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."
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.
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."