William Thele Jr.

William Robert Thele, Jr.


William was born in Chicago on September 8th, 1919. He later claimed that this was the spark that ignited the Roaring Twenties and who are we to doubt it?

He came of age in the city, attended Northwestern University, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He apprenticed in design and decoration with the architects Holabard & Root and the designers Raymond Koons and J. Winston Stanley Briggs. He worked for four years at Marshall Fields, then struck out on his own, first in Park Ridge IL, then in Stratford CT, where one of his clients, Kathryn Hepburn, taught him the finer points of playing cut-throat croquet. He came to San Francisco in 1947. He worked for the Jackson Square design firm of Robert M. Kasper for ten years before again establishing his own firm, working from his home on Union Street for nearly fifty years.

His subtle, sure eye for color and proportion, nimble inventiveness, and unceasing energy helped establish him as one of the most sought after designers in the city. In business, he always put the satisfaction of his client first, even if he might personally disagree with their wants and desires. That said, he also believed he was there to do more than simply chose the right shade of paint or rearrange the furniture - he took it as a duty to educate, gently, and to guide, persistently, his clients past the obvious and momentary to achieve something unexpected and lasting, whether the job was an imposing mansion or a humble retirement suite. It is not surprising that so many of his clients became lifelong friends, as well.

He was well respected by his peers and was several times President of the Northern California chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. He was an active member of the Decorative Arts Trust of Philadelphia, the Furniture History Society of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Ceramics Circle of California. For several decades, he made yearly trips to Europe, buying antiques, working with international clients, and visiting its great homes and museums.

He was generous to his family, to his friends, to his clients, and to his community. He gave freely of his time, money, and spirit to what he believed in, to what he thought important and deserving. There are few cultural institutions in the city that did not benefit from his attentions.

He was a gourmet, a lover of good food before being a foodie was a fad.

It is rumored he once skipped dessert, but we don't believe it. He was a truthful man, but he never let it get in the way of a good story. He was forgiving, but not forgetful. He was sometimes opinionated - okay, truth be told, he was always opinionated. In conversation, he often took the opposite side, just to see what sort of sparks would fly. His wit was well-honed and always at the ready, sometimes pointed, sometimes pungent, but never mean or mocking. He was always happiest playing the host, opening his home to friends from around the globe, sheltering vagabond relatives, and throwing warmly remembered parties - especially those that featured his special Artillery Punch.

And, to the end, he was never, ever boring.

William is survived by his companion of more than fifty years, Gilbert Susoff Bradshaw Black, and by his nieces and nephews, Susan Corbett, Kathryn Powell, William Voss, and Timothy Voss. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.

Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 4, 2013