PalmSprings.com Spotlight: An Interview with Designer Greg Wolfson

Greg Wolfson began his career in design at 18, creating unique advertising campaigns for mens’ sportswear in Seattle, WA for companies like Union Bay and International News.  Upon landing in Los Angeles in 1987 at age 21, Greg embarked on a career in set design. He quickly found a niche in television, working on soaps (Generations), sitcoms (Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Parent ‘Hood, Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher), Disney specials (101 Days of 101 Dalmations, Mighty Joe Young, Flubber, Hercules: From Zero To Hero), talk shows (Montel Williams, Pat Sajak, Sally Jesse Raphael, Gabrielle), game shows (The Price is Right, Family Feud), and variety shows (Gordon Williams, Townsend TV).

Along the way, Greg made the leap from set design to interior design, and has numerous clients in Palm Springs, including The Biltmore and Beaumonde Villas, and has designed dozens of homes in Puerto Vallarta, mostly in the Icon Tower by Philipe Stark, and The Penninsula. His work has been widely profiled and celebrated by publications such as Palm Springs Life, Modern Home China, architecture.comSalon.comSPACE magazine, Dune magazine, Desert Home, and Vallarta Lifestyles. Greg has also produced sets for numerous charity events, including the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s annual dinner and Women’s night, the Vision Awards, and California Equality. Follow Greg on Twitter and Facebook.

Kate Buckley: Greg, I’m always fascinated by the journeys of others, and yours is no exception. I was delighted by our initial conversation and am can’t wait to learn more. How did you come to interior design? 

Greg Wolfson:  I had no idea after high school that I would end up in design, even though, the truth of the matter is I have always been into design!  Since the age of six or seven, I would wait up until my parents were asleep and rearrange the furniture in the house just to see how the room would “feel.” Even when I wanted to be a stage actor, I was heavily involved in the stage design.  When I struck out on my own—in Seattle, at age 18, I thought I could be a model and actor.  I quickly began to find my way through publishing, becoming the arts and fashion editor of Seattle Magazine, and took on side jobs with fashion companies based in the NW, art directing their photo shoots. It wasn’t until I came to LA (at the age of 21)  that I admitted to myself that design might be my future.  I was asked to pitch in on a student film at AFI (mostly because I had a lot of furniture and art at my house).  I fell in love with production design/set decoration, and quickly found my way onto the crew of some truly horrible low budget films.  What a trial by fire!

Surviving that, I was able to easily slip into the role of set decorator on my first sitcom THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR.  Many other high profile TV shows came my way, including THE MONTEL WILLIAMS SHOW, HERCULES: ZERO TO HERO, GENERATIONS, etc.  I never had formal schooling in design, and I don’t draft or do space planning.  Most of my career I spent taking a space and making it the most believable version of whatever it is supposed to be.  Taking an alley and making it into a French bistro on the Left Bank? OK. Parking lot as Lolapalooza? No problem.  Pretty interiors are always fun, but sometimes the best part of remodeling a house, for me, is figuring out how to make it the BEST house.

KB: Viewing your designs, it seems that you have seamlessly fused set design with an awareness of how people—particularly in resort destinations—like to live today. If you had to coin a phrase for your particular aesthetic, what would it be?

GW:  Comfort and style.  In today’s design landscape almost any look is achievable by almost any budget, so the work is to fuse that budget with each individual’s taste into the most original version of any look that they desire. The market is flooding with mid-century looking product, some of it very good and very inexpensive, so it is finding the right balance of old and new, and of course, I always like to have an element of surprise, something that strikes you as MORE.

KB: And what brought you to Palm Springs?

GW:  I was working on multiple projects in Los Angeles, restoring Craftsman homes for a few clients in Hancock Park and Historic West Adams, and after visiting Palm Springs (around 2004), I was struck by the simple beauty of the architecture, the mountains and especially the desert wind.  I acquired a few clients here, and dove into my research on mid-century design, and things just started clicking faster for me and I found myself torn between working in Palm Springs doing model homes, second homes and vacation rentals—and doing the same thing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico!  The major deciding factor for my husband and I buying a home here and moving here full-time was our children.  We can offer them such a superior experience at Palm Springs Unified School District than we could in private schools and public schools in Los Angeles.

KB: And I understand that this has been a particularly welcoming community for your family [Greg and his husband were the first gay couple allowed to co-adopt foster children in CA]. Why do you think that is?

GW:  Thanks for mentioning that!  We have found such an amazing community of people here, in all walks of life, that want to participate in our lives and well being.  The design and real estate community here is also so welcoming and non-competitive, I’ve found, and it is easy to be ourselves, express ourselves creatively and as a family.  We don’t get strange looks on the street here (I am Caucasian, Eric is Costa Rican, the kids are Latino, Chinese and African American). People here quickly figure out we are a family, and immediately welcome us!  The warmth of the people in Palm Springs is staggering and very moving to me.

KB: Where in Palm Springs do you live? Why did you chose that particular neighborhood?

GW:  We live a little north of Raquet Club.  We have lived in a few neighborhoods here, and found that the North End suits us best. We loved to strong winds at night, and there seems to be a vitality and neighborhood pride that is strong and progressive here.  People are very interested in improving their homes to live in, rather than to flip, so there is definitely a sense of community.  We had lived in a gated community when we first came here, and it turned out that absolutely NO ONE lived there as a first home, in fact, aside from a few winter vacation renters, there were entire months that we were the only residents at all!  Peaceful? Yes, but we really do like being part of our community!

KB: Are there specific challenges to designing interiors in resort destinations like Palm Springs and Puerto Vallarta that don’t exist in set design?

GW:  Of course, any time I am dealing with a customer instead of a script as the dictator of the look, I have to take in people’s feelings and opinions.  It is trickier sometimes, to discern what a person may like or dislike about certain colors or patterns and to balance their opinions with my job of making the spaces work. Budget and practicality also come in to play with a real space, as opposed to a cinematic space.  Sometimes, I really am concentrated on the vignette , or “close-up,” and have to remind myself that there really does have to be somewhere to kick off your shoes, throw your mail and keys and just exist!  In set design, I can “stage” a mess that is very pleasing.  In real life, it can be distressing!

KB: I am particularly enamored of your use of line—you have a particularly clean aesthetic, married with the high drama that can only come from a prior life in set design. How would you describe your design philosophy?

GW: I was trained to work very quickly, and sometimes on a shoe-string budget, to make a convincing look with a few bold strokes, so that my be where I honed that skill a little bit.  I like to tell a story, very quickly, with a few grand pieces, and then fill in where I can with a few surprising items.  I like clean, bold colors and large statement wallpapers that can inform the eye immediately of what kind of space you are in.  Then you can settle in and enjoy the detail.

KB: What do you enjoy most about working with your clients to create living environments? 

GW:  I love helping people realize their own design dreams.  It’s so fun working with people that shyly admit to liking something that may not sound like a trendy look, drawing them out and helping them achieve the design they are hoping for inside and giving them confidence that they have chosen correctly, and that what they love is valuable!

KB: Any new exciting projects on your horizon?

GW:  I am currently working with Interior Illusions furniture store (803 N. Palm Canyon) doing interior design for their clients, as well as staging homes for sale. On the independent side, I am working with a developer who is doing multiple projects, a 100 home development in Cathedral City, as well as redesigning an out of date business park in Rancho Mirage.  Oh! Also, an awesome home in Indian Wells. My client is so fun to work with, he constantly pushes me FURTHER into bold and daring design, and understands the cost of making big changes.

KB: What would you be doing if you weren’t designing?

GW:  I love performing.  I enjoy acting on stage, small theater, doing comedies.  I can also envision myself someday owning a small bistro in Vallarta in the Zona Romantica.  But I think, realistically, I will always be designing something. I can’t imagine a time that I would not want to work. I love my job. There are no parts of it that I don’t enjoy.  I guess I’m pretty spoiled that way!

KB: What do you love most about Palm Springs?

GW: The people are just so wonderful.  I love all the guys that go to the gym every day in retirement, keeping active and fit and healthy.  I love being able to take my kids anywhere I go, find a parking spot and feel welcomed, whether it’s at the grocery store, the cinema, a cocktail party for Desert magazine, or a restaurant.  I feel embraced, and I know that if I show up at a coffee house alone, I can make an acquaintance immediately.  That is definitely a luxury we have living in a cosmopolitan yet small town.  Then there is the wonderful warm air, the gorgeous mountains, the great houses…

Photos: All photos of Greg’s work by photographer David Blank.

About Kate Buckley

Kate Buckley is a brand strategist, premium domain broker and consultant, interviewer, storyteller, visual artist, and award-winning poet & writer. She’s worked in media and marketing since 1997, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the author of A Wild Region (Moon Tide Press) and Follow Me Down (Tebot Bach). A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her awards include a Gabeheart Prize and the North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize. She was most recently shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. A ninth-generation Kentuckian, she’s made her home in Southern California since 1998.

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