This story originally appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
The house is white, unmistakably, unapologetically white. So white that a more colorful guest might be afraid to sit down without having advance knowledge of where the Clorox is kept. However, when an unexpected visitor, a 10-pound canine cannonball named Eve, leaves a mysterious mark on a costly linen rug, Vicente Wolf’s response is surprisingly—even shockingly—indifferent.
“She’s a puppy,” the designer says consolingly, blotting seltzer on the spot, seemingly more amused by Eve’s owner’s dismay than disturbed by his rug’s new, less minimal look. “If it doesn’t come out, I’ll just turn it around. Or put a chair over it.”
That such a reaction should come from a man who spends so much of his time making things mind-numbingly perfect is almost eerie. And yet, there it is. Wolf is equally matter-of-fact about the decoration of this house, his weekend retreat in Montauk, Long Island. “It is ‘done,’” he says. “It’s very done. But this is what I think of as my grown-up house. It has sofas, tables, rooms—all the things I don’t have in New York.”
Wolf’s Manhattan loft—all in his signature white, of course—does seem more like a large studio than it does a home. By contrast, there is no mistaking the Montauk place for a residence, if only for its plethora of “amenities”: guest rooms, a study/television room, a heated pool, a big kitchen, a large backyard, well-thought-out landscaping, a two-car garage. The only things needed to make it a ’70s suburban homeowner’s dream are a Ping-Pong table and some shag carpet.
In fact, such a scenario was once not so far from the truth. Documentary evidence from the site—Polaroids of the house from 13 years ago, when Wolf and his then partner, Bob Patino, bought it—shows a troubling amount of wood paneling, patterned carpet, puny picture windows, and other dubious design elements. In short, it was a house only someone who likes to roll up his sleeves and get out the backhoe could love. Wolf and Patino changed the entryway, gutted rooms, and reconfigured the layout, and Wolf later re-landscaped the grounds and installed a pool. The measly windows facing the Atlantic were jettisoned—as were a wall or two—and a view was born. But view is too small a word to describe the sight of endless rows of breakers stretching along the beach and out into the ocean. Vista? Panorama? Is there anything more expansive?
Curiously, the house’s modest gray shingled exterior still remains, in marked contrast to the revamped interior. But to Wolf, not only is the house “done,” in the decorator’s sense of the word, it is also finished. He is more concerned with the beach, the relaxation, and the quiet that comes with Montauk, which is within spitting distance of the status-conscious Hamptons but worlds apart in most other ways.
While some of the social marathoners from points west might well think that escape is more about a popular perfume than physical isolation, Wolf is happy to go it alone. “In Montauk, you really can be anonymous,” he says. “You’re not going to run into anyone you know, so it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, or what you wear. People don’t even notice.” At Wolf’s place, actually, the only wardrobe requirement is a swimsuit (in the pool, he says, “most people swim nude”), and while his guest rooms are rarely empty during the summer, it’s a scene not likely to be chronicled in a Judith Krantz novel anytime soon. Wolf keeps things low-key: a few friends, quiet dinners.
In many ways, life in Montauk has allowed Wolf to concentrate on his other great love: photography. “Decorating is all about order,” he says. “It’s really one of the most superficial means of creating there is. But photography is chaos—at least the way I look at it. People are usually surprised when they see my photographs; I think they expect them to be very clean and composed. But that’s what I like about it. You’re just pointing the camera and capturing the moment, and that’s what I do: just look, aim, and shoot.”
Wolf has even been thinking seriously about working more often behind the camera, though not without trepidation. After all, the photography world is not exactly a Whitman’s sampler of calm. However successful he is at turning his avocation into a second career, he plans to take it with a degree of philosophic serenity—the same one with which he watches the Atlantic’s waves break from his window or the occasional puppy gallop around his living room. “It’s about letting things happen,” he proclaims of photography; in the controlled arena of decorating, he’s never had occasion to utter such a statement. But lest this sounds like Wolf is getting too comfortable chez lui, think again. “I don’t do anything laid-back,” he says wryly, “except sleep.”
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