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Design Spotlight: Designing for the Future

By Diane Dorrans Saeks

Steven Volpe can now add a book of his own to the shelves of his library, shown here, at his residence in Pacific Heights. Studio Volpe is located in Jackson Square.
Steven Volpe can now add a book of his own to the shelves of his library, shown here, at his residence in Pacific Heights. Studio Volpe is located in Jackson Square. | Photo courtesy of Stephen Kent Johnson.

A new interiors book from designer Steven Volpe captures a career in motion.

“What gets me out of bed in the morning is design that’s timeless, not merely of the moment,” says Steven Volpe. The San Francisco interior designer is seated in his library on a white mohair Joaquim Tenreiro chair, sipping freshly made Earl Grey tea. A pair of first-century Ptolemaic-era copper ibis effigies peers over his shoulder from an 18th-century French marble mantel. Volpe has taken time for an exclusive interview to discuss his new book, Steven Volpe Rooms, published in October by Rizzoli, before heading to London to meet with clients.

The monograph, cowritten with Mayer Rus, reveals Volpe’s original, rigorous and refined approach to contemporary design. “I love the evolving nature of design, today’s juxtaposition of craftsmanship and tech,” continues Volpe, 63. “At Studio Volpe we are obsessed with architecture, art collecting, design, fashion. Our daily work focuses on the alchemy of transforming a room with four walls into something magical, welcoming, uplifting and inspiring.”

Publishing his 270-page retrospective has also caused the designer to reflect on the three-decade arc of his success in design, and to view the dramatic changes in design since he began as an eager young intern in the ’80s.

“Looking at our roster of clients and the decade of design represented in my book, I’m struck by the truly international nature of design today,” says Volpe, who grew up in the East Bay. “We’re starting on a new project in London. Also on the boards are a new residence on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, a house in the South of France and an exciting new retreat in a remote region of Costa Rica. The ultimate luxury is a private life in a house that’s custom-designed, site-specific, unique.”

Steven Volpe
Steven Volpe. | Photo courtesy of Stephen Kent Johnson & Styling by Michael Reynolds.

The experimental and often daring style of his work is also striking. He guides his clients toward muted rooms artfully placed with handcrafted furniture by arcane 20th-century designers like Ado Chale, Martin Szekely, Zaha Hadid, Jules Wabbes and many others. In clean-lined modernist rooms, he is always grappling with classical and historical references, he notes, while simultaneously bringing them into the 21st century.

“I’m interested in the new, in ideas that pull us forward,” the designer says. “We work with teams of specialists to enhance a sense of luxury. We have international sound engineers, lighting engineers, mechanical experts and audiovisual gurus. And we love traditional crafts. We’ve worked with the same very private San Francisco curtain atelier for two decades.”

With elegant images by New York photographer Stephen Kent Johnson, the book details eight residences. Among the most dramatic are a floorthrough residence in a sky-high megatower in Manhattan, a historic hilltop estate in Beverly Hills and Volpe’s own ultra-private Beaux Arts residence near Alta Plaza Park in San Francisco.

Steven Volpe Rooms (Rizzoli) Cowritten with Mayer Rus, this is the first book on the interior designer’s work.
Steven Volpe Rooms
(Rizzoli)
Cowritten with Mayer Rus, this is the first book on the interior designer’s work.

In the late ’80s, Volpe pursued design and architecture studies for four years in Paris, deep-diving into contemporary art, textile design and traditional craftsmanship. Those Francophile years and extensive travels in Europe laid the foundation of his subsequent interior designs, his modernist approach and art connoisseurship, he says.

“My apprenticeship in San Francisco happened in an era of maximal design, a time of grand decorators, formal classical decor, traditional style no longer in favor here,” says Volpe. He launched his firm in 1995 with clients who have stayed loyal over many years.

“From the start, I never wanted my work to be merely decorative,” Volpe explains of his classical-modern approach. His goal is to bring together the ensemble of furniture, decor, art and details so that rooms feel substantial and bespoke from ceiling to floor. For a New York apartment he recently designed a powder room in mauve and plum, with hidden drawers and cabinet interiors of chartreuse. Another powder room is sheathed in silver-leafed tiles. Door handles are hand-sculpted. “Design can be serious, but I love to surprise and delight my clients with ideas they had never seen, fulfilling their subliminal desires and dreams,” says Volpe. “Wherever the location, we strive to create rooms that are going to be exciting for many years.”

Now with his book published, and 10 years of work revealed therein, Volpe is looking forward to creating the next level of design. “I am always searching for new furniture designs and challenging or inspiring art,” he says. “Our team is sketching and devising new concepts every day. I’m very excited about the future.”

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