Vicente Wolf’s Manhattan Loft Is a Living Souvenir of His World Travels

Carved alligators, museum-quality photos, and midcentury furnishings live side-by-side in this quietly eclectic home.

living room with a daybed, armchairs, sofa, cowhide rug, footstool and pouf, with three large windows, white walls and ceiling and white painted floor
Pernille Loof

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said you can’t step in the same river twice. If he were alive today and had an eye for design, he would probably say the same about Vicente Wolf’s Manhattan loft. Ever since the 1980s, when the interior designer acquired and combined two units in a 1928 brick factory building in Hell’s Kitchen, the gestalt has been the same: white walls and a white-painted floor; explosions of greenery cheered on by a dozen huge windows (“Here, no plant dies,” he says); and furniture and decorative objects that he designed or retrieved from the four corners of the earth. (Wolf is a notoriously adventurous traveler. While other people were skiing or enjoying beach vacations this winter, he was in Sudan.)

Certainly anyone who dipped a toe into this space, say, 20 years ago would recognize it now. Four-poster daybeds, midcentury chairs, antique carved alligators, and museum-quality black-and-white photographs convey a consistent eclecticism. But Wolf believes that even old object-friends can grow invisible if they remain in the same locations and vignettes. So he moves them around. A 1940s French cabinet that once sat in the bedroom is now in a living room niche, under a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe. A 19th-​century oil portrait from Prague that was formerly paired with a Dutch Colonial desk from Sri Lanka is propped up on an Ethiopian chair. The forklift once used as a television stand has disappeared from the media room.

guest den daybed in raw steel, two leather armchairs, cast iron accent table, a floor and a table lamp, painting by damien hirst, and a stupa from thailand
In the guest den, a 1960s cantilevered French floor lamp illuminates a custom daybed in raw steel. The chair (left) is from VW Home, and vintage Hans Wegner chair (right) is in an Edelman leather. The painting in front of the window is by Damien Hirst, and antique stupa is from Thailand.
Pernille Loof

“What’s the crab that, as it goes through the ocean, things keep getting stuck to it?” Wolf asks. He is referring to an actual creature known as the decorator crab as well as to the fact that nothing in his home was acquired for a specific place but rather ended up in its spot just because it looked right.

Some objects were picked up for clients and welcomed back like adult children returning to the nest. Wolf found the living room’s antique daybed in Borneo and imported it for the music industry executive Clive Davis, who later parted company with it. Other discards he’s adopted: the money plant Bette Midler left behind after renting his Long Island beach house, and the white Ron Arad chair Margaret Russell offered him after leaving the editorship (and her office) at ELLE DECOR.

Recently, Wolf has ramped up the loft’s sociability factor. Whereas a 2009 Veranda magazine article described his furnishings as having “a conversation of their own, each speaking a different language of style,” the arrangements now lend themselves more to actual dialogues among real people. The bed Wolf designed and upholstered in his own fabric, for instance, is now surrounded by other soft seating, creating one of several convivial lounge areas in his home.

library with book shelves, built in screen and storage drawers, framed photographs on a chair and the floor
A photograph by Clarence John Laughlin rests on a neoclassical Italian chair in the library; the triptych photograph on the floor is by Richard Avedon.
Pernille Loof

At 77, Wolf is lean and handsome. Matthew McConaughey could play him in the story of his life, which has been told many times. He was born in Cuba and immigrated to Miami in 1961 at the age of 15. A sufferer of dyslexia in a strange new world, he never received a high school degree or formal training apart from a few months at the New York School of Interior Design. Wolf will insist he has no memory for names or facts. But then you’ll find him peering at a tabletop covered in intricately carved Tibetan Buddhist conch shells and wondering who switched out a couple of the pedestals.

An easy way to trace the evolution of his aesthetic sensibility is to remind him of his dozen favorite things, as reported by the Chicago Tribune in 2006. He says he still appreciates the fashion designer Thom Browne’s undeviating vision (“very different from how I think”) but has been dressing more casually during the pandemic. He also remains partial to the herbal flavor of Zubrówka Bison Grass Vodka, the slick lines of a 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible, the movie Auntie Mame, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in his beloved Bangkok.

in the primary bedroom is a custom bed in the center with a ­settee, chair, and cowhide rug at left, and a javanese screen and a serving cart at right
A custom bed, settee, and chair anchor the primary bedroom. The screen is Javanese, the serving cart is from Mathieu Matégot, and the cowhide rug is from Edelman Leather. The artwork (above bed) is by Martin Munkácsi.
Pernille Loof

He has gone cold on Annick Goutal cologne ever since the formula changed. He also now prefers PPG Pittsburgh Paints’ Delicate White to Benjamin Moore’s Super White because of the former’s extreme lack of tint.

He is mystified that theater, which he consumes avidly, didn’t make the earlier list (Company is a favorite). And he no longer cares much for restaurant dining. “It’s noisy, it’s not comfortable, you’re all dressed up, you’re not finding on the menu what you really want to eat, so it’s better eating at home,” he says.

If you are lucky to be entertained by him at his loft, where miraculously everything catches the eye without overwhelming the senses, he will serve you only one meal: salmon, couscous, and spicy eggplant. In fact, he was planning to serve that very dish to Mikhail Baryshnikov in a few weeks—on a table covered in orange so it glows like a flame in the white, white room.

april 2022 cover elle decor

This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

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