[Decor] Sophisticated urban style
In the early 1990s, Steven Volpe was a pioneer of loft living in San Francisco—the first person to move into a 75-year-old converted General Electric warehouse in the emerging neighborhood known as SoMa, or South of Market. The building was one of the city’s first loft conversions. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” says the interior designer, who had recently founded his own firm after working for several of the city’s elite decorators, including Anthony Hail and Eleanor Ford.
But while Volpe has always been adventurous, he is also drawn to tradition. Rather than emulate the high-tech style then synonymous with loft living in cities like New York, he tried instead to straddle both worlds, creating a classical look within the former warehouse, with its double-height brick wall and original redwood beams. “I was trying to be very adult and to please all my mentors simultaneously,” says Volpe. “It was all very tasteful. But it wasn’t me.”
He lived that way for a few years, until one day, as Volpe was descending the staircase from his bedroom to the loft’s soaring living space, that decorating scheme he had so carefully crafted suddenly felt all wrong. “I remember looking around and thinking: This is all irrelevant,” Volpe says. “There had been a change of centuries, but I wasn’t moving forward fast enough. I realized that I needed to start all over.”
The epiphany forced Volpe, as he puts it, “back to the white page.” He began to rethink not only how he wanted to furnish his home, but also what he hoped to stand for as a designer. Along the way, he discovered his voice as a decorator who is as cerebral as he is artful. Volpe creates thought-provoking environments that quietly stimulate all the senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste. And nothing exemplifies his approach better than his own glamorous loft, from its edgy art collection and intriguing furniture and objects to its luxurious details.
He began by befriending dealers, attending art fairs, and purchasing important artworks for clients. He was especially drawn to conceptual art and acquired choice pieces for his apartment: a shadow photograph by the contemporary Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto; a perforated terra-cotta plaque from the 1950s by the Italian artist Lucio Fontana; a mixed-media collage by Sterling Ruby, in which streaks of red nail polish jag across a mirrored background.
Volpe gradually divested his home of anything he deemed “mediocre.” He curated every object that crossed his threshold, from the Japanese cutlery in his kitchen (Michel Bras for KAI) to his German dinner porcelain (KPM of Berlin). The walls were repainted in claylike hues from Farrow & Ball. “I’d rather have a few things with integrity,” he says, “like a simple orange crate, a good stereo system, and a single chair, than a roomful of junk. Everything has to have meaning.”
Not that he ever had any intention of living like a college student. The globe-trotting designer is constantly discovering treasures and shipping them home. He bought a Burmese carved-wood owl from one of his mentors, Belgian antiques dealer Axel Vervoordt. From a favorite store in Paris, the cutting-edge Galerie Kreo, he ordered a limited-edition T5 bookcase by Martin Szekely, a designer he deems “the most important person working in sculptural furniture today.” The Japanese wedding incense that he burns each morning is imported from a kimono shop in Tokyo, where he first discovered it.
The living area’s showstopper is a console, made of galvanized tin and brass shaped to look like drapery, by the late San Francisco decorator John Dickinson. “He took an industrial material and manipulated it into something fluid and elegant,” says Volpe. A Ron Arad Oh-Void chair, a gravity-defying design consisting of two biomorphic ovals that rock back and forth, was one of his earliest acquisitions of contemporary art furniture. “I was walking by a store on the rue de Seine in Paris when I literally did a double take,” he says. “It looks impossible—two voids, just air, with no support. It couldn’t have been done without carbon fiber.”
Volpe’s enthusiasm for design that blurs the boundaries between furniture and art has inspired a side business. For the last eight years, he has owned a San Francisco gallery, Hedge, with business partner Roth Martin. One Hedge artist, California ceramist Tony Marsh, created the white earthenware forms (whose hundreds of perforations are painstakingly created with a Dremel drill) that Volpe displays atop the Dickinson console. Volpe and Martin occasionally collaborate on their own furniture designs, such as the loft’s Nakashima-inspired live-edge walnut dining table, complete with nickel butterfly joints, which is large enough to seat a dozen guests.
That the loft’s overall effect is relaxed and livable is a testament to Volpe’s skill and training as a designer. “You can’t be a modern painter if you haven’t been classically trained, so you know what rules you’re breaking,” he says as the morning light streams through the greenhouse window at the rear of the loft. “It’s the same with decoration. I learned what was appropriate and proper, and now I, too, can break those rules. I mesh art and decor—it is where I want to be in my 21st century.”