Acclaimed by Architectural Digest as the “master of minimalism,” Vicente has spent the last 35 years creating breathtaking spaces around the world. His accolades, awards, publications, and product lines are innumerable, yet each of them reflect his signature blend of restraint and luminosity. From luxurious hotels and restaurants to celebrity apartments and sprawling plantations, the sheer range of his work is almost as impressive as its consistency.
His most recent book, The Four Elements of Design is a fascinating look at his unique approach to interiors, showcasing Vicente’s ability to synthesize nature’s basic elements – earth, water, air, and fire – in order to craft harmonious environments. In the past, our team has been fortunate to attend industry events where Vicente has served as a guest speaker, so I was thrilled to capture some one-on-one time with him recently. It is my privilege to share that conversation with you today – enjoy!
Marie Flanigan: You and your work serve as inspiration to so many! I would love to know more about the journey that led you to the place you are today.
Vicente Wolf: I was actually born and grew up in Cuba. I came to America during the previous dictatorship because my parents decided it was time to get me out of there. I returned and was there for 2 years before the revolution began. My parents were involved in the government when the revolution took place and decided it was time to get out – first, my father went to Florida, I met him later, and my mother was the last to leave.
VW: Growing up in Miami was a big change because my father was cooking hamburgers and my mother was mopping floors, both of whom had previously been very successful business people…that change in lifestyle probably affected them much moreso than it affected me. They separated, my father moved to New York, and I went to visit when I was 18 years old. When I saw New York, I thought, “This is where I want to be!” I moved there, my father left two years later, and I stayed. I tried a lot of different things but, unfortunately, being dyslexic, schooling was never easy for me, so I went to work. It was difficult for me to decide on a career so I tried a lot of different creative things – merchandising, advertising, fashion – and none really worked out. Then I met someone in the design industry and that’s where it all started. I worked in a showroom, I freelanced, I became an associate of a firm, and then I developed a partnership with Bob Patino. We were partners until 1988 before I went off on my own, and that’s where I am today!
MF: Is that when things really took off – once you were out on your own?
VW: Actually, Patino/Wolf Associates was very successful! It was started in the late ’70s and went on until 1988. We were in AD100 and were working on lots of retail spaces. We were around when high tech design began – everything was considered design and no longer “decorating” – and the work was very contemporary. By the time I started out on my own, styles were evolving to more of a mixture. There was more of a blending, still with very contemporary architecture, but designs were bringing in a more global point of view: a mixture of periods, cultures, and styles all coming together.
MF: We were reading that Architectural Digest named you the “undisputed Minimalist Master” – how would you describe your style?
VW: Well, that’s a big title! It’s very hard to describe my style because I’m always working to keep it evolving. The work is elegant, it’s clean, it’s minimal in the sense of opting for less rather than more. There’s a blending of forms and a combination of different tonalities. There’s some 18th century French mixed with mid-century, but it’s always cohesive. These are spaces that feel mercurial in quality – in the morning they look different than they do at night.
MF: You mentioned working on a lot of retail spaces while at Patino/Wolf Associates, but I’ve known you for residential interiors. Are you still doing commercial work?
VW: Roughly 50% of our work right now is commercial; hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings. We’re currently working on restaurants in Boston and Macau for Steve Wynn, and just finished two other restaurants in Macau as well. We’ve designed hotels in Washington, New York, and California, and we’re actually working on a few apartment buildings that we’re designing from the ground up in Georgia (which used to be part of Russia). And we’re designing offices right now on Central Park South, so there’s a lot of commercial work.
MF: How do you manage that amount of work in all of these different countries? What does your firm look like, and how do you stay connected to the work?
VW: There are 10 people in total and we work in a very organized way. We conceptualize the design and present one complete thought. Once that is accepted by the client, everything has been estimated, ascertained, priced, and drawn so that the work can move on into production. We don’t segment our process – we won’t shop today for a sofa and next week go look at fabrics. We don’t work that way. I don’t think you can work that way and handle that many jobs. I like the idea that when creating, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I like to conceptualize the space in total. From the architecture to the shapes and textiles, to mixing different periods within one space, I like to see it all at once.
MF: I would love to hear more about that process!
VW: When you design that way, you’re able to complete one project and then go on to the next. Each designer or architect manages 2 – 4 jobs and I design each project with them. For instance, our current restaurant project with Steve Wynn: it’s designed, specified, drawn, estimated, and prepared for presentation all with the same person. It does not get passed to different people. Everything is very methodical and I believe that makes things move faster.
MF: And that consistency is very apparent throughout your work! Another element I love is the collection of found objects and antiques. In order to work in the way you’re describing, do you have a place where you keep these items on hand?
VW: I have a store called VW Home which I’ve had since 1991. You can shop online or in person and we’ll make it work! We’re on 1stdibs and at least once a year I take a trip around the world. I visit Indonesia, Thailand, China, Europe, so there’s really a mixture from all over the world.
MF: That’s so wonderful – is there a place that speaks to you the loudest or inspires you the most?
VW: In two weeks I’m going to Bhutan, which I love! I’ve been there twice already and it’s lovely. I used to like Burma but it’s become very populated with tourists and now they are experiencing a lot of problems. I love Iran – it is a beautiful, beautiful country. Africa too! I love it all and I love to travel, so that’s part of the fun.
MF: Your home shares a very clear story about that love of travel – it’s such a fusion of story and culture.
VW: It’s all very personal. Nothing in my home came here purposefully…it all evolved organically. I like a space to feel as though someone obviously designed it, but that things are coming from various directions while still feeling calm. It shouldn’t look forced. It looks evolved.
MF: Last time we saw you in Houston, you spoke about partnerships with large manufacturers who have approached you to work on furniture collections. Can you talk a little bit about how you select which teams you will work with and how those partnerships have come about?
VW: Some have been pursued and some have come around on their own, and I really love designing product. Roughly 30% of our jobs include items that are designed by us, so I love the idea of sitting down to create a product that’s not necessarily geared to any one particular client. You’re trying to put yourself out there to the general public with the hope that what you’re putting out there is something that’s needed in the marketplace. Something that can be incorporated into a person’s home that brings a different sense to the space. Designing is like a puzzle and I love creating pieces that fit into someone’s home puzzle.
MF: Looking back on your career, what would you say were the 3 – 5 key factors that set you apart and helped build you into the worldwide design icon that you are today?
- Being at the right place at the right time – Seriously…when I started, it was definitely being at the right place at the right time, because, now, I don’t know if I would be as successful. Now, when I’m creating, I’m working by gut. I always listen to what my instinct tells me is the right thing.
- Sticking to my guns – Not compromising what you believe in may not always get you the most clients but your work will always have a clear point of view.
- Never stop evolving – When I worked for other people, many of them just kept repeating the same thing over and over, and every client got the same design. They were in all of the magazines at the time but it reached a point where people started to drop off because, well, how many times can you eat chicken? It didn’t evolve and that was something I learned very fast: to stay relevant, you need to keep moving forward. In a city like New York in the business we are in, you need to keep moving. Styles change, our lifestyles change, what people are looking for today is not what people were looking for 10 years ago.
MF: What are your thoughts on sticking to your point of view while also creating a space that is a reflection of your client?
VW: I was just in a presentation where a client was telling me to change up a grey color, make something else a little more blue, or try a rug here, and I told her – when you hire me it’s like going to a painter to sit for your portrait and they interpret who you are through their own unique style. Within my work, there is a thread that weaves through it, but some are showier and some are more tailored because that’s how I interpret each client to be. One job can have a lot of color with Fortuny fabric and one has polished wools that feel very strict – I design for who the people are, not for me. So, when a client says, “it’s my home,” I fully understand that, but this is how I interpret you and how I see your home. It’s worked but there have been bumps. I’m very specific so I find that people who hire me like my point of view – I don’t get many people who say they love what I do and then ask me to do it differently! When you come to me, you know what you’re going to get. It may not be what you thought it was going to be, but it’s going to have a particular style.
MF: It’s all about that balance and I love how you explained that! So, what’s next for you?
VW: Waking up tomorrow morning! 🙂 That, you never know! People tell me that I’ve been designing for 40 years and they ask if I’m ready to retire. Our team had to work this weekend, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. It was wonderful just sitting there designing. It’s like a drug…there is something very addictive about creating.
MF: Have you been working with the same team for many years?
VW: Yes, there are people who have been with me for close to 20 years, 15 years, 7 years. The shortest person here (and she happens to the shortest in stature) has been here 4 – 5 years.
MF: That says so much about you as an entrepreneur!
VW: Well, I lock the door and they’re chained to their desks. When they die we get someone new! I’m kidding, but what’s wonderful is that people who work here keep coming back. It’s like a family – not everyone has to love each other in that family, but we are connected to one another. We are connected through creativity and through providing a unique service to others.
And, honestly, who wouldn’t want to be a part of Vicente’s family!? I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the life and philosophy of one of our industry greats and that your week is filled with inspiration!