Chasing the Light: A Conversation with Vicente Wolf
A room is like a stage,” Vicente Wolf is fond of saying. “And if you have great light, you have a play.” The acclaimed AD100 designer has made a 40-year career out of following and capturing light, whether it’s through his photography, exotic travels or “less is more” luxury aesthetic.
Born in Cuba and raised in the United States by way of Miami and New York, Wolf is a Renaissance man of sorts: part interior design genius, part photographer, part furniture designer and part author (he has penned four books about travel and interiors). No matter his pursuit, he views the world through a lens of creativity and curiosity.
“I look at things differently than most people look at them,” he explains. “How does light goes through a leaf? How does a puddle reflect the buildings above?”
When he is not creating luminous modern spaces for celebrity clients such as Julianna Margulies and Clive Davis, or traversing the globe in search of unusual finds to display in his 39th Street showroom, VW Home, he divides his time between a playful midtown Manhattan loft and a buttoned-up ranch house in Montauk. Both residences tell the tale of his two selves: the free-spirited wanderer and the studious antiquarian. And in that way, our homes are performance — a show that illuminates our soul and presents our life’s greatest passions to our chosen audience.
Werecently sat down with Wolf, who gave us a window into his unique worldview just as we embark on a whole new year.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How would you describe the way you live at home?
Vicente Wolf I live in a loft in midtown Manhattan on the West Side. It’s a loft that has an enormous amount of light; it faces north, south, east, west. It’s completely industrial, except for my bathroom. I would not call it a grownup apartment. I have pieces of furniture and things that I have found over the years, all mixed up. The apartment was not “decorated.” It was designed, in terms of an aesthetic. I selected things that I like from a point of view. There is no pattern, and I’ve used colors that are mercurial; as the day goes on, they keep changing.
I tend to like environments that have a mixture of cultures and periods. There is always a sense of comfort and lack of pretentiousness. These are places that are elegant and wonderful, but you feel that they are home.
My house in Montauk is a space that I consider to be a “grownup” space, with sofas and club chairs and more conventional pieces.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury If you could own a vacation home anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Vicente Wolf If I owned a home, it would be in Sri Lanka. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s a country that is in a very progressive stage right now. The people are wonderful, and it has the most beautiful light I’ve seen in the world. Because there is such a lack of pollution there, it is sharper than any other light I’ve seen.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Let’s talk about light for a moment. How important an element is it when you’re designing?
Vicente Wolf Proportion, scale and light are the most important elements — how light enters the room, the shadows on the floor. If the room is like a stage, then you already have a play, if you have great light.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How does your work as a photographer play into your view of light?
Vicente Wolf When you’re looking through the lens, you’re creating a composition. When you are looking at a room, you don’t see it through a lens. You’re seeing the whole space. The camera has been able to create more interesting vignettes, settings and balances of highs and lows as they pertain to scale. So, when I walk into a room, light is one of the first things I notice. Where is the light coming from? What time is the best time to be in the space? I might notice this wall faces north or that wall faces east. All that observation has come from being a photographer. It all has to do with absorbing and observing my surroundings — being visual. Those are the things that have subconsciously trained me.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What inspires you?
Vicente Wolf Travel. Looking at things. I read an interesting article that was part of a book [“Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson]. It was about how da Vinci’s genius really came from his curiosity and being aware of what was around him. That is what really inspires me the most. I look at things differently than most people look at them. How does light goes through a leaf? How does a puddle reflect the buildings above? In design, it’s about being aware of what you are looking at. For instance, I’m here in my office conference room, and there is stationery here. I’m looking at the envelopes with padding inside, stacked. Instead, I see a beautiful wall texture. It’s about looking at everything and really seeing the visual possibilities, what it could be.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury You mentioned travel. How has that influenced your work?
Vicente Wolf This year, I was in London, Paris, Venice and Florence. I lived few weeks in Bouton. At the beginning of this year, I was in Nepal, hiking in the Himalayas. I go to Bali, Hong Kong and Delhi every year. I love Asia. The aesthetic brings great calmness to me. It’s really beautiful, the colors and people are creative without knowing that they are — like a shop lady wrapping a piece of paper.
All of this influences my work. For instance, I’m designing an apartment on Fifth Avenue right now. I was in Venice the week before at a library. I opened a book to look at images of art, and I saw this Renaissance painting. The skies were inky blue-green, with lighter tonalities. Since the apartment faces Central Park, you can see the park out of the window. I kept looking at the picture and putting materials and colors together until I arrived at the palette I wanted to create.
I also buy when I’m traveling. A lot of what I buy ends up in my showroom, VW Home. When I was in India, I found a broken, hand-carved marble window. I could see it as a sculpture sitting on a stand, instead of just a broken piece of marble. I bought it and mounted it, and lit it from behind. I placed it in on a counter, behind a dining banquette in a client’s house. I see everything through the same aesthetic. Whether it is Papua New Guinea or Venice, I look at it through a modern eye, but relate it to the past. I buy Tibetan or Buddhist amulets for good luck, and white conches, covered in metal, which are blown during ceremonies.
I keep looking for the same things over and over again. I ask myself sometimes, “How can you call yourself a minimalist person and collect everything?” That’s why I have the shop, so I can put it there. You want whatever you own to not be just “stuff” but to reflect your point of view. I always think, if you have one tchotchke, it’s “stuff.” If you have two, it’s by luck. If you have three, it’s a collection.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Has your Cuban upbringing influenced your design aesthetic?
Vicente Wolf Yes. I would say that I have a Latin point of view, which is relaxed, with a sense of humor and a sense of light. Those things are what my work is all about.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Thinking about 2018 — what was a New Year’s resolution?
Vicente Wolf Try to be more understanding and more patient. Keep in mind what my goal is, and allow those things to guide my life.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What are you looking forward to in the new year, in terms of design trends?
Vicente Wolf I’m looking forward to working with more lavender tonalities and doing more dark rooms — like gray bedrooms with a dark wall. I think we will continue to see different periods mixed with contemporary. Looking at our current political landscape, too, people are looking for spaces that they feel protected in, where they feel human and not intimidated. People want to feel safe.
For the last four decades, Vicente Wolf has enlivened his clients’ homes all over the world with his modern-meets-exotic aesthetic. He is an accomplished decorator, photographer, furniture designer, shop owner and the author of four books about travel and interiors. His latest book, “The Four Elements of Design: Interiors Inspired By Earth, Water, Air and Fire,” was published by Rizzoli in 2016. He is looking forward to the 2018 debut of his next project — a restaurant in Boston — and a February 2018 design seminar he’s leading on creating peaceful environments and running a business in a caring way. More information can be found at www.vicentewolf.com.
By Alyson Pitarre. This article originally appeared in the winter 2018 edition of Homes & Estates, a Wall Street Journal supplement.