"The best houses, or rooms for that matter, are a little unpredictable-they have a life of their own," says Michael Smith, shown with his beloved Labradoodles, Sport and Jasper. "Objects come in and out. The character evolves. You don't want to over-process and direct. You want to let the house unfold."
On the L.A. scene and beyond, Michael S. Smith has been the "it" designer who's scored many a coup working in the houses of Steven Spielberg, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cindy Crawford, Dustin Hoffman and Rupert Murdoch. But the California native became a household name on Jan. 13. That's when first lady Michelle Obama announced that she'd chosen him to redecorate the family's private quarters in the East Wing of the White House. Smith reportedly got the gig for his family-friendly design balanced with a flair for globalminded, old-world chic. (For more, see "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,")
Smith's path to highest office of accolades began at age 10, when he became fixated on redecorating his room. Within a decade he was studying at L.A.'s Otis College of Art and Design as well as London's Victoria & Albert Museum. And at age 19, he landed a coveted job with the great John Saladino in New York. Several years later Smith began to make inroads into A-list homes, and by 2002 had made it into Architectural Digest's list of top 100 designers.
Nowadays, Smith divides his time between California and New York, overseeing his eponymous 26-member interior design business (which includes eight other designers). He's also involved in a number of commercial ventures, including his furniture and fabric lines for Jasper; a fabric and leather collection with Cowtan & Tout; and bath collections for Kohler's Kallista brand and tile for its Ann Sacks line. Meanwhile, there are licensing agreements with a host of other companies, from lighting to home fragrances. Needless to say, the man is busy.
So what does his house in Bel Air look like? Few people except his closest friends and clients get the chance see the 4,800- square-foot home in person. But Smith has opened its doors-and those of many others he's decorated (including homes in Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Carbon Beach, Encinal Bluffs and Santa Ynez)-in his most recent book Michael S Smith Houses (Rizzoli, $50), written by Christine Pittel and shot by a number of leading photographers.
Growing up around Hollywood has undoubtedly affected his style. "Designing a house is a bit like the movies because you're making up stories," says Smith, 44. It's also all about listening. "I've become a very good therapist over the years, and I can tell what people really want, which is different than what they think they want. It's as if I'm directing a movie that was written by someone else. I have to take their vision and turn it into three-dimensional reality."
In an exclusive collaboration, Smith welcomes Southern California Spaces into his home-and shares thoughts about its design.
"I wanted a big, classically proportioned drawing room. [Architect] Oscar and I designed it specifically to accommodate a 15-foot-long Gillows bookcase, made in mahogany after a design by Robert Adam. Robert and Richard Gillow were a father-and-son team who ran a thriving furniture business in Lancaster and London, England, during the 18th century. The beautifully carved Georgian armchair is covered in museum-red Fortuny fabric."
"I wanted a fireplace in the entrance hall because it instantly makes me feel as if I'm in Oxfordshire [England]. Everything from the limestone floor to the lime-washed ceiling is done in various shades of white-very simple and severe. Creamy white paint-Farrow & Ball's White Tie 2002-picks out the fine lines of the columned cornice and the pediments over the doors.
In John Fowler's English houses, the rooms were often a delicious pinky melon to create a sense of warmth. But the light in California is already so apricot-y that the walls had to be paler. We mixed a little terra cotta dust into the Venetian plaster to give it a blush. The palette is monochromatic. There are 10 or 12 different textures in the room-Venetian plaster, the Turkish travertine floor, a woven straw rug-but only one color. Even the painting above the fireplace, by Beatrice Caracciolo, is white, with a stone-like texture. The objects on the mantel are very early Bactrian ritual vessels made of alabaster."
"The big question in the dining room was whether we should open it to the kitchen, given the fact that it's a narrow space and we couldn't make it any larger. But I really did want an actual dining room, so we kept it intact. Now, all I had to do was make it magical. I knew I was going to use hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper from de Gournay, because I love it and it adds such depth to a room. When you're looking through flowering branches to brightly painted birds, you get a sense of a vista beyond the four walls. It plays with your whole sense of perception.
I hung a George II giltwood over-mantel mirror on one wall and a large-scale photograph- a view of Florence by Massimo Vitale-on the other. It reads as a modern reinterpretation of an Old Master painting and keeps the room from becoming too ponderous. I bought the chandelier in Florence with the proviso that they take off all the pink glass flowers. I put candles in it and use it all the time. The sconces hold candles as well. I think there is nothing more romantic than dining by candlelight. The only electric light in the room comes from a pair of lamps by the mirror.
The table is an English Regency piece made out of particularly splendid mahogany. "Good timbers," as they say in the trade. It's surrounded by the Tyler chairs from my Jasper collection, upholstered in beautiful silk velvet. It's just the sort of thing I love-a petroleum blue-green, peacock-feather kind of color. I like the way it plays off all the neutrals-the paper-bag color in the wallpaper, the cream curtains. It's a fabric that's bright and pretty during the day. Then at night, it turns dark and inky and becomes more dramatic and mysterious."
"This extraordinary chair is probably Baltic or Northern European. I bought it at Therien & Co., with the thought of using it for a client but I liked it so much I kept it for myself."
Mr. Smith goes to Washington
Michael Smith is obligatorily mum on his plans to decorate the Obama family's private quarters at the White House, an area not subject to design restrictions. But at the recent Design San Francisco 2009 event, he did share this: "It's an extraordinary honor, which even I haven't come to grips with, especially for a family I have such respect for. In 10 years I can talk about it, but not now."
Well, that doesn't stop us from talking about it, right?
This we know: Michelle Obama released a statement praising Smith for his "family-friendly style." According to The Washington Post, Smith plans to tackle the bedrooms of Sasha and Malia first, and has begun shopping at kid-focused "everyday retail stores."
Buying off the shelf is a way "of taking the formality and stiffness out of very grand rooms," Smith shares in his recent book Houses. For a Santa Barbara home featured in the book, for example, he purchased 200 Indian bedspreads from Urban Outfitters, "chopped them up and put them on the walls and ceiling and used them as curtains and upholstery in the pool house." As Smith puts it, "One of the secrets of good decorating is not to be afraid to be simple. Sometimes all you need is a jute rug from Pottery Barn."
Mrs. Obama walks the same walk. As it's been noted in the press, she's apt to sport an everywoman Gap getup one day and don a gorgeous Narciso Rodriguez number the next. By all accounts, it may be a match made in heaven. Smith's design work at the White House, however, is unlikely to be on the same scale as the controversial $1.2 million office renovation of former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain. In fact, Smith has a budget of only $100,000.