Monday, July 21, 2014

Designer I Love: Paul Wiseman

With a handsome new book on the horizon, clients clamoring for his designs, and a roster of past and present clients that reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the financial, art, and philanthropic worlds, San Francisco interior designer Paul Wiseman is at the top of his professional career.

Now Paul Wiseman’s dramatic new book, INNER SPACES, will be published by Gibbs Smith this fall. If you’re in San Francisco or London or New York or Paris you’ll most likely receive an invitation to a book signing. Lucky!

‘Inner Spaces, Paul Vincent Wiseman The Wiseman Group’ by Brian D. Coleman, with photography by Matthew Millman, includes nineteen residences around the world. This beautiful book—the culmination of Paul’s three decades as an interior designer—includes superb close-up images showing exquisite custom designs and breath-taking old-world craftsmanship. It’s a must for designers who are obsessed with custom design, and an education for everyone who admires polish, perfection and beauty in architecture and design.

This week, I’ve written a vivid in-depth profile of Paul Wiseman for your pleasure and inspiration. Come with me to meet a highly admired designer—a designers’ designer—who launched his firm in 1980, and now runs a firm with twenty-five designers and architects. 

This new exclusive feature, outlines two of Paul’s most personal projects, and his passion for authentic archiecture and fine craftsmanship, .

I take you for a private visit to his newly renovated house in Belvedere. We examine Paul’s lifelong focus on learning about design and the history of architecture. I’ll tell you about his study tours to the greatest examples of authentic architecture. And I have Paul’s list of great houses to visit.This is full-on—and includes ‘’Inside the Design Mind of Paul Wiseman’ following a chat I had with Paul recently—in which he offers great insider wisdom and tips.

His firm is known to a very private group of families who like their privacy. He’s created many houses for them and they’ve never been published (some are in his book).

Paul works with great intensity to please his clients, and along the way he’s crafted a very chic private life, first in a Nob Hill apartment near Grace Cathedral, and now in a hilltop villa in Belvedere, overlooking San Francisco Bay His private purpose: to provide a quiet retreat, to offer a respite and inspiration. Come with me for a visit.

This is a highly detailed post, offering lots of insight and ideas. Take a break. I invite you to pour a very nice glass of Chardonnay to enjoy with lightly salted Marcona almonds. Or make a lovely pot of Assam Superb tea by Fortnum & Mason, to accompany toasted homemade bread with unsalted butter, June Taylor’s Yuzu preserves, and a slice of English cheddar. 

At Home with Paul Wiseman: Belvedere House

For the past thirty-five years, the Wiseman Group has been considered the paradigm of discreet residential design firms in San Francisco. Obsessed with detail, the company’s designers polish and perfect rooms of lasting beauty.

After a day or a week of creating opulence and beauty, Paul Wiseman retreats to an historic turn-of-the-century Belvedere cottage hidden among allées of white and purple acanthus, pristine white agapanthus and orderly parterres sheltered by lichen-patched native oaks.

“I like the pure escapism of this place,” said Wiseman, walking onto his wisteria-draped loggia. Far below, a scoop of Belvedere Cove and the whitewater of Raccoon Straits, are visible through a veil of old oak trees.

“When it’s dense with billowing fog in the city it’s warm and sunny here,” said Wiseman . “We’re sheltered from the high winds that scream through the Golden Gate. It feels like nineteenth-century Lake Bellagio or Lake Garda here. I can watch the regattas, take breakfast on the portico, potter about the garden, listen to the wind in the trees, watch the birds.“

Wiseman’s one-bedroom stucco superbly detailed house, which also affords vertiginous views of both the Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island, was originally built in 1912 as a weekend cottage for Dr Florence Nightingale Ward, one of the first female surgeons in the United States. According to Belvedere library records, she would take the ferry to Tiburon from the city every Saturday morning.

“Dr Ward was a close friend of Julia Morgan, and the house definitely shows Morgan’s cosmopolitan sensibility and Italian-influenced eye,” noted Wiseman. It’s never been formally established if the house is by Julia Morgan (one of the greats of California architecture of the twentieth century). The perfect siting, and the elegantly proportioned loggia, with its finely tapered Doric columns, and a vine-entwined belvedere, hints at Morgan’s hand in the initial planning of the house. The grace and understatement also suggest Morgan. Well, traces of Morgan’s ideas float around, even if she did not.

The house today looks much the same as it did when it was first built--one of its great draws to Wiseman and his partner, Richard Snyder, an attorney. 

“I love the fact that it has never been “modernized” or fancied up,” said Wiseman. “No-one had ruined it. I glazed the walls a rich, warm ochre color but originally I did not do any renovation or restoration. I like the old terra cotta tiled floors, the original doors and windows. I didn’t want it to be a big design statement.”

His three rules of good design, he said, are ‘appropriateness, appropriateness, appropriateness.’ Furnishings should be right for the location, the architectural style, the purpose, and the people and their lives.

Eventually, Wiseman and Snyder undertook a rather serious renovation, as it became apparent that the house was clearly built as a summer cottage, somewhat insubstantial. Now, there’s a guest suite overlooking the garden, new bathrooms were added, subtle enhancements were made to be invisible. The house is weatherproofed and stable. A storm will not move it from its verdant perch.

“This is a weekend cottage, so the most appropriate furnishings here are comfortable and show the soft patina of time and use,” Wiseman said. “I love “old-shoe” furniture and antiques that have elegant lines but are not too formal. We’ve brought some favorites from a previous residence, dragged out prints and paintings and bronzes that had been in storage. Colors are soft; fabrics are smooth to the touch. I come here to live a low-key life."

About Paul Wiseman

I talked to Paul Wiseman about his design philosophy, his interiors, and his favorite things.

“I didn’t start off with a burning ambition to be an interior designer,” said Paul Wiseman, founder in 1980 of The Wiseman Group. The San Francisco firm today has a staff of twenty five, including interior designers, architects, a CEO, and a CFO.

“I was always interested in designing floor plans, in building tree houses when I was growing up on a pear farm in the Northern California Delta,” said Wiseman, “But at that time I could not have imagined design or architecture as my life’s work.”

The designer, who was recently placed among the top firms in the U.S., along with Peter Marino and Thierry Despont, studied political science in a college in Tasmania.

“After college, I worked at antiques galleries in Jackson Square, and two clients approached me to design their house,” said Wiseman.

“I was open to designing all styles from the very beginning, and my firm grew fast,” said the designer.

Inside the Brain of Paul Wiseman

I recently spoke to Paul Wiseman about ‘what he knows thus far’ and which elements of design are essential.

Come and discover his ideas.

“Interior designers and architects should study garden design. After all, gardens surround the house and are visible through windows and terraces. The interiors should be in relation to the garden. Garden designers are changing my aesthetics. I recently saw a beautiful garden in Melbourne, and have since incorporated textures, colors, silhouettes and a sense of transparency into interiors.”

“I love Fortuny. It’s gone through three decades with me. I like the graphic designs taken from early civilizations—the Peruvian, the Aztec, the African motifs—but I also love the classical baroque styles. In the eighties I sold more Fortuny than anyone in the world. I got their attention. I still love the effect. And the new owners, Mickey and Maury Riad are maintaining the quality. It’s so beautiful.”

“I’m always striving for quality with modern simplicity in my life. I like the honesty of natural linen, natural silk, not ornamented. That is always a great starting point. The ornamentation and elaboration can come later, if at all.”

“When you see a rare and beautifully executed object—a painting, a handmade piece, an antique textile, a hand-woven fabric, a quirky antique—and you love it, and it has personal meaning, you should buy it. The deep psyche in us is always seeking the one of a kind, the hand-crafted, the true expression of the soul.”

“No matter the aesthetic, a room and everything in it must offer comfort. I think carefully about table heights, comfortable sofas, individually designed chairs, where to put a drink on a table. Then you think about style.”

Lighting should be functional, practical and flattering. It should always be adjustable. There should be beautiful ambient light, pools of light, different sources of light. Today we are doing more pre-sets, computerized lighting. I work closely with Bob Truax of Truax Lighting. We can create many settings for rooms. I like custom bedside lighting that is adjustable and serves it purpose. I like translucent shades which offer a warm glow. I also love candlelight. Magical. And firelight. It’s very primeval.”

Nob Hill Living Room

Today The Wiseman Group is housed in an historic building on Potrero Hill overlooking San Francisco Bay.

The firm focuses solely on residential architecture and interior design, works on large projects around the world. Recently completed are a series of important houses in Hawaii, as well as residences in Palo Alto and San Francisco.

“Working closely with the clients, and with my staff, is my greatest pleasure,” said Wiseman. “I’m the conductor of this orchestra. Everyone shines; everyone can produce his or her best work. When we all work together and we all listen to the client, the outcome is best.”

The Wiseman Group has worked for a coterie of California clients and now he is working with their families, their adult children. Wiseman himself has designed as many as thirteen consecutive city houses, airplane interiors, country houses, island retreats and apartments for individual clients.

Wiseman’s design firm is known in the industry for its fanatical obsession with the finest details of décor, and for its custom work, as well as its ability to work to create the big picture. The firm’s versatility has been an advantage.

“We’ve had a reputation for producing design that’s traditional in inspiration,” noted Wiseman. “We do love to create classical interiors, but recently our work has also taken a modern direction as well, and several houses recently completed in Hawaii were dramatically modern.”

Over the last twenty years, Wiseman has gathered and worked with a vast network of artists and craftspeople around the world to create extraordinarily beautiful custom furnishings and furniture.

Among his roster fine embroiderers, carvers, gilders, decorative painters, metal workers, carpet weavers, glass blowers, tile-makers, framers, painters and plasterers who work on all aspects of an interior, to create interiors of lasting beauty.

Many of his clients are art collectors and philanthropists.

Nob Hill Dining Room

“We work with the finest antiques dealers and art galleries,” said Wiseman. “My clients have the highest standards. They are worldly, and they travel a lot, and they are deeply involved in the arts. They expect unique interiors that express their point of view and their life.”

Design industry insiders say that it’s The Wiseman Group’s total and constant focus on the client that sets the company apart and has led to its success. Wiseman himself never drops names of his clients,

“My clients are accomplished people who value their privacy, so most of our interior design is not published,” said the designer. “Our greatest pleasure is when our work is completed, and our clients say, “This is perfect. It’s exactly what we’ve always wanted. You’ve brought out the best in our house, and enhanced our lives.”

Nob Hill Bedroom

Travels with Paul Wiseman: Lifelong Design Studies and a Life of Learning

DDS: You've been a world traveler since you were nineteen. You studied in Tasmania. What effect did this travel have on your design?

It changed my career path. I have been traveling since the day I graduated from high school. I went to Europe for 3 months when you could actually do it for $5 a day. When I finished my year at the University of Tasmania I spent six months coming home through Asia and the South Pacific so that by the age of 21 I had seen numerous cultures and architectural wonders. It was on that trip that my dearest friend, said, “why are you studying Political Science when all you do is talk about art, history and architecture? Why don’t you get a job connected to that?” The rest is history. I had actually been to 35 countries before I ever saw New York City.

DDS: What was the first major travel you undertook as a designer?

In the early eighties I specified many yards of Fortuny fabric and was given an introduction to Countess Elsie Lee Gozzi the owner of Fortuny in Venice. I took the Orient Express from London to Venice, stayed at the Gritti, was picked up by the countess’s boat and given a grand tour of the Palazzo and her closets filled with Fortuny dresses. It’s an amazing life when you get to call that business travel.

DDS: You have joined and supported several international museum and heritage groups that offer outstanding tours focusing on visits and study of historic houses and villas throughout Europe. Please tell us about these organizations and why you support them.

I have been a member of the Royal Oak (National Trust of England) since the mid seventies after my first visit to Sissinghurst in Kent, and now I am involved with the Sir John Soane's Museum Foundation. Also, the World Monuments Fund which has a more global focus. I support the National Trust and the Institute of Classical Architecture. All of these groups foster the study and preservation of architecture and the decorative arts, which are very important to me. Without these organizations many of the great architectural and garden wonders of the world would disappear. The dues and special study trips help to keep them going.

Belvedere gardens

DDS: Where have you traveled with these design study groups?

I am very fortunate to have clients that are also passionate about the same things I am. Last Spring we were on a private tour of Spain, studying the influence of the Moors on western gardens for a project here in California, and then all joined the Soane Museum tour of Derbyshire. We met the Duke of Devonshire for a private tour of Chatsworth and enjoyed lunch with the Sitwells at Renishaw. It's formal study; it's total immersion in design history and architecture. Sometimes I call these ‘down on your knees tours’ as we touch the furniture and see the attics and basements. Imagine getting into the attic of Hardwick Hall? I am hoping to go on the Sicily trip next year. I recently went with ICA to Chicago to tour David Adler’s work. It is the lecturers we are guided by--the scholars, historians, preservationists, museums and owners with passion that make it possible.

DDS: What has surprised you?

I have done a couple of tours of Sweden…when you get to crawl around on the floor and explore the underside of furniture, see the backrooms and attics…you get to understand how everything was made and how it functioned. So when I do an “interpretation” of the Haga Pavilion in Stockholm, the depth of my understanding of its architecture and materials makes my new interpretation more than just a pretty room. I’m working on one right now…the Haga Pavilion as a family room.

DDS: Which country houses in England would you recommend other designers should visit for inspiration? 

Kedleston Hall- Derbyshire

Knole - Somerset

Chatsworth - Derbyshire

Hardwick Hall - Derbyshire

Syon House - Middlesex

Haddon Hall - Derbyshire

Sissinghurst - Kent

DDS: Which Venetian palazzo should designers visit as part of on-going design education?

Palazzo Fortuny Museum

Ca Rezzonico

Palazzo Ducale

Palazzo Labia

Palazzo Grassi (now an art museum)

Prada Foundation Museum (arte povera) to study the ancient building.

DDS: In Paris, where do you go for design inspiration? 


The newly reopened Musee des Arts Decoratifs
107, rue de Rivoli, 01-44-55-57-50

Musée Carnavalet
23, rue de sevigne

Musée Nissim de Camondo
63 rue de Monceau
Excellent collection of 18th century furniture

Musée Jacquemart-Andre
158-Blvd Haussmann
Have lunch in the dining room

Favorite Antique Dealers

Jean-Marie Rossi- Galerie Aveline
94, rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore

77 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris, France and

DDS: In London, what interiors do you recommend that architects and designers should visit?

Sir John Soane’s Museum
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields 020-7405-2107

Spencer House
27 St. James Place 020-7514-1964
Open Sundays

The Wallace Collection
Manchester Square 020-7563-9500

On my next trip I want to see the Leighton House Museum home of Frederic, lord Leighton the painter. The Arab Hall has over 1000 Islamic tiles he brought back from Syria.

Leighton House Museum
12 Holland Park Road

DDS: Favorite design museum (international)? 

I have two—one for traditional The Sir John Soane’s Museum and one for modern Vitra Design Museum, Charles-Eames-Str.1, Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. 49-76-21-702-3200. Design by Frank Gehry.

DDS: Favorite hotel for design? 

Amanjiwo-Java which overlooks the worlds largest Buddhist Sanctuary–Borobudur. You can also explore temples in the surrounding hills and visit the royal city of Yogyakarta.

DDS: Favorite design restaurant? 
Jean Georges
One Central Park West

DDS: Favorite new design book? 

Axel Vervoordt: Timeless Interiors
Flammarion, 2007

DDS: What is the secret of traveling well?

Do your research, lots of planning and have reservations.

DDS: If you were going to live and work somewhere other than San Francisco, where would it be?


DDS: The best design is informed by the history of design. Which design era 
do you most admire and why?

The 1920’s and 1930’s because modern design was a true departure from anything done before.

DDS: You always looking for new sources when you travel. What fabric or 
furniture or antiques sources have you discovered lately?

Claremont Fabrics
Art and Design Building
1059 Third Ave
New York, NY 10021

DDS: Favorite vacation place to get away? 

Any Aman resort the ultimate in luxury and comfort and they provide what is for me the ultimate luxury-a place to relax.

DDS: Where are you traveling next for design studies?

I am going with the Institute of Classical Architecture to study Palladian Architecture in Virginia. 2008 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great architect Andrea Palladio so this was my way of honoring him.

DDS: What is your dream travel destination—to study design, art or architecture? What do you want specifically to see or do there?

The desert of Nambia to see the color and the animals.

In November 2014, I’m going to Mazatlan to attend the opening night of a friend’s new opera. I can’t wait.

The Wiseman Group

About The Wiseman Group

Paul Vincent Wiseman opened his San Francisco firm, The Wiseman Group, in 1980.

Paul has assembled a talented team of designers, including principals James Hunter, Brenda Mickel, and Mauricio Munoz. With its deep field of talent, The Wiseman Group is equally comfortable creating beautiful, traditional rooms as well as contemporary spaces.

Each project is a unique and personal process and the firm's goal is to create a residence that reflects each client's needs, life experiences, and aspirations.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most dynamic and creative regions in the world, The Wiseman Group benefits from the cross-pollination of ideas and aesthetics in this high-energy locale. It’s a lively environment, where ideas that will influence and enrich people around the world are brought to life.

The firm is Influenced by the city’s rich history and traditions and its proximity to Silicon Valley, the cutting edge of modern technology.


To learn more about The Wiseman Group, staff biographies and projects are on the website.


All photography published here with express permission of Paul Vincent Wiseman and The Wiseman Group.

Belvedere house and gardens photographed by Matthew Millman.


Chas Miller said...

Love this piece. Kudos to Paul and his team.

One correction: The web site for the Soane Museum is > (it was missing the "e"). And for the Soane Foundation here in the USA >

The Swan said...

His Nob Hill apartment is and was the epitome of San Francisco chic...I wish for that apartment, which I first saw on the cover of your book oh so long ago...a treasured book on rainy days and misty afternoons.

I love Vincent Wiseman and Ann Getty, both of whom you've showcased...thank you so much, and yes, Lake Como at twilight was the feeling.

Dean Farris said...

Fantastic posting on an amazing success story and an inspiration for all!

La Contessa said...

I do not know where to begin!Today, is my BIRTHDAY DIANE and I have a WONDERFUL new friend called REBECCA WISEMAN!In, fact she and her husband and SON will be at my dinner table tonight!!!
I can see from his photo he is as kind and charming as his brother.I grew up there on the way to BELVEDERE.His SISTER IN LAW has me looking at SUCCULENTS now and I can see why!I bought my first FORTUNY scarf this past year.......and toured the museum in Venice.I could go on and on but just want to say I will be in that LINE TO BUY THE BOOK!!Absolutely, loved this POST.Thank You for making my DAY!

The Swan said...

Paul not Vincent...does he still Nob Hill...if so, may I buy it?

The Swan said...

Please forgive...I know his name is Paul Vincent - didn't know his he preference.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

Thank you so much for your wonderful comments.

I note that many of my readers have a great great admiration for Paul, and it is well placed.

I also received a beautiful note from a friend in NEWPORT BEACH..

"Dear Diane, What a wonderful treat your article on Paul Wiseman is today .He is one of my favorite people and a winner in life to be sure. Your storyline and the photos were sheer delight. When I arranged the SF. Trip for Darts Patrons Paul received us at his home. It was magical because he offered us good food to eat, incredible views of the bay and the pleasure of seeing his very special home. You brought the pleasure all back for me. Thank You, Elana Donovan

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Jeanne Lawrence

Diane and Paul,
Loved reading this, It’s paradise and I loved the reading the commentary. Xoxo Jeanne (Lawrence)

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


My great friend MARGOT VON MUHLENDAHL…sent a fantastic comment. She lives in Berlin…

"Brilliant post, Diane. Perfect photographs and text. You really are in a blogger's league of your own. M"

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


So many wonderful comments, including this new one from a young Oakland designer--Laura Martin Bovard…

"Hope this finds you well. That piece on Paul Wiseman made my heart sing. Having iconic designers like that gives me so much inspiration and holds a space as a place to grow into. My firm is up to 7 and we are loving it, maybe someday I will take my company as far as Paul. He makes it look so easy even though I know how much time and effort goes into that kind of creation".

Warm regards,

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Friends--in 149 countries…

I had a message from Paris, from Diane Fisher Martinson

"i love that you know him- i found the interview very interesting- will look for the book- i like the photos shown on the blog.i actually like his face too. always looking for new ideas- fortuny lover also!!!!"

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Friends-

There are lots of great comments and 'likes' on my FACEBOOK posts about Paul Wiseman.

And I received the following lovely message from ELISA STANCIL a fabulous decorative artist who has worked with Paul on several projects:

"THANK YOU DIANE for the in depth portrait of a wonderful man!"--ELISA STANCIL

Tara Dillard said...

Wiseman is the rare combination of interior AND exterior.

Have pinned most of what you've done, and shared the link on FB.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I've been so happy to hear from readers near and far, and from longtime readers of THE STYLE SALONISTE.

Today I received the following email:

"Thank you so much. This is a wonderful conversation with a gifted and caring man.
Most appreciated"

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this look at Wiseman's work I have been following his design for years though as pointed out in the piece so little of his projects have been published. This was an excellent collection. Just a quick note- Knole (Vita Sackville-West's ancestral home) is very close to the house and garden she and Harold Nicolson created at Sissinghurst which would place it in Kent not Somerset as menione dint he article.

trompe said...

We met Paul in Venice. We were in passing gondolas. I can't imagine a more glorious way of meeting. Paul gave us our first job and has always been an encouraging and inspiring colleague and friend. As for working for him, I paraphrase Oscar Wilde when I say that Paul is always satisfied with the best.

Anonymous said...

amazing article, just a note as an artisan who has worked with paul on a couple projects of the mention of window coverings in your article.