He's expanding into furniture, household goods


October 20, 1991|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

These days many people are crying wolf -- as in Vicente Wolf, one of the hottest design stars in the '90s.

"One of America's most prolific creators," gushed Metropolitan Home about Mr. Wolf, lauding him for delivering so much personality that "just one or two [of his pieces] can transform a room."

The prestigious Architectural Digest picked him for "AD 100," a special issue spotlighting "the world's finest interior designers."

Production designer Santo Loquasto looked to the elegant minimalist interiors of Mr. Wolf for inspiration for Mia Farrow's apartment in Woody Allen's movie, "Alice."

"A bit of a Renaissance man," declared Richard Yelle, chairman of the product design department at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, where Mr. Wolf now teaches a course.

The 46-year-old designer, a Cuban by birth, has been very busy. In addition to decorating interiors, which he has done for 20-some years (current projects include a three-building residence totaling 18,000 square feet in Hawaii; a large Georgian residence in Nashville, Tenn.; and a plantation in Natchez, Miss.), Mr. Wolf is branching out with a range of products for the home, making his high-style designs available not only to a monied clientele and to-the-trade showrooms but to a department store near you.

In April Mr. Wolf introduced an impressive 30-piece furniture collection for Henredon. The collection was applauded for its "ready-to-wear" approach: Nothing matches and everything can, but doesn't have to, coordinate.

But that's not all: There are lamps for Paul Hanson; rugs for F. Schumacher & Co.; crystal glasses, vases, paperweights and ashtrays for Steuben; office furniture for Niedermaier (Mr. Wolf uses the pieces in homes, too); mirrors for Friedman Brothers; dinnerware for the LS Collection and also for Sasaki, for whom he and former partner Robert Patino designed their still popular "Windows" flatware pattern, and more flatware is on the design boards. Yes, he has even done sheets. And no doubt there will be more products to come.

Mr. Wolf has done interiors for choreographer Twyla Tharp, fashion photographer Richard Avedon, jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, actress Rita Moreno, couturier Andrew Fezza and Kathy Brynner, the wife of the late actor Yul Brynner.

The son of upper-middle-class parents in the import-export construction business in Cuba, his father once served as a minister in Fidel Castro's government before deciding that the revolution was not all it was cracked up to be. So in 1961, when Mr. Wolf was 16 and his parents were in their late 40s, the family moved to Miami. "All of a sudden my father was frying hamburgers and my mother mopping floors so that we could get a deduction in rent."

What disturbed Mr. Wolf most was a yard sale that eliminated the few possessions the family had brought with them. "I couldn't understand how my mother could sell our things! But it was sell and eat or keep and starve. The motto of my family is survival."

Mr. Wolf never has forgotten that. "I felt the stigma of not having a college degree. The only way I thought I could do it was through the back door. Because of my family's business, I had an understanding of architecture and was drawn to design."

He began working as a stock boy for a fabric company, then as a salesman for designer showrooms. He went on to assist interior designers, including the late Angelo Donghia, before eventually forming a partnership with Robert Patino. Patino-Wolf lasted 17 years.

His background also taught him to be resourceful in developing a style. "I started by being a minimalist. The challenge was in doing a lot for a little money to achieve a look."

There was a time when he wanted to create the perfect room, or the piece of furniture that nobody had seen before. "That speaks more of my ego than it does of creating things that are functional, able to work with what people have. People don't want Vicente Wolf rooms. It's my job as a designer to interpret who a person is -- how he or she dresses, how she looks, her mannerisms -- so that when she sits in a room I did, it's her."

Mr. Wolf chose a former sewing factory in a working-class neighborhood on West 39th Street in New York for his new office and home. He quickly adapted an egalitarian signature: He and his staff of 11 dress only in black and white (he is partial to the sleek Japanese designs of Comme des Garcons). "I don't believe in the star system," he explained. "We're here to serve. We're a team."

No matter what his address, Wolf continues to carve out a reputation for being impulsive and inventive, often interpreting the old in defining his distinctive neomodern style.

He created an elegant console with a pair of 19th century French wire trash receptacles as the base, topping it with Formica. He attached a playful magazine pouch to a clean-cut straight-lined chair. He modified the scale of a classic Edwardian library chair, making it wide enough to curl into.

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