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A Talk with Paul Vincent Wiseman
By Ann Seymour, Features Editor

Paul Vincent, Wiseman, an interior designer who's capped all the major awards plus an honorary doctorate or two, has a couple of offices in San Francisco, and today I visited him at one. It's a neoclassical revival house built in the nineteenth century by a retired sea captain who wanted to live near the bay and watch the ships go by. The Wiseman Group painted the exterior a French blue with cream trim, and, without losing the character of the interior, turned it into a working space for part of his team of thirty designers, architects, and related professionals.

When I walked into the reception area, I spotted an arrangement of fascinating objects which turned out to be nineteenth- century Chinese brush holders made from large hollowed-out roots. Wiseman fell in love with the stunning collection at first sight and bought it intact from J. Chen in Los Angeles. Other than the brush holders, the photos of Wiseman-interior designs catch the eye, rooms from New York to Hawaii and dozens of stops in between, framed and arranged to celebrate the old house's lovely proportions.

Paul comes forward exuding his characteristic warmth and charm, thanks me for complimenting his sense of proportion, without we both feel architecture and design cannot soar. A tall, slender man with dark curly hair and a Roman coin profile, he has a natural eye, can walk into a crowded warehouse and immediately spot the best object.

He laughs. "I could do it since preadolescence. An eye is something you're born with; if you don't have it, you can't train it, but it's a mixed blessing. The best is always the most expensive, so I had to become an interior designer to afford myself. Fortunately, we have enough projects in progress at any given time that I can find a home for whatever I can't resist. Let's face it: I love to shop."

We move into one of the smaller conference rooms, and Suzanna Allen, the designated "Supreme Commander" -- witness the sign on her desk --- offers me coffee, tea, water, and then produces the bio sheet Paul eternally forgets. She has a silver-haired beauty and the kind of mind that can keep track of everything, probably a photographic memory, and certainly a gracious demeanor.    

Paul, a modest man, he speaks of "process," "the team," and "the flow" of a project. "It's like producing a play," he says. He defers questions about his clients, but I happen to know many of them are Fortune Five, so I ask him about dealing with high-powered people.

"I love the psychology involved," he replies, "it fascinates me. Next to whom one's sleeping with, what one's sleeping on is the closest thing to a person's heart." 

Complex interpersonal psychology can complicate a project, as can attempted murder. For instance once Paul was working on a house on Vallejo Street, which runs below Broadway on a steep San Francisco hill. He had keys to the house and was meeting a painter there.

"I walked in and noticed the burglar alarm wasn't on, but I saw a lot of sparkle in the garden room. 'They must have had a party,' I thought. Then I spotted a TV on the sofa. 'Quite a party, ' I decided.' Wild.' It started to rain, and I spotted the client's briefcase near the loggia getting wet, so I went to rescue it. Suddenly the police arrived. The reason: someone in the house above us on Broadway had looked out the window and spotted a burglar in the bushes with a gun trained on me."

High risk or no, Paul wouldn't chose another line of work. He's been around. At the University of California, Berkeley, he majored in political science, but when he encountered Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus School, he turned in another direction and never looked back. Seeking to expand his creative talents, he left Berkeley to attend school in Australia, then traveled in Asia for six months, where he learned to appreciate "purity of form, integrity of materials, and the relationship of both to the land."

He feels close to nature, and glories in his move from San Francisco to Marin County. "I will stay here forever," he says. He's a deeply spiritual man, goes on meditative retreats twice a year, and tries to teach clients to "respect the environment and to use only environmentally managed materials to help preserve the planet."

When asked about red flags in preliminary interviews, he replies, "I'm dismayed when a person with a modern beach house in Malibu wants silks and tassels. A design should consider the community and the natural surroundings. Also, my antenna go up when one partner claims he has no opinion; it's entirely up to me and the other partner. Inevitably the 'I'm out of the whole thing' partner will veto all our designs, claiming he'll know what he likes when he sees it.

Another red flag is the client who wants the designer to supply him with an entire persona. The "I want you to do the whole thing, any way you want, but I'd just like it done on time. Like, in a couple of months" type.

"The ideal client," he says, "has a strong sense of self and a recognition that design is a process, and with perhaps three hundred people involved in making a project to life -- people who are invisible to the client -- I cannot guarantee exactly when it will be complete. 'Christmas comes in June,' I tell them. 'Don't ask me in November to create something for you by December.' On the back of my card I say in fine print, 'it gets here when it gets here."

Paul actually works with efficiency and relative speed. For instance, he just completed a forty thousand (yes, you read right) square foot house in Texas, and it took his team four years. That's pretty good, in my opinion.

Another red flag surfaces when a client appears anxious to second-guess and control a project. "Of course a home should express your personality, but it's up to me to get it to do so."

"What happens if a client drives you barking mad?" I ask.

He looks serious and removes his glasses. "The one thing I will not tolerate is rudeness to my staff and the people we use. I have fired clients for that. My favorite client is a woman who introduces herself to every painter, plasterer, you name it, and tells them how happy she is they're on the job. Of course they bend over backwards for her."

Wiseman has a team of architects on his staff - he's always on the lookout for talent - but he's also worked with some of the world's most prominent architects; for instance, he's done two projects with the Mexican supernova Ricardo Legoretta.

"My favorite kind of project," Wiseman says, "involves the entire team from the start - the clients, architect, landscape architect, and me. That's when you get the creative energy, and things really happen. It's vital to involve  clients from the beginning and keep them involved and bringing their own energy and perspective to what we're creating. After all, it's for them. Sometimes they can become too passionate, and I have to say, 'We're decorating here, not saving lives.' "

Paul has a very strong ethical code; in fact part of his mission has been to raise the level of professionalism of interior design from secrecy and inaccurate pricing (I'm putting it nicely - ed) to a straightforward, honest process.  The pristine elegance and beauty of his work clearly demonstrates that he lives by his motto, ""When I can make a person's home reflective of who he is, I believe it can affect that person's interaction with the world. A beautiful interior is a way of expressing the soul."



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