Vicente Wolf, a 1998 Interior Design Hall of Fame inductee, has stood at the pinnacle of the industry for many decades. In 2019, his eponymous firm celebrated its 45th anniversary, an occasion many would use to celebrate the past, but Wolf’s creative engine moves in one direction: forward. The designer, photographer, and five-time book author is very much inspired and informed by his frequent travels, during which he sources artifacts and furnishings for his modern-minded interiors and his showroom, VW Home by Vicente Wolf. Always moving, he takes time out of his busier-than-ever schedule to reflect on the current cultural moment and his recent work.
How are you doing during these challenging times?
To say we are taking it one day at a time is a gross exaggeration. If there’s anything good about the current situation, it’s that we’ve had to stop and assess what’s important. People are being more human.
With travel so restricted, I imagine it’s hard to keep tabs on client projects. Do you have many outside the city right now?
Interestingly, we have a lot of work—four jobs—in Florida, where many clients are relocating, oftentimes for tax purposes.
What other client trends have you observed?
Many are moving into the city but want an apartment that still feels like a home. They’re not downsizing; the overall space is staying large, but we’re reducing the amount of rooms. I just converted a Fifth Avenue three-bedroom into a two-bedroom with dressing room, for example.
Empty nesters are tailoring their homes to their personal preferences. The philosophy is: “this time, it’s for me.” They’ll say, “I don’t want a practical living room any more, I want white now.” It’s about jettisoning all those restrictions.
Is it more exciting to work without restrictions—or do you actually prefer them?
It’s exciting to be working, period!
The office has been lucky in that we’ve always been able to jump back and forth between commercial and residential. The balance ebbs and flows but it’s about a 50/50 split. Commercial work is the most fun, restaurants in particular. Because people are only in a restaurant for 90 minutes, unlike a residence that’s lived in for 30 years, the design can become theater—a foil to the activity unfolding, but with a certain amount of sparkle. You’re less constrained creatively.
Lately, we’ve been redoing a lot of public spaces—lobbies, hallways, gyms—for residential buildings dating from the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s. Developments that don’t have all the amenities of a modern building are finding it very difficult to compete in today’s marketplace.
What are the big challenges in that typology?
The biggest problem is the yin and yang from the board members: “I’m fine with the space the way it is!” one says. “We need to renovate it; people are not buying here,” says another.
There’s much talk in the industry about today’s empowered client. What’s your take: Are they better informed than clients from 15, 20 years ago?
Clients used to spend more time looking at books and magazines. They were in general more aware and had a better understanding of design context. And at the other end, lots of interior designers today don’t have as large a knowledge base as did designers working 15 years ago. I also think shelter magazines have failed the consumer. Information is kept at a shallow level.
Back to travel, I know that’s been a big part of your life for a long time…
Yes. I was 16 when I booked my first trip, a cruise to Nassau—which was my very last cruise!
So, it must be extra hard for you to be grounded now.
Travel is great. To explore, to see things you’re not used to seeing, makes you young again. You learn and absorb, you really look at things, you are exposed—and open—to new ways of thinking. It takes you out of your comfort zone.
Every year I buy an around-the-world ticket to Thailand for my annual shopping trip. Earlier this year I flew from Madrid, a city I love, to Ethiopia—my third visit—to Bali to Bangkok and then back to New York.
Do you set out with an itinerary, or do you wing it a bit?
I’m adventurous, but because I am buying things for my business, VW Home, I have a set itinerary.
The disadvantage of going back for return visits is that you see countries change. I went to Bhutan for the first time in 1997 and then again in 2000, and in the intervening three years, it had already changed. I returned recently and it was a completely different country. It’s still beautiful and the people are lovely, but it wasn’t the same adventure.
What are you on the lookout for during your buying trips?
I buy for my pleasure, so I want the “wow, look at that!” items. I buy things I don’t want to sell!
Ah, so it must be hard to have to let those pieces go eventually?
I have a dialogue with them, and then they go on to someplace else. I’m just a curator.
Any acquisitions that were hard to part with?
I just bought an amazing collection of tea ceremony objects, 19 bronze containers, all different shapes. It was a gamble to buy so many, but I subdivided them into three collections—enough items in each so you can still create settings with them.
Tell us about a recent project you’re particularly jazzed about.
I just finished an amazing residence in Watermill, New York. It’s not often one gets the opportunity to work on a beautiful property with really nice clients who want something stupendous. We stripped down this really frumpy house with pseudo-English furniture and moldings and made it all indoor/outdoor, with sliding glass and slatted elements that filter in the light. As a creative person, there are certain moments where you look at your work and say, “wow, I did that!” Not as a boast, but in a prideful way. You see you’ve come up with new ideas and new ways to approach things.
How do you get ideas flowing?
I think fast and follow my gut. The more you question your gut, the more an idea gets watered down by insecurity. You can waste a lot of time with indecision.
Are you decisive in all aspects of your life?
I have fears, but not in the creative process. In the creative process, my vision is very clear.