Matthew Patrick Smyth in his cozy workspace which overlooks East 72nd Street.
Matthew Smyth lives an enviably split existence between New York and Paris, where he shares an apartment with his French partner of 23 years. Not surprisingly his home has some wonderful Clignancourt finds from the flea market, and, for someone who admits to a kind of restlessness, the apartment is lived in and warm, filled with the pleasing objects of someone with an immediate eye for what is going to work.
You spend a lot of time in Paris, where you have an apartment. What do you see in terms of design differences and aesthetics between there and here? (And how’s your French?)
My French gets worse every year. Everybody speaks English now, even the cab drivers. [With regard to] my clients and my work, I always tell them if they are going to go shopping that they are not going to get a deal. You can’t think about the money but you have more of a selection. You’re not subject to what the antique dealer here has decided to bring in.
What do you think of the way Europeans often let things become worn or even battered?
You know when you think about the architecture they’re surrounded with, it’s all sort of a little worn, whereas we live in a very crisp, new society, especially in New York, where it’s more about building for the future.
Above & below: Two views of the living room. The deep red walls were painted by Natasha Bergreen. The Jansen style leather chairs are from 20th Century Gallery in Hudson. The large pair of corner screens conceal shelving providing extra storage space for cocktail glasses.
Left:A nude drawing by Van Day Truex rests below a chinese lacquer table. Both were gifts by the late George O'Brien.
Do you think that is also a reflection of new money versus history?
New money isn’t what ‘new money’ used to be. There’s a lot of younger people with money, more so than in the past. It’s such a fast moving world they live in and it’s how they make their money now. Wall Street is much speedier place than it used to be. They want creature comforts but I don’t think they emotionally get attached to things the way that we do. It’s very transient now. Marriages break up, people flip houses faster and I’m not sure there is that emotional attachment to the home, at least not as strong as it used to be. They want what they get at a W hotel…the sheets and bedding and so on.
Does that mean we’ve gone back to the days at the turn of last century when living in hotels was the ultimate in glamour?
Exactly. And you know when you live in New York it’s not a bad thing. Could I live in a hotel in New York? Maybe. It lends itself to floating in and out. You’re busy. Maid service every day would be great for me.
This William S. Schwartz drawing of a nude from 1929 was found at a Christie’s auction.
Matthew hunted this charming replica of Angkor Wat while souvenir shopping in Cambodia. The stylish 1960s lamp was given as a gift to Matthew when he moved into his first studio apartment. A portrait by David Salle picked up at Doyle hangs on the wall to the right.
If you had to choose one life, between Paris and here, where would you choose?
Forever? Go into exile? Let me think. I think here [New York]. You know it’s home and it works. Paris is fun to float in and out but it’s a tough city to do business. It’s a slower process and I’m not sure I can slow down that much.
Are you restless?
Yeah, I like to keep moving. I’m going to Paris on Friday night, then to London on Tuesday and back to New York by Thursday.
But you do seem close to your family.
My family is originally from Ireland. I’m the eldest of five. My father died when I was 17. [My siblings and I] just bought a restaurant together in Gloversville, NY. My brother is a chef. It’s just a little local restaurant. I don’t want to make it look chi-chi, I don’t want anyone to be intimidated; people have been going to it for 30 or 40 years. I don’t want to put them off.
Did you ever consider any other career than this one?
I thought I was going to be a photographer because I didn’t know I could be a decorator. In Florida, NY [where I grew up] there were no decorators! I didn’t know it existed until I met a couple of guys who were doing it. At 22 I had to make a decision. I was freaking out and it was really down to the money. Photography equipment was so expensive to invest in. It was a fifty-fifty thing. It was a funny thing. I found myself one day watching Dick Cavitt and he was interviewing Katherine Hepburn talking about being a famous actress and she said that if you narrowed things down you could have anything you want, but you have to narrow it down. If you don’t you’re never going to get anything. And I thought okay, I’ve got to do that. And then I really stayed focused.
A grand elevation of the Paris Opera hanging in the front hall was purchased in the 1960s at a Paris flea market.
What do you think of the current craze for mid-century design?
I just can’t believe all this furniture was being made during the war. When you think that all this French furniture was made in the forties – I mean Paris was under siege during the forties. I do like some of it but I think it is being over-used. That will settle down, like everything does.
What do you do if someone comes to you with a tiny one-bedroom apartment as a potential project?
It’s based on ‘Are they fun? Are they nice? Will the apartment look like something when it’s done?’ I just did a studio, like this little Holly Golightly apartment. And we recently took a young Russian girl who came into the office. She has a $25 000 dollar budget, which she is very proud of and she pulled out photographs of some of my work from four, five, six years ago. So she’s been focused on me since she’s been in school and I’m going to be her decorator someday. At this point I’m just giving her advice, telling where to go. I think she has the potential to be a good client as years go by.
A view of the master bedroom. The painting above the table was part of a series done by Frederic M. Grant for the 1928 Chicago World’s Fair. The sunburst mirror hanging above the bed was Matthew’s first purchase when he moved to Manhattan.
How do you go about recruiting your own new hires?
I’m interviewing now and it’s just mind-boggling what’s out there. You know interior design is very tedious and they don’t know it. The schools should warn them a little more. There’s a lot of paperwork and it’s boring. They think they’re going to picking out fabrics. They all want $47 000 to start – I love that. One said ‘I need to get $45 000 starting Monday,’ and I asked why? She said ‘Because I’m graduating Friday.’ I said ‘And what’s going to happen over the weekend?’
Do you ever go camping?
Hmmm…um … I went to a wedding in Spain a couple of years ago and I had to sleep in a cave…the first night was okay but the second night ...
Above, left: This 1996 abstract nude drawing by Bruce Edelstein was originally a loan from the Denise Cade gallery for the 1998 Kips Bay Showhouse. Matthew was so taken with it that he later went back to buy it for his entrance hall.
Above, right:The small abstract print leaning against the gilded mirror from Paris was a gift from the Kouros gallery.
How about entertaining home? Do you like to invite people over?
I used to do parties all the time here in the apartment. I can pull a party together in an hour and a half. Behind this screen is shelving with all my party stuff, extra glasses and so forth. I turn the kitchen into a big bar. I’ve had 50 people in here. But I stopped after 9\11 for a while and then I’ve just never got back into the swing of it. I go out almost every night.
Do you ever Google people after a party?
Oh all the time! Have you ever been to ussearch.com? If you have somebody’s name, you can get their age – for free!
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
Matthew in his living room. The 1950s Paul Frankel chest of drawers nearby is made of cork and was purchased at The 20th Century Gallery in Hudson, New York. A collection of drawings from the Paris flea market hangs on the wall above the chest.