Monday, September 14, 2009
Interview with Robert Holgate
Holgate Residence, San Francisco, CA Photo: JD Peterson
A few years ago, I met an interior designer who wasn’t obsessed with fancy labels or excess, who – to borrow a phrase from Charles Eames – took his pleasures seriously. He talked about the meditative practice of moving objects around until they found their rightful place. He loved the spare beauty of a Platner chair as much as the mysterious depth of a Fortuny fabric. We sat down in his apartment overlooking Buena Vista Park to talk about the links between design and faith.
Q: When did you first know that you were interested in something related to design?
Robert Holgate: I grew up in Big Piney, Wyoming, so there wasn’t a context for design that I understood. But I knew there were some issues when I wouldn’t wear anything but corduroys until I was in high school. I drove my mom crazy. I was really particular about what I wore, and I designed my room and had this pattern painted around the room that was interesting for that era. It was orange and yellow and brown with stripes going around and coming to a point: very modern. But I don’t think I really understood that design was what I was meant to do until I started selling women’s clothes and then worked for Sue Fisher King.
Q: Did you go to church in Big Piney?
Holgate: My mom and dad weren’t big about them going to church, but my mom was pretty adamant that my brother and I go to church. It was a little Episcopal church in Big Piney; I think there were maybe 15 or 20 in church. But I was the altar boy and helped with services and stuff. I didn’t have a happy childhood, so I think I kind of used church as an escape.
Q: Did you rebel at some point, or did you just grow up and move away?
Holgate: I think by the time I got into high school, I stopped going to church so much. I didn’t rebel until I understood how evil it really is. I don’t think spirituality has that much to do with religion. The church is missing compassion. They’re riddled with judgment.
Q: So, what was the path to get to San Francisco from Big Piney? It seems a long way. You couldn’t make that name up.
Holgate: I always wanted to go to a city. I loved going to cities. My mom had to go to the doctor fairly often, and the closest doctor was in Salt Lake City, which was a four-hour drive, about 250 miles. So every time she’d have to go to the doctor, I’d beg to go. The day I graduated from high school, I loaded my car up and moved to Salt Lake City and started school there.
Q: What were you studying?
Holgate: I planned on becoming an operating room technician, because I thought they made good money. But I got in the operating room and passed out when they started cutting people open.
Q: How did you react to it being so Mormon?
Holgate: I didn’t really care that much about it, because to me it was a big city, and I loved that. I loved the variety and the fact that there were gay people there. But I didn’t come out until I’d been in Salt Lake maybe four or five years.
Q: When did you go to school?
Holgate: Needless to say, I didn’t finish school in Salt Lake City. When I came here, I went to the hotel restaurant program at City College. I worked in hotels and restaurants, and then I met Douglas Durkin. It was fun being with him. I realized then that I loved this stuff. At the time, Sue Fisher King was looking for somebody to run her store at Wilkes Bashford. Just before that, I had sold women’s clothes, and I did really really well. She recruited me to run her store at Wilkes Bashford, and that’s how I got into doing homes. People would come into Wilkes and say, “Will you come look at my kitchen? Come look at my dining room and see what kind of table stuff I need.” And eventually, people started coming in and saying, “We bought a new house, will you just come down and look at it?”
Q: How did you handle both?
Holgate: I had four clients when I was still running the home store at Wilkes Bashford. But it was crazy because I was working nights and weekends. I decided to quit when Glide Memorial United Methodist Church asked me to help them with their low-income housing facility, to help redo some aspects of the sanctuary. I was going to Glide at that time.
Q: Tell me more about Glide. How did you get there?
Holgate: I was friends with the people at MAC, the clothing store. A friend from there named Ben and I led a Shanti support group, and we became good friends, and I think he told me about it. He said, “You really should check Glide out, they have great gospel.” So, I started going every Sunday.
Q: Between Big Piney and San Francisco, had you gone to any other church in the interim?
Holgate: Not really. When I came out, I was really turned off by church, because of their not accepting me. I started doing a lot of reading about metaphysical things, about Buddhist teachings. I realized that was more the direction my spiritual path could take.
When I got introduced to Glide, the thing I liked about it was that it was so mixed, and there were a lot of gay people there, and Reverend Cecil Williams was standing up talking about how it’s okay to be gay, even though the Methodist church was telling him it wasn’t, he didn’t listen. He still preached the opposite. The choir was great, and it just felt like a community.
Q: So this project helping out with the housing and the church allowed you to say, “Okay, now I’m going to do my own thing.”
Holgate: That was the moment when I was overwhelmed, when I was like, “I can’t do both.” And that’s when I decided to do my own thing.
Q: So did clients just start coming?
Holgate: A lady called and said, “You know, I’ve got a house in Atherton, would you come down and look?” So we were about six months into it – and this is just when I was pretty new – and I get a call. I was in the hospital because I had had my appendix out. She said, “Robert, can you fly to Vail with us next week, we want you to look at this house we just bought.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll go.” They had their own jet, so we flew down to Vail and we walked through this house and it was on Beaver Dam Road, and the ski lift was just right there. So you could ski in and ski out of the house. That was my first big break.
Private Residence, Vail, Colorado Photos: JD Peterson
Q: Where did the phrase Wu Wei come from?
Holgate: My client and friend Wendy came up with term, and then I looked it up. It’s about things finding their right place. Wendy had a penthouse at Fourth and Brannan, and we would move stuff around until it was just right. She was one of my first clients. Wendy’s different in the sense that she doesn’t like what’s normal or safe. She likes things that are different. I am pretty intuitive – I can usually tell, after just a little bit of time, what it is clients like or don’t like. With Wendy, we were just in synch from the beginning. We both got in the same space, and then we’d look at something or do an installation or do an arrangement in harmony. It is a kind of a spiritual thing, because we’d move it around and say, “Oh no, no, this, this, this, oh, that’s it!” And we’d do it for hours.
We were in New York, and it was around Christmas time, and I loved going to see Bergdorf’s windows at Christmas, and they had these wonderful book sculptures in the window. That’s where I got the idea, so we did that.
Residential Loft, San Francisco, California Photo: JD Peterson
Inverness House Photo: David Wakely
Q: Do very many clients talk about that aspect of the work?
Holgate: I get goose bumps when I’m working with somebody if something feels right, or if I really love something. So I say, “Oh God, I got goose bumps.” Now quite a few of my clients say, “Well, did you get goose bumps?” Because they won’t get something unless I got goose bumps. But I think it’s a pretty good indicator for me, and I think it’s really kind of my soul coming through, kind of a higher power coming through when I get those.
Q: Talk more about that, if you can.
Holgate: In this apartment, I don’t have anything here I don’t love, absolutely love. It’s my requirement. And I try to get my clients to feel the same way about what they have. I feel like it’s a connection to source energy. If you can keep things around you that you love, then you create harmony, and then people who come into your space feel that.
Holgate Residence, San Francisco, CA Photos: JD Peterson
Q: Let’s talk about our friend Al’s apartment in the Brocklebank. I met you when you were working with him. The first time I saw that color, I was sort of shocked, but then I came to understand how it came out of the Chris Brown painting and Al’s art collection. He was moving from a four-story house and bringing 40 years of stuff into a smaller apartment.
Holgate: I started by talking with him about everything he had, looking through it, getting an idea of what was important and what wasn’t important. With him it was all about honoring the art, that’s where the color came from. He also has strong opinions. But it’s fun with him, because his stuff is part of his memories and brings him real joy.
Brocklebank Apartment, San Francisco, CA Photos: David Wakely
Q: So let’s go back to spiritual practices. What happened after Glide?
Holgate: I just got really busy.
Q: And as far as your own spiritual practice?
Holgate: Because of my childhood, I just shut down. I needed a way to find a path to opening my heart and not being afraid all the time. And so, doing the design and helping people with their houses and creating spaces they love and they’re happy with, I think was part of that path. It brought me joy, I become very present, I am totally in what I’m doing. I think spirituality is being present. Being compassionate, being open in your heart, being present, and being willing to show up.