We were shown in to Vicente Wolf’s loft apartment in the Garment District by his housekeeper and then encouraged to wander … we just turned to each other and said ‘I could move in immediately!’ How easy this interview was going to be with someone whose design sensibility resonated with our own taste! So it was something of a shock to find our interviewee, when he arrived, quite clearly reluctant, bored and not particularly welcoming. Well … we held on to our faith in what we had seen of his home and it served us well. Once he had decided that we weren’t total idiots, he turned out to be as interesting as his apartment indicates. His delivery is languid but he is a complex, perceptive, curious person, both shy and opinionated. He is incredibly well-traveled, unsettlingly observant – and he is funny (in a sardonic sort of way).
This is just our taste! It’s wonderful.
Oh. Well, I’m not very good with room mates … so …
There are so many treasures from your travels in here. There can’t be anything you would ever throw out.
Well, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of you two …
This is really home for you …
I hope so. If not then I’ve been sleeping in somebody else’s apartment. I also have house at the beach, in Montauk. It’s similar to this [New York] neighborhood, a little out of the way … I like that. I like being a little off the beaten path.
Your photography collection alone is incredible. You are photographer yourself. Are you self-taught?
Self-taught in everything I do. I photograph for all the different magazines, two books … [looks out the window]
If you had to choose, which would it be – interior design or photography?
The photography. I like the immediacy of it. I like the sense that it’s your vision. When you’re doing interior design, you’re doing somebody else’s vision.
The way you have them displayed, propped on shelves and chairs, gives these photographs an air of impermanence. Is that deliberate?
I think when you nail something to the wall, there’s no longer a choice. When things are hanging in one place too long, you stop seeing it. This way I can change things around.
Where did you grow up?
Oh. I’m Cuban. I lived there until I was 15 years old.
How was it to grow up there?
Well, I mean … it’s very … I mean … where did you grow up? As a kid, you’re just growing up in your home. You only know in hindsight what those experiences are like to compared to other situations.
I’m not asking if you had an exceptional childhood, just what your memories of it were.
No … no … I know …
How old were you when you came to New York? What did you do?
I was 18. I worked.
What sort of work did you do?
I worked in advertising, merchandising, I modeled, took acting, retail, swept floors …
Did you have faith in that you knew you were going where you wanted to go?
Faith? I’m Capricorn, we’re very … [chops the air with his hand] …
Richard Nixon … very tenacious at getting what you want.
You said that you never graduated from high school – is formal education overrated?
I think it’s whatever works for you. You know, I’m dyslexic, so the sense of schooling that format of learning did not work for me. I mean what you see here [in the apartment] is because I can see it in my mind before it is created … let me ask you, is this online? It doesn’t seem very structured. I may be slow but I’m perceptive. [yawns hugely]
Are you tired?
No … I’m bored … [grins]
You don’t deserve to be bored. Not many people get a chance to talk solely about themselves for two hours.
No, no, it’s the heat. [laughs] I don’t like to talk about myself. I’m shy.
Despite the heat, do you like New York? Is it a place that suits you?
I think it’s a city that takes you in for your worth, not who you are, where you came from. If you have something to offer, then step right in. It’s not about echelons about who were your parents, it’s ‘what do you offer?’
Where have you traveled to recently?
Recently I was in Bali, California … I was in Israel … ‘recently’ meaning what?
In the past year.
Oh … Papua New Guinea, India, Argentina, Peru, Thailand … Jordan
Are there any places you haven’t been but would like to go? How about Africa?
Yeah, Mongolia … and Namibia … but you know Africa doesn’t thrill me. The first time you see a lion, it’s like ‘wow!’, the second time, it’s … [whatever], the third time it’s just this mangy cat lying there.
What did you think of Papua New Guinea?
Oh wonderful! It’s an amazing place because if you go to the Highlands, I mean 70 years ago they didn’t know anybody else existed. They were in the Stone Age … so I think any society that has had such a small degree of contact is really wonderful. If you travel the Sepik River, all the crafts, the art associated with Papua New Guinea … it’s amazing.
So you are happy to rough it?
I have no choice. No, I have the choice of not roughing it by not going. I think when you are in New York you need those touches of reality because it’s hard to believe that this [New York ] is reality.
What do you learn about contact with people in those sorts of places?
What do you learn? What do you get out of it going places like that? I think that it’s the understanding that we’re living in a global society and that the dialogue cannot just be limited to what we do and see and think of in this country. That you require all different points of view [in order] to have a complete thought and that goes to the truth of politics, to music, fashion … and in interiors it’s a way of creating environments that have a depth. Those are environments that certainly have a longer life.
But these places are not necessarily gentle places. Papua New Guinea has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
You know I think anything simple, a simple society like that and it’s peaceful until it’s not. I mean you look at a lion on the ground … it’s purring and licking and the next minute it’s killing. It’s like it’s very basic. It has none of those things we have layered upon ourselves. We’re still all or same. We are still as vicious. There they fight for land, for food … you think of us and what are we killing for. Much more savage reasons than they do. We’re killing for the sake of killing. It’s saying that what you believe in is the only way.
Are you religious?
I believe in a higher power. There has to be a higher power. I would say out of any one them [religions] it’s Buddhism, that sense of karma, repercussions of actions, that way of looking at things.
You mentioned that you go often go to the theater … what does a play have that a movie cannot offer?
I go once or twice a week [to the theater] I think that the fact that they’re standing there on stage doing it for you, that immediacy, the fact that good, bad, indifferent, mediocre, whatever, it’s there. It’s between them and you. You go to the movies … chewing popcorn and so on … there’s an impersonality there.
Do you watch much television?
I watch CNN and the Discovery Channel. I like Turner Classic Movies. My three favorite movies are Funny Face, Auntie Mame, and Two For the Road. They are the epitome of American high level artistry. It [is] that period in the 50s, the most groundbreaking and the last creative push we had. We altered ourselves in the 50s.
Are you romantic?
Yeah … in a cynical sort of way. [laughs]
What are the most commonly held misconceptions about designers?
That it’s a not a business. The misconceptions are created by the industry, by not running it as a business. My shrink says that it’s a business for needy people … the need to get assurance from clients … you’re missing a stone in your earring. That’s why I keep looking [in that direction.]
Yes, I know. What do you find ugly?
I think that our society is reaching the point where we are getting so far away in reality from the rest of the world, our excesses, about what we take as our every day necessities. The extravagance of it all. [From a design point of view] I don’t like Victorian stuff.
Isn’t it a glorious thing that taste can never really be arbitrated? You can never say why I like red and you like green.
No. You can say the same thing about art. I mean what makes good art? A consensus of opinion or a particular thought. But when you get to somebody’s home they no longer enter that broader realm of point of view. It’s like ‘I like it’.
Well, what of the hand of the designer? Aren’t homes that have been put together without a designer equally valid? Why have designers?
No. How can you say that? Did you see The Devil Wears Prada where she says ‘Look at your sweater. You think it’s your taste?’ In other words she’s talking about the derivation of somebody’s supposed choice. I mean maybe if they [homeowners] go out and carve something [as furniture] but they’re not, they’re going to IKEA or someplace else and what they’re doing, either through lack of education or sophistication, is selecting their environment. You could say the same thing about dentistry. ‘Hey! I drilled my own teeth because I learned how to stop the pain.’ There’s such a thing as experience, understanding and professional expertise [in any field].
If you dislike extravagance, what do you like to spend money on?
There isn’t that much. I would say the photography. I have a couple of million dollar’s worth of [it] that’s very extravagant but my sprinkler system doesn’t work … clothes … the furniture I have had for a long time. I mean I live an incredible life. I made everything I have.
Are you generous?
Er … were you offered something to drink? [laughs]. I’m basically conservative. Ish. I donate money to God’s Love We Deliver and to a design school in the Dominican Republic where I teach. I love to teach. I share what I have with friends … but I’m not extravagant in any way.
Do you like parties?
Very rarely. I’m very shy. I’m serious. If you want to talk politics or art, then that’s the sort of milieu in which I’m comfortable. That sort of thin-crust conversation is not one that I’m adept at. I would love to be able to do it. I prefer a dinner party.
Who would your fantasy dinner party guests be?
Oh, I had them here. I had Michael Lynne [co-CEO of New Line Cinema], George David, [CEO of United Technologies], Sheila Johnson [billionaire entrepreneur] and her new husband [Judge William T. Newman] … who else … I’m very bad with names … oh the second-in-command at The New York Times, very bad with names … John Geddes! And I would love to have Madeleine Albright … I just lectured with her.
No guests from other periods of history?
Well, you don’t want a dead guest … they make lousy conversation … do you like parties?
I hate parties
Yes, you see I thought so.
You live alone. Are you lonely?
No, I’m not lonely. Loneliness is a state of mind. I’ve been very lonely in a large crowd. It’s about how you feel about yourself. I don’t think, ‘If I’m with somebody, then I’ll be happy.’
What do you like to drink?
To drink? Oh, I like this vodka. I bring it from Paris. It’s flavored with bison grass. [takes bottle from refrigerator, unscrews cap] Here … have a swig. [we do.]
• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch