Interviews

The Interview: Stanlee Gatti

by Janet Reilly

If ever you’ve danced the night away at the SFMOMA or attended opening night of the San Francisco Opera or Symphony, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the beauty and splendor of a Stanlee Gatti creation.

For more than three decades, Gatti has been making magic as San Francisco’s premier event designer, turning canvas tents into enchanted forests, hotel ballrooms into holiday wonderlands, even choreographing a picnic for 3,000 people to celebrate the opening of George Lucas’ Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio.

Born in a small mining town (population, 6,500) in New Mexico, Gatti longed for big city life. In 1978 at the age of 23, with $750 in his pocket, he landed in San Francisco. He rented an apartment in the Tenderloin and got a job in the flower shop of the St. Francis Hotel, where he was asked to set up a lunch table for a group of women planning an SF Symphony gala. They liked what they saw. Before long, Gatti was staging events for the city’s social set, building a design empire (now with 16 full-time employees) and becoming as famous as his famous clients.

We were scheduled to do our interview at Meraki, his latest venture, a meticulously curated grocery store, but with the noise and excitement of opening day just two days away, we opted for a quieter setting next door—in the empty lobby of a building Gatti restored in his old neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Sitting on folding chairs, and sipping hot coffee from paper cups, our conversation meandered from color-filled dreams, to the state of the city and subjects in between.

Let the show begin…

Let me begin by asking: Do you really drink 12 shots of espresso a day?

I don’t as much anymore. Who said that? Did somebody write that?

It was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, and also that you sleep four hours a night.

I don’t sleep much more than that. In fact, four hours is a good night. I left here last night at probably 12:30 [a.m.] and then I went to sleep at about 3. It’s OK. There are times, of course, you get genuinely tired because you just don’t have the ability or the time to put your head down. My dad didn’t sleep very much.

You grew up in Raton, New Mexico. What were you like as a child?

I was a kid who was curious, like most kids are. But I never really considered myself a kid. I didn’t feel like I had any limitations. I was hyper-creative at an early age.

How did your hyper-creativity manifest itself as a kid? Did you paint, act, draw?

No, I never did anything very well that I was taught. I used to have these dreams, probably at the age of 3½. I had them repeatedly until I went to school. The dream was just this color—it wasn’t like a kaleidoscope. It was very linear and it had this movement. I would try to explain it to people and for the longest time, I tried to figure it out myself. I had all this stuff going on in my psyche as a kid. It was very difficult as a child because nobody else was talking about the stuff I was thinking about.

You had a restless mind…

I didn’t sleep very much. One night I heard my mother and her sister Mildred talking in the kitchen. My aunt Millie was like, “Ann, you’ve got to do something with this boy. He can’t be up all night.” My mother said, “Millie, just leave that boy alone. He’s a dreamer.” I thought, Oh, wow, that makes it all OK. I was a little kid. I was probably maybe 9 or 10 when I heard this.

My mother said to me one time: “Stan, you never have to worry. As long as you’re not hurting someone and you’re doing everything you can to not hurt yourself, you can do anything you want in life. Just don’t hurt anyone and try not to hurt yourself.” That’s my motto.

In 1978 you moved to San Francisco and then built your name early on in your career while working at the Westin St. Francis.

I came here at 23. I was in Aspen and I knew I needed to be in a bigger town—someplace where people were affecting the lives of people throughout the world. So it was going to be New York or San Francisco, and it ended up being San Francisco because of some hitchhikers I met up with. They said, “There’s no city like San Francisco. You gotta go to San Francisco.” I said, “OK, great.” I had $750 to my name—I thought I was filthy rich. I got on an airplane. I remember at that time, it was $110—something like that—to fly one-way to San Francisco. I had a couple of suitcases.

How do you describe yourself and what you do professionally? It seems like “event designer” is too limiting.

It’s too limiting for who I am, but not for what I do for a living. I really do design events. It all happened very serendipitously and it happened naturally. When I was at the St. Francis working in the hospitality industry, it was a job. I wasn’t looking for anything to tie me down. I wanted to have fun. In those days in San Francisco, people did have fun. We did. We went out all night. It was just fun.

What do you love about what you do?

Probably the thing I’m most interested in when it comes to events, outside of just being able to create beauty, is that I don’t have to take it that seriously because it’s just for the moment. You create all this and you do it, and then it’s fine. It’s like a quick installation, but you see, I love that.

Your work is art, but unlike a sculptor or a painter whose art has some permanence to it, yours disappears when the event is dismantled. Is there something bittersweet about that?

No, not at all. The process is the same. If you’re an artist in your heart, how you create is the most important thing. For me, I’m the happiest when I see that final moment before the guests walk in. I’m always so excited for this!

Do you have a favorite type of event you like to do? Do you like the grand galas or do you prefer the smaller, more intimate parties?

I don’t really have a preference. It’s the people. I love meeting new people and also working with people I’ve worked with before who have wonderful taste. Or, people who just say, “Listen, I don’t know what to do, so do what you think is right. I just want it to be nice for the guests.” But if I had to pick, maybe it would be a wedding because they are just so romantic and it’s all about love. It’s a meaningful time. It’s a celebration. It really is a celebration of life. As a kid, I went to every wedding that happened in my little town … even though I probably wasn’t invited to all of them.

You have done hundreds, maybe thousands of events. How do you stay inspired?

I think it’s a muse. I have a muse who really guides me through things. I don’t talk to the muse. I don’t register it, but the muse is this higher level of coming to things. It’s really crazy for me—it’s very easy for me to come up with something.

So, you don’t struggle with new ideas?

There are some times when it’s not inspiring. Sometimes I worry about what happens when I don’t want to do it anymore. It means that I just don’t want to do it anymore. It means that maybe there is a lack of inspiration.

One of the things I really admire about you is your civic engagement and your infectious love for this city, and your desire to make it a better place.

I do genuinely care and genuinely love this city, but right now, San Francisco has me questioning some things because of the state of the city. I’m not one of these people complaining about the influx of new people and how the technology is changing things. Everything changes, but it’s the management. The reason we have government, the reason it was created, was to form a society where people get along with one another. … I can forgive a friend who is maybe nonchalant about homelessness, who’s nonchalant about the streets. They can’t possibly be a really good friend, but they can be a friend. They can be an acquaintance. I say, if you don’t care about the dirty streets, that’s fine, but I cannot forgive an elected official. An elected official has a responsibility. They ran on the idea and the premise that they were going to make the city work. This is just not what’s happening right now.

So should we expect to see Stanlee Gatti for Mayor signs popping up soon?

No.

Let’s talk about what you’re doing in the Tenderloin: Here we are, sitting in this beautiful building you’re renovating—just one of a number of buildings you’ve purchased and are fixing up in this neighborhood.

I’ve mentioned to a lot of people, I always say, “Buy a building. Fix it up. That’s another way of giving back to the city. Let’s help this neighborhood.” … If I had Apple or Google or Amazon money, I would be doing this [full-time]. Because at the end of the day when you’re six feet under, what is that money for? This attachment that people have to it baffles me. It truly, truly baffles me. I hope to understand it before I die. Certainly, I’ve been around enough people with a lot of money, but I am very curious to know what triggers the impulse to take money so seriously.

Tell me about Meraki Market, your latest venture—a gourmet grocery that’s opening this week right next door (927 Post) to where we’re sitting. How did this idea come about?

There’s always been the idea of a grocery store in my head. A little market. I’ve always thought about a market because I came from a town that had little markets in all the neighborhoods. … My mother and father were foodies and they believed that you should be healthy. Healthy to them was “fresh.” Was it always healthy? No, but it was perceived to be because it was fresh.

My nephew introduced me to the [Greek word meraki]. He said, “This is a perfect word for you. It means putting your heart, soul and passion into something you do. I feel like everything you do is done with meraki.”

You served as president of the San Francisco Arts Commission for almost a decade. What do you think of our public art in San Francisco?

For a long time, San Francisco rested on its laurels. This city has geography like no other—except for hill towns in Italy, some places on the French Riviera. Rio de Janeiro has incredible topography and amazing geography.

In San Francisco, having public art stimulates people to think about something differently. Of course, we become art snobs—I think I am a little bit of one. I don’t want to see sculptures all over the city of fish where people thought, Oh, Fisherman’s Wharf. We’re going to put a fish.

Let me just say that we’ve always been very rich in murals, and I do greatly appreciate what has happened with the murals of San Francisco. Many of them are historic, documenting a particular time in our history. Many are graphic—they’re there to show how great the scale is. Graffiti has an interesting play. I don’t like random graffiti. Tagging—I think that’s disrespectful.

Have you ever thought of doing anything Christo-like in the city? A big installation in Golden Gate Park, wrapping the Golden Gate Bridge?

No. I’d love to create a garden someplace. I’ve often thought that if I had the means or maybe if I could [raise the money], I would like to do some sort of tribute garden for Joni Mitchell.

I know you’re friends…

She’s the greatest musician of our time. I don’t think there’s anyone who comes close to her. It’s not just because I know her—it’s because she is the real deal. I would like to do that. It all sort of goes into the civic end of it as well, because I still want it to be great for the city.

Something else I’m curious about is your work with the Hollywood set—doing parties with Elton John, Kanye West’s proposal to Kim Kardashian at AT&T Park.

I’ve been doing it for 33 years, which is almost hard to imagine. Midway through my career, I started working in Hollywood doing different things. It was fun. My bones have never trembled when I was going to meet a celebrity, because I feel like I was always meeting them when I worked at the St. Francis. I was the liaison from the hotel to the Queen [Elizabeth] when she was there. I dealt with the Queen, I dealt with presidents and heads of state. Really, I never have been one of those people who get all excited. I only get excited when I think they’re somebody who has truly been an innovator in the world and accomplished something that is moving us forward.

You consider Kanye an innovator. How did you meet him?

It was [my] birthday and somebody was giving me a little party. We were all at this one long table and some friends brought Kanye. A friend had actually tried to introduce us before because they thought I would like him since he has such great taste. First of all, he sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Then he sang outside on the street. He said, “That’s your birthday present. Some people have paid two million bucks for that.”

Fast-forward a couple of years later. Kim’s cousin contacted me and said, “They want to do this event here.” I went and met with Kanye: He sort of planned it all. We saw eye to eye. He had called me from the plane one time and said, “I’m on the way to Seattle. I want you to see this concert, the way we’re opening it. This is an amazing opening. I’m just trying it out for the first time.” That kind of excitement—I live for that kind of excitement. I live for people who love what they’re doing.

The Lightning Round

I’ve always desperately wanted to…

I don’t feel desperate to do anything.

If I had a magic wand, I would…

I would bring back compassion amongst people.

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken…

Giving myself to another person.

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