a philanthropist. Those focuses have roots in his own upbringing and experiences as a gay man. They also cast a spotlight on his unique personality and give tantalizing insights into values cultivated over a lifetime of change and challenge.
Joe himself understands that well. Over the course of a long and revealing conversation this winter, he delved into everything from artistic inspirations to human cruelty. There’s also the wide variety of work he’s done over the years to support the LGBTQ community and HIV/AIDS survivors, both of which he counts himself a member.
Perhaps closest to his heart and home, however, have been his efforts to provide support for victims of bullying, and of domestic abuse and their animal companions. Joe’s own sister, he says, delayed getting help to escape domestic violence at least in part because she feared for the safety of her pets. It was a delay, due to lack of services, that cost his sister her life.
AIDS took his first serious partner, too. There have been other losses, large and small, too sacred to do anything like number them.
“I think it’s entirely possible that my health and my sorrow have been the catalyst for my philanthropy,” Joe reflects.
Currently retired, Joe stays involved in the community, if at a slightly less hectic pace than in the past. After decades of giving to a wide range of causes and organizations, he’s since focused his efforts more exclusively to anti-bullying efforts, support for domestic violence survivors, and animal welfare.
He does all of this while privately continuing his lifelong passion for interior design and decorating. It’s an interest Joe attributes to a desire, born in childhood, to build a comfortable and personalized space to keep the often chaotic-feeling world at bay.
“Every place I have lived has been a restorative space, a fortress,” he notes.
Young man in America
Joe grew up in Arizona, the son of loving parents who were nevertheless not entirely prepared to help him navigate life as a sensitive, art-obsessed boy in a world with very narrow expectations of gender and sexuality. By the age of nine, Joe says, the bullying kicked into high gear.
“I was getting off the school bus, I was being called faggot, I was being kicked in the balls so hard I was doubled over,” he remembers. “I was brutalized.”
After the one-mile walk home, Joe says, he was still so distraught that his father took notice. The elder Pabst decided to pick his son up every day from the bus stop, “my father had a ridiculous little Honda motorcycle,” which stopped the abuse in its tracks.
It was around that age Joe began to really look at what he describes as “beautiful things,” too, “things that can’t hurt me.” Paintings, furniture, bronzes, jewelry, all began to catch his eye.
His father’s intervention had a profound impact on Joe, but it wasn’t enough to completely save him from the homophobic confines of his small town. Joe eventually asked—and then begged—for his parents to send him to a boarding school.
“I had a very loving family,” Joe explains. “[My hometown] was not the place to be young…I had to get out. And frankly, it was only economic privilege and some sort of awareness on the part of my parents to foster that and to make it happen: to set me free at a very young age. I think they would have loved to have kept me home. I felt like I had to go for my very safety.”
Coming of age with a pandemic
He went east, eventually ending up at a school in New Jersey, where it put him close to relatives who provided crucial support to him as a young person exploring the world—and himself—for the first time.
“By going away…I saw a world that was better exposed, more intellectually curious, more diverse, really more of everything,” he says. “And I also had the proximity to a very loving and sympathetic aunt in Boston, and a very loving and sympathetic grandmother in New York, who were, I think, ahead-of-their-time, tolerant people, who fostered the person they saw and loved. It saved me.”
Having New York City an easy train ride away didn’t hurt, either. It was the early ‘80s, and despite being underage, Joe found himself at clubs like Danceteria, Xenon, and Area, where he was able to dive headlong into the city’s thriving gay community.
“I was astonished by it,” Joe says of the time and the place. “To me it was the living embodiment of something as beautiful as a sculpture, or a piece of jewelry… I thought it was staggering and intoxicating. I was wide-eyed. I wasn’t frightened.”
It was also the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Joe says his youth mostly shielded him from reality, but eventually it became impossible not to notice all the people getting sick and dying around him. He was lucky for a time, getting tested frequently, before the seemingly inevitable diagnosis came some 25 years ago. Ironically, it happened when he’d moved to Chicago and gotten into his first serious, committed relationship. His partner was diagnosed around the same time.
“The truth is, of course I wanted to have fun, but I think at the end of the day what I really wanted was love,” says Joe. “I wanted to be held…and I would do anything to get it. And when I found that person, when I truly felt everything—the kind of love where the best part is emotional security and everyday life is a facet of it, just the daily activities of life are part of the love—to then be walloped with what was still in many cases a death sentence, certainly proved to be a death sentence to my partner.”
Still, he says, there was comfort in sharing the experience with a partner. To have that mutual understanding, and to provide support for one another, was a kind of blessing. Joe says his partner was already the nurturing type and leapt into the role of caregiver without pause.
“He was physically bigger and stronger, and intellectually more powerful,” Joe says. “He was an attorney, so he had this sort of presence, strength in every capacity; in kindness, in physicality, in intellectual capacity. I’ve always been slight, and I’ve had health issues my entire life with very serious measles, and very serious bronchial issues, and Crohn’s disease, and I was sure just looking at him in those days that, in spite of [T-cell] numbers, that I would be….” He trails off. “It never occurred to me that he would go first.”
It was another tragedy that would galvanize Joe into action. After moving to Milwaukee, he helped organize the local gay bars into a friendly competition to raise money for the Wisconsin AIDS Walk and AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (now called Vivent Health), called Raising the Bar. He said it was important to him to show that the bars didn’t just become scapegoats for risky behaviors that lead to health problems in the LGBTQ community, but that they be recognized as the important community hubs they were and still can be.
“Not unlike barbershops in communities of color, [gay bars] are places where people can come together, they can share a story, they can work towards something, and I recognized that,” Joe says. “And a great credit to ARCW, to Dan Mueller and Doug Nelson, was that they recognized it, too. This is where you bring people together; you become a catalyst. I have a friend who refers to it as ‘intersectional funding.’ You bring people together to achieve a greater goal, and to end up with a result that is greater both in terms of engagement and money raised.”
Stepping in, stepping up, stepping back
The lessons Joe learned throughout his years organizing and funding various LGBTQ community causes were ultimately applied to his overall approach to philanthropy. He’s particularly passionate about Safe Haven, a project he helped to create that’s aimed at helping people escaping intimate partner violence find shelter for their pets, too.
A joint project of the Wisconsin Humane Society and Sojourner Family Peace Center, the Safe Haven program provides up to 60 days of shelter for the animals of domestic violence victims. While what happened to his sister was the catalyst, statistics bear out how important the issue is nationally, too: Some 71 percent of women with animals seeking shelter reported their partner had threatened, hurt, or killed their animal. Abusers often use animals to manipulate and control their victim, taking advantage of the person’s concern/love for the animal.
The problem is perhaps even more prevalent for LGBTQ people, who are often overlooked by intimate partner violence surveys and supports but face disproportionate impacts. Queer folks have also sometimes traditionally gravitated toward pets in lieu of children.
Joe himself is a lifelong animal aficionado, something that started as a child, when “the only living being I could discuss everything with was my dog.”
“I have a very strong feeling about domestic pets with whatever they may be; a turtle, a fish, a cat, a dog, anything,” he explains. “At least with children you can usually find shelter of some kind, but you can’t find it for your pet. So to create a program that allows a victim of abuse to leave with the knowledge that their pet—very often the only living being that is true, that cannot be manipulated—is safe and that you will be reunited with at the end of it, it’s the best healing that I could have. I couldn’t help my sister. I couldn’t get her out of it.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—Joe’s losses, he remains hopeful at heart. Projects like Safe Haven are part of his dogged determination to, as he says, use his privilege to support the people and causes he cares about, particularly for those people with less access to the levers of power.
“I didn’t ask for an iconic surname but I have one,” he says, “and if I must endure some of the troubles that come with it, I might as well take advantage of some of the perks. And if that helps, great. It doesn’t always help. But sometimes it gets you in the door.”
Joe is also happy to step back and let the next generation take the reins. He says too many members of his generation complain that younger people aren’t “doing things the way we used to,” or that they aren’t rising up and taking a stand.
“Well, people are rising up and they are doing things,” he counters. “It just looks different and it’s very exciting. Do I want to be a contributor in a minor way to it? Yes, I do, but it’s their…I’m not going to say it’s their turn. It’s their time, and it’s beautiful.”
All things beautiful
In addition to ideas and funding, Joe also leant his homes to good causes. In 2008, he hosted the Challenge Party, an event aimed at raising funds to donate to a variety of Southeast Wisconsin LGBTQ organizations. It was a chance to offer tangible support for causes near and dear to him, and an opportunity to show his hospitality—and his house.
Joe carried out a major remodel of the 5,000 square foot, 1929, Eschweiler-designed house shortly after moving in. The Georgian-style home was redecorated top to bottom to fit his style, which Joe refers to as “cozy abundance.”
He redid nearly every room in the house once more, in 2016, before deciding in 2018 that it was time to downsize. Joe now shares a 2,000 square foot double-unit condo with his partner of five years, John Schellinger. The process forced him to distill his possessions and “begin to identify with the memories associated, which ones I wanted to hold on to, which ones would be strong enough if I let the object go.” The process has, he notes, helped him achieve a more peaceful relationship with his family—blood and chosen, immediate and extended.
“It’s for me,” Joe says. “It’s not something to impress other people; it is for me.”
He credits several members of his immediate and extended family for cultivating his love of interior design and decoration, and for introducing him to some of the artists from whom he draws inspiration.
There was his great grandmother, Ilma Vogel Uihlein, who ignited his interest in “all things beautiful.” His father, Gustave, was equally comfortable discussing beautiful shotguns, cars, jewelry, and gemology. His paternal grandmother, Louise, encouraged his interest in her passion: glasswork. And then there was his aunt, Louise, who had “amazing taste” introduced Joe to the artist Bernard Buffet, one of his favorites. Coincidentally, his great uncle John Uihlein—who was also gay—passed along his interest in decorative arts and objects, as well as a desire to create whimsy and folly. “Beauty without strict purpose or desire for absolute functionality,” Joe adds.
Joe has drawn on the work of designers like François Catroux, who used stainless steel in the home. A recessed baseboard and crown in Joe’s new home is a direct result of the influence. He names a few other off-the-beaten-path influences, too: The 1960s home of Dorothy and Richard Rogers (the composer), and Dorothy’s book describing the process of designing it, The House in My Head; the apartment of tastemaker and Picasso biographer John Richardson.
Both, he says, utilized traditional and modern elements to create unique environments, that “defy description but evoke a style and comfort and, for sure, individuality.”
This isn’t a case of copy-and-paste, though. Joe is sure to point out that, while he takes notes from others, the ultimate designs are unique to him and his tastes. “Having antiques comfortably coexist in a ’60-era building was one of the reasons those people were so inspiring,” Joe explains. “Art also directed and dictated many of the decisions. The liberal use of Sapele wood in tongue-and-groove paneling was also a period feature, although in the ‘60s mahogany was more common. The uniquely veneered doors are pure folly of my own imagination.”
Again, it all comes back to the feeling of being inside a kind of fortress against the threats and disarray of the outside world. Instead of hiding from it and turning to minimalism, though, Joe embraces a carefully curated chaos: “Abundance…collision in terms of color, and high and low materials coming together,” he says. It’s something akin to exposure therapy, where a person is intentionally exposed to a source of anxiety in a controlled environment, where the person knows they’re safe. Over time, it helps bring peace.
“It’s an action-packed space, and there’s really nothing particularly restful about the interior,” Joe says. “Except that, if you begin to take notice, you will see sight lines. There is symmetry and there is a grid. Within the chaos there is order.”
Better than a picture
Back in his dorm room at boarding school, Joe pasted and taped Marimekko wrapping paper to his walls in lieu of proper wallpaper. He stapled covers of New Yorker magazines to the foamy ceiling. A statement. A fortress.
Now he has a window with a view of the gray-blue waters of Lake Michigan, and the ever-changing city that laps at its shores. The contrast, and the pairing, of his private and carefully designed space with that open, unpredictable, and living world is entirely intentional.
Here, as he reaches the stage of life where there’s more time to reflect, it’s clear that it’s no longer just beautiful objects with which Joe finds himself in love, but life itself, in all of its complexities.
“I have witnessed more than a person should,” he says. “When I need to nest and retreat, and look out and imagine serenity, and something living… I mean, what I’ve learned is,” as he motions toward the lake, “That is living art out there. It’s better than a picture. It’s alive.”