It was only hours before the start of the San Francisco Opera Ball and Stanlee Gatti, the event designer tasked with dazzling dozens of high-society attendees, is several blocks away at the popular Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in the South of Market neighborhood. He is rambling about the shape of the service truck outside, the color orange, how uncanny it is that the planet is round — just like eyeballs and peaches — how the human body is in a constant tug of war with gravity over heat and water — much like the Earth and trees — and how strangely appropriate it is that the lines in our hands and the veins on our wrists are similar to the roots of those very trees.
“I don’t drink or do drugs,” Gatti said. “And I probably don’t need this coffee.”
Gatti — a spitfire of a man who within three decades went from small-town kid from rural New Mexico to San Francisco’s most sought-after, artistically significant party planner — remained at the cafe nearly an hour longer than he intended. When the thought came to him that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of Serbian royalty would soon arrive at the Civic Center opera house, and that he had not yet decided on the table-setting arrangements or dealt with the shortage of chile-brown colored carpet for the courtyard, Gatti sprang back from the subconscious he so often visits and fled the cafe, hopping on his eggplant-purple Vespa en route to the opera house.
That’s when the shouting began.
While zipping down Mission Street, Gatti, who hopped from moment to moment as if they were lily pads, hollered into the wind at someone he knows in an adjacent car about how automobiles are machines of little wonder, how motorcycles might be dangerous but at least they force the rider to be constantly aware and how in this way the rider is perpetually wide-eyed and alive.
“Do you know why they call them the Hells Angels?” Gatti shouted while snaking through cars stopped at a red light. “Hell is for the machines they ride. Angels is because they are free.”
Meanwhile, his staff of 55 was preparing for the 86th season-opening performance of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” and were poised for some hobnobbing of The City’s social elite at an after-party Gatti was tasked with designing.
In his carefree grace, Gatti glided into the opera house and was instantly swarmed by members of his design team. Each presented a problem involving what’s been done, what’s not been done, where there were shortages and whether they had enough outdoor furniture.
The sleep-deprived Gatti, smashed on caffeine, solved each problem with a sentence, a few hand gestures and a brief explanation of the decision’s historical and aesthetic purpose.
The table-setting he chose, for instance, was traditional Italian with an artist’s twist — because “no single work of art should be done twice.” The words written on the back wall, “Long Live the Songbird,” was to remind guests that while the event naturally triples as a fashion show and who’s-who affair, it is more about the performers.
Every detail, from the forks and knives, had some link to history, a purpose, whether it had something to do with the way Julius Caesar would have dined or what you would see on Tuscan olive trees.
“If you don’t get close to the truth, you’ve lost a part of your soul,” Gatti said.
Gatti may be a natural in design and aptly educated in the subjects of art, architecture and history, but why the opera has chosen him to dress up their most important event of the year has little to do with his intellect. More than anything, it is Gatti’s conviction and his attention to each and every moment that seems to turn the weddings and social events he designs into a portrait that could be hung at the de Young Museum.
In two decades, Gatti’s energetic, über-passionate and rambling personality has won over The City’s social elite, including Gordon Getty, former Mayor Willie Brown — who appointed Gatti president of the Arts Commission in 1996 — and current Mayor Gavin Newsom. Gatti’s pioneering résumé includes Danielle Steele’s wedding, an Oscar party for Elton John and a birthday for Getty.
He is said to be the first designer to black out an event, under-lighting the tables instead, as was done at the annual Black and White Ball. The move drew ire from city fire officials, but went off without a hitch, Gatti said.
But for Gatti, the secret of success is even more simple: Capitalize on the talent that comes natural to you, and try to breathe life as much as possible.
The event designer wouldn’t call himself an insomniac, but said he can only get in three to four hours of sleep per night, surviving the rest of the day on a “healthy” diet of coffee and cigarettes. And while functioning as such might seem difficult, Gatti’s energy and creative bandwidth is seemingly unending and unmatchable. It’s almost as if he loves life too much to sleep through it. And while Gatti said he steers clear of drugs and alcohol, he also said his state of mind is on a perpetual tight-rope between the conscious and subconscious — a fine line he said has become an important catalyst for his art.
“As I’ve said, drugs don’t work on me,” he said. “I’m already there.”
A bit of impulse, luck pushed Gatti to the top
If you have dreams of becoming a well-paid party designer for society’s upper crust, act on impulse and never fear putting yourself on the line, Stanlee Gatti says.
At least, those are some of the reasons Gatti became San Francisco’s most sought-after event designer.
Raised in a coal-mining town in New Mexico, Gatti said he left for college more as an escape from small-town life than for the education. After studying music, art, architecture and physical education at the universities of Northern Colorado and Oregon, he returned home for a period. He eventually found his way to The City on a whim, joining a group of drifters who were hiking here.
Once in The City, Gatti worked a job at a flower shop in the St. Francis hotel in the late 1970s. There, he would eventually catch his chance. He was asked to set the table for a group of high-society women from the San Francisco Symphony, and Gatti wowed them with his presentation.
The women were so impressed, they asked Gatti to design the symphony’s 75th anniversary opening-night gala. From there, his reputation spread, and in just three months he began his own company, Stanlee R. Gatti Designs, which produces as many as 125 high-society events per year, including weddings, birthdays and institutional gatherings.
In just the last week, Gatti’s team designed the San Francisco Opera’s season opener, the Academy of Sciences’ reopening and three upper-crust birthday parties, among others.
– Age: 58
– Birthplace: Raton, N.M. (Pop. 6,500)
– Education: University of Northern Colorado (music, physical education, art); University of Oregon (architecture, art history)
– Favorite movies: “Grand Illusion” (old-time ones), “Moulin Rouge”
– Favorite restaurants: Pizzetta, Chez Panisse
– Favorite artists: Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Donald Deskey, “Anything that teaches us to see differently.”
– Favorite interior design: Radio City Music Hall: “If you go into the men’s room, there is 36 of the old-fashion urinals, sort of like the Rockettes, and you think ‘Wow, that’s cool … they actually meant something to the design.”
– Favorite books: “I try to forget everything I’ve read.”
For high-profile events and parties, Stanlee Gatti is the designer of choice for The City’s top individuals, companies and institutions.
– Mayor Gavin Newsom
– Warren Hellman
– Peter Magowan
– Mikhail Gorbachev
– Former Mayor Willie Brown
– Elton John
– InStyle Magazine
– People Magazine
– Screen Actors Guild
– Charles Koch
– Gordon Getty
– Giorgio Armani
– Matrix Fillmore
– Arista Records
– San Francisco Opera
– San Francisco Ballet
– San Francisco Symphony
– Black and White Ball
– Asian Art Museum
– De Young Museum
– Center for the Arts
– Fleur de Lys
– Jack Falstaff Restaurant (S.F., Las Vegas)
– Mayor Gavin Newsom and Jennifer Seibel, 2008
– Christy Turlington and Edward Burns, 2003
– Lara Hedberg and Christopher Deam, 2001
– Summer Tompkins and Brooks Walker, 1997
– George P. Shultz and Charlotte Mailliard, 1997
– Susie Russell and Mark Buell, 1996
– Danielle Steele and Tom Perkins, 1996