For the past several months, Vicente Wolf’s blog has featured a countdown to the release of his third book, Lifting the Curtain on Design, a wait I liken to the anticipation of attending a master class with one of the greats. The date is finally here, so head to your local bookstore, tear off the protective plastic and dive into this 223-page journey with Vicente.
Vicente Wolf took some time from his busy schedule to talk with Design Happens about his latest work, how Benjamin Moore’s Jade Garden can be a neutral color and the design world’s love/hate relationship with HGTV.
AM: Let’s talk about your new hard-bound baby – Lifting the Curtain on Design. In your blog, you describe it as a birthing process. What was the most painful part? And what has been the most joyful?
VW: The most joyful part is when you get the first set of proofs. That really puts to paper the things that you’ve been selecting and looking though. It’s like looking at the sonogram of a baby – you see it moving and coming to life. There’s not a painful part to working on books, but if I had to choose, I’d say it’s coming up with a concept of what you want to say. In the three books I’ve done, I didn’t want them to be just picture books. I wanted them to have a message that helps people see things a different way. That’s the most painful part – working on it until you get to say, “This is it. It’s set.”
AM: You shot all the photography in your book. What is your favorite design photo and why?
VW: There’s a foyer of a house I did in California with a French, turn-of-the-century table made of iron and this very modern staircase. I love the juxtaposition of the texture of the table and the smoothness of the wall. It’s very lyrical.
AM: It strikes me that you are not only a designer and photographer and traveler – you are also a teacher. Your books, your blog, your work with students at Parsons…why do you teach? And are you a good teacher?
VW: I don’t know. I never graduated high school, so teaching is something that doesn’t come from experience. But so many people were so kind to me coming up that I love to share it. I think it’s good for the industry. When you share with people it benefits all of us, because we are all learning together.
AM: While people might describe your work in certain terms, your book further demonstrates that you are not locked into a single approach as a designer. You’re able to navigate different currents. Like your quote on page 128, “I know how to paddle a canoe. But I approach each river in a different way.”
VW: Aren’t we all trying to design our lives to function better? We’re all trying to progress and find a better path.
AM: Does that help you to meet the demands of a client?
VW: Yes! If I could say everybody must see things my own way, it would be great. That is not the way it is. I try to be accepting, though I can’t say I always am.
AM: Travel is such an integral part of your work. If something happened where you could no longer travel, where would you find inspiration?
VW: I’m not always traveling, but I think that what I talked about in my first book was learning to see, to look at things and be inspired – not just by going to Borneo, but looking at how shadows are cast through a tree. Those things can really influence your environment. It’s a knowledge you file away and interpret in a different way. Museums, my surroundings, an old movie, reading a book – you have to see yourself as sponge trying to soak up as much of the things that appeal to you, to reuse them however they suit you.
AM: Are you prepared for a rush on the furniture and accessories featured in Lifting the Curtain on Design at VW Home?
VW: I’m not going to push people away at the door. You do something good, you get something good back. Not to say “karma,” but I’m trying to share with people and what comes out of it is positive. I’m already getting back the pleasure of people coming to me in regard to my books saying, “You helped me to see things in a different way.” That’s the strong payback.
AM: I noticed on your blog that HGTV came up a few times. There was the post titled Frustration that elicited a lot of comments. There was also a post or two mentioning times when your work was featured on HGTV’s Top 10 Bathrooms and Top 10 Eat-In Kitchens. Is this a love/hate relationship?
VW: When you look at TV shows that try to entertain but don’t separate that from reality, that bothers me. I do love HGTV. It’s been very good to me – showing my spaces as number one in Top 10 shows. I’m very grateful for that.
AM: What do you wish HGTV would do more of?
VW: I’d love to do a show with HGTV. I can certainly bring a sarcastic edge, which can be entertaining, but I can also explain things that make people think. Maybe that’s not a good thing. I think it is.
AM: Talk to me about showing all the stages of design in you book. You include your client questionnaire, color swatches, renderings, the demolition of spaces….
VW: So many people have an enormous misconception when they see a finished room in a magazine (or on TV). They don’t know what it took to create that space. They may not always understand what it originally looked like and the transition it took to get it to that final stage. My book explains what it took to create it, the client’s wish list and the problems we had to overcome to achieve the finished product.
AM: In your book and on your blog, you display artwork and photographs on the wall and on the floor. Why?
VW: I don’t like art to feel like it’s nailed and there forever. I like spaces that look like they’re transitioning and evolving. A photo propped on the floor is a way to put it here now, until I find a final place for it.
AM: Another Vicente Wolf signature is large mirrors on the floor.
VW: I do that for the same reason that I prop art on the floor. When you hang a mirror on the wall it loses it architectural quality and becomes just another object. When you set it on the floor, it becomes an opening that leads on to another space. Willi Smith, a great fashion designer in the ’80s, wanted to see his mannequins in a mirror while he worked. When we saw the mirrors set on the floor that way it was like, “My God it looks like a door!” That was the first time I did that.
AM: You also have floating paintings and an artist’s easel as a TV stand. You say you’re “not going to put a doily over your TV.”
VW: Or a slipcover over your phone. The flat screen TV is the modern way, and we need to not try to hide it, but incorporate it.
AM: On page 70, you talk about liking the dialogue a large Chinese teak window screen sets up with a Jacobsen Swan chair from the 1950s. Your work is contemporary and classic. Simple, yet complex. You effortlessly bring together design and decor from different countries, cultures, different centuries.
VW: That comes from the travel. I’ve seen the piece used in its original environment. I’m no longer ignorant to the use and origin. Pieces can now have dialogues with things in similar scale and usage. I don’t need to wonder if it’s right. I know its right.
AM: I had to laugh when I read your blog post about using pattern, in this case linen damask in a bedroom, and needing to be tranquilized and restrained. This room, as well as the library with teal-colored strié walls, are featured in your book. Will we see even more rooms with patterns and bright colors like Benjamin Moore Hot Lips and Jade Garden in your fourth book? They are in the minority in Lifting the Curtain on Design.
VW: You can’t be like, I’m an Italian chef; I can’t cook French at all. I try not to have perimeter in my vision, but if you look at that pattern, the woven damask fabric turns the room from old to new. When you do an intense room and repeat the color everywhere it sort of neutralizes. When you’re in that room, you don’t feel like you’re in a fuchsia room because of the different pink shades. It becomes a neutral compared to a fuchsia sofa in a white room. They’re all different colors and intensities — like looking at the ocean or a rose. It’s red or hot pink in all shades and degrees.
AM: On page 133 you say, “In the most successful rooms, the personality of the client comes through.” Talk about how you want the desired emotions of the client to set the stage for the room.
VW: I don’t want them telling me “use this sofa and chair.” I want them to tell me what emotion they want to evoke. It is a much better interpretation of the client than selecting literal pieces in their limited experience. It gives a sense of overall vision.
AM: I loved your book and found it so illuminating and insightful. In addition to your work as a designer, I feel like I understand you more as an artist and a person.
VW: Thank you! You work on these things for years, and it’s like having a child. You see it grow, and it’s so rewarding to see it do well. It’s so rewarding, and it’s there forever.
AM: You took me on a journey, from the dunes in Namibia to the markets in Bangkok, as well as to that moment when a client sees your finished work and the emotions that flow over you if they cry. I started to cry when I read that, thinking about that feeling you have.
VW: If you create the easel concept or the floating mirror, and it becomes normal vocabulary. How else do you tell people who you are and what you believe? A book can do that. It’s not just pictures. It shows who I am as a person, how I think, what I do. It’s a great thing. It’s me.