An interview with John Wheatman

Mueller Nicholls worked with John Wheatman on this San Leandro project

John Wheatman. Photograpy by David Wakely

The Bay Area is blessed to have John Wheatman, an internationally acclaimed interior designer with more than thirty-five years of interior design experience under his belt. He’s taught interior design for over forty years, both locally and abroad. He is renowned for both his fantastic design vision, as well as his wonderful joie de vivre.

On May 13th, 2010, Mueller Nicholls joined John Wheatman at his home in San Francisco for a lively interview, discussing his life, his family, his major influences, and life in general.  The morning began with a viewing of several of John’s children’s books, including a rare complete edition of an Alphabet book filled with woodcuts by Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949).

Woodcut by Sir William Nelson (ca 1898)

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

MN: We’ve asked about the early influences that led you towards design.

JW: I was always involved [in design]. My father at one time had a company in Seattle, Washington, called Hemsloyd Studios, and I have a couple of things that he had commissioned. So I was introduced in our home to that.  We also had an interest in an art school, with Ernest Norling, who was at that time a very famous artist in the Pacific Northwest.

I was in art school before I was five, and I vividly remember my first day in kindergarten. Both my father and his two brothers had gone to the same school, when they were little, and the room had an impact. There was an illustration of George Washington, there was an illustration of Abraham Lincoln and then there was an illustration from Hills Brothers Coffee, so you saw the gentleman in the long robes.

All the shades were up at the bottom, so you couldn’t be distracted by the outside, but you could still see the tops of trees. You were introduced to working with materials, water colors and the like, in kindergarten. It was always great to be able to do something and to be praised for what you had accomplished.

Ernest Norling (1892-1974), Untitled Lake Union Scene c.1920’s, Oil on Board, 12 x 17

Way back then there was a corner grocery store a block away from where my grandmother’s house was. Both my parents were working; this was in the height of the Depression.

MN: So this was also in Washington?

JW: In Washington- Seattle. And [we knew] the lady who had the grocery store. Lipton’s tea would do a window with crepe paper, streamers and all that sort of thing, and when it would come time to take it down and put up something else I would get all the stuff and I’d work with it.

MN: In the window, yourself?

JW: No, in my home – my grandmother’s home. Both parents were working. I could walk to school, come home for lunch, listen to Ma Perkins, or what have you, and get back in time [for class]….So my imagination was stimulated all the time. It was wonderful!

That grew as time went by. There would be an open house in school and I’d be asked to do one of the murals in the hallway or the stage set. Then with the boy scouts, I got involved in making the flower floats and participating in parades.  It was just a constant part of me.

My parents planned and built a house and I had a very private room, which I was able to begin to acquire things for.

MN: Was that in San Mateo?

JW: In San Mateo. I did a lot of babysitting. Every once in awhile, somebody would be running out of money and I would admire something and they’d give me Victorian pedestal, or I’d be given a print in lieu of a payment.

MN: Early barter system!

JW: Right. And so while I was in high school, I also was introduced to Mr. Dengler who framed prints in Burlingame. So I began to save money and to buy them. I can take you into the kitchen and show you some of the earliest pictures that I ever bought.

Herb Dengler, Portola Valley biologist, artist, and naturalist (1912 – 2002)

MN: From high school?

JW: From high school. And my room was special. It wasn’t big; it was ten and a half by eleven. It had two windows and it looked out onto a field. There was nothing between my house in San Mateo and the adjoining community except cows. And now it’s filled with schools and houses and all of that kind of thing.

Along the way also, I learned to be a gardener.  When you’re gardening, you don’t just plant vegetables, you plant flowers. And so you become aware of how to arrange them, and how to mix them and how to plant them.

MN: This is just in your blood.

JW: Yes! If I turn back the bed spread in my bedroom there is a quilt that my grandmother made. She was always making these beautiful, beautiful, beautiful quilts. I was [always] involved with creativity. Eating, drinking, growing, art schools — I just did it. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. I can remember one day seeing these two big garage doors against the building at school. I didn’t realize that the shop instructor had brought his garage doors to be re-fitted. I took them and used them as a stage set background for Romeo and Juliet. He went to the play and saw his garage doors!

That was the name of the game.

MN: Were all your friends doing that, too?

JW: Many. We didn’t have a lot of distractions that you have at the present time in growing up. We were also introduced in 1939 to the fair, on Treasure Island. I saw the mysteries of culture.  I went 19 times.

San Francisco Worlds Fair, 1939

We moved at that time to San Mateo. And I can remember we had enough house guests that I used the sun porch for my bedroom (I loved it!).  There was a housekeeper — we took the housekeeper home and two people could sleep in her room and somebody could sleep on the sofa. My father pulled out the tent with three-foot high wood walls so you could have a couple of beds there. One night I [even] had to sleep on the lawn because we were just invaded with people. And so there was the magic of food and drink and the constant preparation for entertaining.

MN: For entertaining, enjoying life.

 

JW: To the utmost.

(Conversation turns towards the restaurant that John’s mother managed, the Blue Boar, and returns to his time in Korea).

JW: Everything had to do in some form with what I do today. There was no break in it. None. And it was fun! Even when I was the army, I did the landscaping for the Battalion area in Seoul, Korea. I helped get the community together to celebrate Christmas with us, so I designed the nativity set with three-foot-high figures. We used parachutes for table cloths. I designed venereal disease posters, “She may look clean, but…” There was never any question that this was not going to be a part of your life.

MN: Right.

JW: And ours was a flexible house (in San Mateo). There was a fire place in the back porch, and there were two picnic tables and four benches so they could be made into a long table, or they could be a square table. Or one [table] could be a buffet and one could be a table. Singing, telling stores around the fire place; big masses of flowers on top of them that were grown in our yard and grapes hanging from the arbor above. And the barbecue was unlike anybody else’s barbecue because when the grill went down it was filled with plants and it looked like a planter. That was my father. I learned how to dig post holes and to put fences in and lay brick and everything. We wired the house together.

 

John Wheatman, his father, and their dog “Rags,” 1926

MN: You and your dad did that?

JW: Yes.

MN: When you built the house?

JW: When we built the house, yeah.

MN: So he was also a renaissance man.

JW: Yes, he was good.  It was fun.

(Conversation meanders around the topic of John’s sister, and what it’s like to care for aging family memebers).

MN: One of the things I remember when I took your class was you had a couple of  points about eggs. One of the things you said is that you keep your eggs in a basket in the refrigerator because it looks nice.

JW: Yes, that’s correct. The basket is there now and it’s empty!  (Laughs).

MN: Well, I should have brought eggs.

JW: No, I think there’s a piece of fruit in it, so it’s being used.

MN: Well,  I was inspired by that, so our eggs are in a basket.

JW: It’s nice, they look fresher don’t they?

MN: They look fresher and they look nice.  I also remember you said you had chickens at your house.

Kitchen by John Wheatman. Photography by David Wakely

JW: Oh, yes.

 

MN: So maybe the eggs came from the chicken, and then you would use the eggs, keep the shells, dry them out in the oven and then you’d use them for fertilizer.

JW: The chickens ate the crushed shells.

MN: That’s what I thought. I love that kind of attention to the smallest and most humble detail…and also the cycle of life and not throwing something away.

JW: We didn’t have garbage.  We did not have garbage.  Once in a while we bought a can of dog food, but the dog ate the scraps from the table.  We had a garbage can, but it was almost always empty, because all the clippings went back into the earth and were turned over again and the manure was turned into it and it was productive.

MN: Well, it’s interesting because you probably saw that one of our questions was a question about sustainability. Your practice has always had kind of an ideologically unencumbered approach to sustainability, where it’s just very practical, you don’t throw things away. You re-use things.  You work in a small space, that’s not a problem; you don’t have to have a big house. And that’s always been a part of your lifestyle, which is fantastic.

 

JW: That’s right. No, it’s good! When Mary and I lived in Oakland, our bed was in the front room.  There was a front room and a parlor and people would say, “Where’s your bedroom? Where do you sleep?”  [We had] a box-spring tightly upholstered, covered, tightly tailored, and there were books all around it, and there was a fire, with a fire in the fire place. Mary got up first every morning and she’d have the john! (Laughs)

MN: You have to have these things worked out in a marriage!

(Conversation turns to John’s early studios, more about his time in Korea, and then to studying design).

MN: So there’s probably not really a beginning [to the career in design].

Faculty of San Mateo Junior College- Jack Daniels (Art) is at far left, front row; Donna Davis (Art) is second from right, front row (ca 1940)

JW: No, it just started and it flowed. When I was in school, I really knew that I wanted to be involved in interior design. So I took all the art classes that I could.  Jack Daniels and Donna Davis were brilliant teachers. I learned a lot from them, and we became friends. The pictures in the hallway are a gift from Donna Davis; I had them framed as the first gift for this house. I think of her often.

MN: She was a professor at the University of Washington?

JW: No, this was at San Mateo Junior College. She was outstanding, outstanding.  I had pictures of her at parties at my house with all of the students in the class all in the living room. It was that kind of household.

Before I left school there, I did a one man show. And I had taken enough classes that I made all the furniture.

MN: You made the furniture, wow!

JW: I made the furniture. My aunt came to check me out with my father and my mother about ten o’clock at night the night before it was to open and she said, “You don’t have any carpets, you need carpets.” I said, “I can’t weave a carpet at this time of day!” (Laughs boisterously). And she said, “I have some carpets, one will fit here and one will fit there.” I said, “You just got them two days ago.” And she said, “No, and I’ve enjoyed them.”

MN: Wow, what a nice gift!

JW: So they were brought in and they added the softness the space required.  So you learned from everybody.

(Conversation turns to the ups and downs of working in the current economy, and the closing of the Wheatman showroom in 2009, and then returns to his time at the University of Washington).

MN: So you’ve been doing this for such a long time, and it’s in your blood, and you’ve had education…

Photo from Windmere, home that Hope Foote designed for herself

JW: Big time education — very very good education, at the University of Washington, School of Architecture. It was totally mesmerizing, fabulous. And then to be introduced to Hope Foote, and to have put my foot in it…There were I think 72 of us in this initial lecture area. And she said “What might one think of putting on the chairs and on the window treatment here?” And I said, “You could seriously consider using the same fabric on both.” And she said, and this is day ONE, “That is a cheap decorator’s trick (scathing tone of voice).”

MN: Interesting.

JW: So I learned to find my place on day one. Her last criticism was even better.  Now, we were down to 12 seniors in this class.

MN: Out of 72?

JW: Out of 72, and I knew that I’d done a better job than anybody. What I had done was absolutely perfect. I mean, there wasn’t anything at fault with it. And I couldn’t understand why she didn’t pick on mine first, but she held mine off for last. She said, “What period is this?” I said, “Third period, early American.” She said, “What period is Mount Vernon?” I said, “The same.” And she said, “Chickens would not look comfortable in this room.” And I said, “Miss Foote, I don’t understand.” She said, “Well, when I was lecturing on the east coast, and I was visiting Mount Vernon, chickens wandered into the corner, and they didn’t look out of place. Your project is perfect, it doesn’t allow for the unexpected.”

MN: Interesting, what did you think of that?

JW: I thought I’d get drunk!

MN: Did you get drunk?

JW: Well, not drunk, but — I had to learn that you have to be able to know that you can change a child’s diaper on a dining room table! You have to be able to know that the ashes don’t have to be emptied to have a fine fireplace. You have to be able to know that yes, you should throw out the flowers, but they were given to you by a friend and there are a couple that are still fresh so let the bouquet stay.

An example of object grouping from Mr. Wheatman’s home. Photography by David Wakely.

MN: Can I ask more about your senior project and Hope’s comment about the chicken? Was there something small you could have changed about the room so chickens could have looked more comfortable, or is that too literal?

JW: No, no, no; what happened I guess it was too precise. You see, if you look over at that drum (points to small table), the housekeeper was here yesterday (gets up, moves objects closer together), that looks better because you see one.

MN: Because they’re more connected?

JW: Right, doing that, you see two (moves objects apart again). Bringing that in, and then also getting it back a little bit like that (rearranges objects again) so this space is different than this space; and that space is different than that space. Or, there are three objects here; this one, this one and this one and they’re very happy together. Here again, just a tiny bit makes a big difference. You see (referencing senior project again), perhaps I could have had a shawl over the back of the sofa, or a pillow slightly askew, just to say that nothing’s perfect.

MN: Right, interesting.

JW: But to have a teacher do that.

MN: Yes.

JW: When she knew that her life was coming to an end and others found out, we gathered from all over the world and went up to Seattle to applaud her. Jack Lenor Larsen led the pack. If it weren’t for her, he wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship that he had and become the institution that he has become.MN: We had asked about a person who most influenced your design vision, seems like a silly question because your influences are so vast, and there are so many people…

JW: They go all over the place. When we first moved to San Francisco, the three of us were tourists. At that time the, De Young Museum was there but it wasn’t that popular.

There was one room that had windows, and the windows were usually left open, so on a rainy day the smell of Eucalyptus leaves came into the room. And the floors were painted and the walls were painted, and when you walked on the floors the floors squeaked. I had never walked on floors where the floors squeaked. This is impressive! I was going to Alvarado grammar school here in San Francisco and every week we were tourists.

17th century dollhouse of Petronella Oortman- Rijksmuseum, Netherlands

There’s a beautiful chest there at the present time, and it’s sort of roped off, but at that time the guard would say, “Wanna see inside?” And he’d open up the doors, and he’d pull out the drawers and show me all the secret compartments in this great Renaissance piece of furniture! Because of that I can take you in my mind through rooms at various museums beyond belief. I can climb up the ladder [in my mind] and look into a doll house in Amsterdam, in the Rijksmuseum, which has been closed now for renovation for too long a period of time, but maybe the next time I will be there I’ll be able to do the same thing as I did ages ago, half a century ago.  Amazing!

 

MN: It is amazing. It’s very inspirational. I know that you’ve inspired countless numbers of people.

JW: I’ve had the good fortune of being a good teacher. It’s Just like the woman who is being judged for our court (U.S. Supreme Court). She said, “I am a GREAT teacher.”  And to be able to know in a non-bragadocious fashion, that I can get people to open their minds to things that they’d never considered — when it comes to space in a world that’s getting closer and closer, that means a lot.

(Conversation turns towards a current project in Carmel, and then to John’s garden and how it’s visually connected to the living room).

San Leandro project 2007

MN: Well, that brings to mind a project that you worked on with Mueller Nicholls. It was this very small room in San Leandro, a nothing room, and you did the same thing. You added beams into the room and the beams continued into the mullions in the large windows and then that continued in the trellis. And then posts for the trellis were mounted on the garage, which was about five feet away and you put mirrors in between [the posts]. And it’s just amazing. It’s an incredible transformation, which is why we love remodeling!

JW: It’s good!

MN: It’s fantastic!

JW: What you have to do to have to have a totally open mind. People who live in this building have command over huge views, not the second floor, not this floor, but on up. However, many people in the building really appreciate the warmth and intimacy of my space.

MN: What would be your greatest hope for what your work in interior design and creating spaces could do for the world?

JW: I think any time anybody can in some way open other people’s minds to the prospect of pleasure as a result of what you’re able to do, is one of the greatest rewards that you can have. It’s just wonderful, the glee that people have. And sometimes it’s just a tiny space, or it can be a huge space.

(Conversation meanders around more diverse topics, like a project in Ireland, and then more reminiscing about his shop on Union Street, and how design can help people with transitions in life).

JW: It (the shop on Union Street) made a lot of people happy. It opened up a lot of people’s minds as to what could happen. For example: You don’t have to have a wall that is solid, you can have a wall with a hole in it. That helped me go to bed in our room without Mary. By doing the big round window and looking out it became a different kind of ambiance. And the blues and whites that were good with us (John and his wife Mary), they’re gone. It’s a form of adjusting. You can help people — it’s like a child dies. You want to get rid of the room right away. So you might take out the whole wall and build it into a library and make it into a space that people can enjoy and it doesn’t relate to the love that lived there. It’s wonderful what you can do. And I attribute that in great part to just fabulous teachers. I mean Ed Rossbach.

MN: You mentioned him in your book.

JW: He said to me one day, [in front of] everybody in class, “You did a better job than they did, but you didn’t do anything today that you haven’t done before.  Would you approach the project again, and try to be three years of age.” You know, beautiful!

I had the privilege in New York to see an exhibition of his baskets a few years back.  The romance of them, the structure of them! I think Jack Lenor Larsen arranged it — they were very good friends.  I mean, who’s going to tell you something like that?  A good teacher.

(The conversation turned towards working with Tommy Church, and his 40-year project working on the Fagan Estate in Hillsborough).

JW: Oh, my first big piece, I have it, I have it, I have it for you. I sat next to a gentleman at a fashion show, a furniture fashion show, “Live as well as you look.” – conducted by my employer.  I was brand new on the job.

MN: Was that at Macy’s?

JW: No, it was at the Jackson Furniture Company; and it was a fabulous store, I mean outstanding. I was all involved with Moholy-Nagy, and Vision and Motion (1947 book on modern design) — I was a student and I couldn’t control myself. And he (the gentleman) found out that I had just been employed. So he said, “Young man, I would like you to come to my house.”  I didn’t know that he was the owner; it was his son that hired me. At any rate, he said, “I’ve lived in the country all along, and I’ve enjoyed it, and now I’m living on the seventeenth floor of this bloody building overlooking Lake Merritt.” And, he said, “I came in, and I had a bowel movement, and there wasn’t any toilet tissue. I had to go all the way down in the basement and bring up some toilet tissue from our store room.  And then I thought, ‘Oh God, I’d like a scotch.’  And there wasn’t any scotch. So I got in the elevator and I went down and I brought up a bottle of  scotch, and I sat down at the table in the dining room, poured myself a drink, and said, ‘I really hate that radiator.’ I would like you to design a cabinet for me that covers the radiator, has toilet tissue on one side and scotch on the other.” Isn’t that fabulous?

MN: Yes! So then you got to design that?

JW: I did, and I did his house.

MN: The whole flat?

JW: Yes, working primarily with things that he had, except that I put in a T.H. Robsjohn Gibbings table that was big and beautiful, and he was prone to drinking into the night hours, and he came in, and he didn’t know it was there, it was black, and he really hurt himself.

MN: The funny things you think about when you’re doing design.

JW: The thing that I enjoyed I think perhaps more than anything else is that we were able to work with so many crafts people. I can be in any space in this house and say I designed that book rack, or I designed that piece, or I designed that piece, what have you.

John Wheatman’s garden at his home. Photography by David Wakely

John wanted to leave us with two quotations:

“He who loves an old house will never love in vain. For how can any old house used to sun and rain, to lilac, and to larkspur, and arching trees above, fail to give its answer to the heart that gives its love?”

That, from a sundial in Nantucket, and then this:

“Unless it’s a ‘party plan,’ you should always buy and plan for the future and allow for changes in light, space, and forms unending.”

That, from Mr. Wheatman himself.

Mr. Wheatman lives in San Francisco, and is listed in the phone book.