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The end of a design era

Every year, his clients have been invited to tour designer John Wheatman's home.

By Thomas Reynolds

In the springtime came the annual invitation to stop by the corner of Alta Plaza Park and tour the elegant home of interior designer John Wheatman.

Hundreds of current and former clients walked through on May 3, a cool, grey Sunday afternoon, to admire the treasures Wheatman has acquired and the good taste with which he has arranged them — and his garden, looking splendid in the mist, and grown entirely in pots and planters on the rooftop.

So it was a surprise when his letter of September 30 arrived. “I have decided to retire,” he wrote. “I have loved every minute of my involvement with you.” And in merely a month the end has come, after 45 years, for John Wheatman & Associates.

The baronial entry to Wheatman's home.

“All of this happened suddenly,” the 83-year-old Wheatman says. “I was in New York and I got a call from the office. The banks weren’t willing to carry on with us as they have for years.” So he came home and with his associates made the decision. “We pulled the plug,” he says simply.

Wheatman’s designs have been mostly residential, and while he has worked all over the world, a great many of the homes he has created are in the neighborhood. His own residences, first in Oakland, then on the Presidio Wall, and for 35 years on the park — plus his expansive office and showroom at 1933 Union Street — have been showplaces for his ideas.

Since his letter went out announcing his retirement, there have been calls and letters and tears. “The most charming of all,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes, “was from a client who wrote that she would miss us most of all because ‘Every time I get pissed off at my husband I come and visit’ and start a new remodeling project.”

He knows the shop is going to be missed, but he remains resolutely upbeat. He recalls the opportunities that came from the 1989 earthquake — almost exactly 20 years earlier — which did considerable damage to his home on the park. So he took out doors and windows and converted a maid’s closet into usable space and opened things up to get better vistas. He turned the entry into a grand arrival hall.

Wheatman advising clients. Photographs by David Wakely.

“It made all the difference in the world,” he says. “I always believe something good comes from something bad. What’s happening to me now is going to result in something great.”

His attitude is consistent with his design philosophy, which has led to something of a Wheatman mantra: “A Good House Is Never Done.” He wrote a book by that title, and another called “Meditations on Design.”

In his office, now sparsely furnished, he launches into a design rhapsody, emphasizing the importance of opening up walls to enhance the flow of space, and getting the eye to move, and the value of great shutters, and piercing walls, and the introduction of color.

“It’s the end of an era,” he says, “But it will be a beginning.”