It wasn’t easy to get hold of Michael Smith (pictured above with his partner, James Costos)—not that he wasn’t willing to talk to us, just that he seems to be constantly on the move. Even our phone interview took place in several chunks, the main part of which he was in his car driving to a meeting. Presumably finding the energy to stick to his schedule is one thing but there is little doubt as to why he is where is in the profession—he has retained a degree of passion about his work that is striking.
Once we started talking about reaching “the top” or sacrificing other things for the sake of ambition, his whole demeanor shifted from measured replies about how to understand clients or the democratization of design in recent times, to truly animated engagement. Inevitably described as the Obama’s decorator, he has a thoughtful take on his own role in that most singular of projects and how it now plays out in his continuing career: “I did the White House and it was great and amazing, but now someone else is doing it. It’s always evolving, never static. People freeze up or hold on to what they think was their great moment but the reality for me, the thing that is really motivating for me, is the desire to be intellectually curious and intrigued.”
I liked something that you once said in a previous interview about design, which was “be brave.” It seems to be essential to creativity. Would you say that you knew that from the outset or did it take time to come to that realization?
I think bravery in anything is good. People make a lot of decisions from fear. In decorating it’s very tough to really get stuff done. The all-white room is often a by-product of fear. I do my research in advance. You do your homework and you have to move and make a decision and stick to it.
Can you tell us with whom you trained? Did you study interior design?
I went to art school, Otis College of Art and Design, and I studied interiors and architecture. [The school] is in LA and it used to be affiliated with Parsons.
What was your best learning experience?
I worked for a firm that was like McMillen. It was a multi-designer firm where I learned what not to do.
What are the things not to do?
Make sure to measure elevators before you order sofas!
Who would you say are your own design influences?
I admire anyone who does what we do. It’s really difficult and it takes a lot of talent and energy and drive and there are so many extraordinary people. It’s a great time in design now, with the information and technology—it’s an exciting time, so much is possible. There are so many incredible crafts-people. You can spend a few minutes on a computer and you can find someone to make a lamp! Some people find it annoying because their clients can find too much on the Internet but that’s like saying people shouldn’t go to the supermarket. Personality is always going to be there. What is the difference between ripping a page out of a magazine and finding a picture on Pinterest? I think it’s great—it’s easier to visualize.
You just said how much you admire designers in general—why do you think people underestimate designers and what a hard job it is?
I think people question a business that is kind of craft and talent-oriented. It’s intangible—[they ask]: “Is the expense worth it for the return?” You can go to Giambattista Valli or H&M and buy an evening dress. What is your barometer of value? It’s as old as the hills. Contemporary artists can be parodied in the same way.
You beautifully incorporate antiques into your design and they seem to be central to your aesthetic in some ways. Would you agree? Would you say that in one sense that they are an initial inspiration for a room or for a design?
It can be, not always. Something as simple as a lamp or carpet can be a starting point. Every project has its own creative process and comes with its own DNA. People live in [their own] certain way—they have beautiful things (or not beautiful things) and you create a joint culture, your taste, their taste, within the house they live.
Would you say you were bookish?
I really like to research; it’s fascinating! I love, love, love, it! I’m obsessed with history; I’m obsessed with always being able to look at things in very multi-dimensional way and going through images and it’s what I love!
What did you find out about the White House that surprised you?
I don’t know if I was surprised—I was more fascinated. We are more used to hearing about Jackie Kennedy’s renovation of the White House but the Nixons and the Bush families did a lot of work on the house too. I was fascinated by the humanism of it. Every family that has ever lived there has impacted it in some way. It’s a living entity, like the swimming pool being made into a press room … it keeps evolving.
When you embarked upon your project for the Obamas, can you give us a couple of examples of what aspects of it were similar to any other project and what aspects of it will always stand out as perhaps the most singular design experience of your career?
In any design project you do, anything you do with the White House, it influences history in a major way so that makes every decision so much more important.
From practical point of view how did you go about it?
I was fortunate that I had clients who knew what they needed. They were very practical and they understood the history of the building. They always wanted to come from a position leaving the building better it off than it was when they arrived.
How did you create a home for them?
I had done all my research. I read every piece of [relevant] correspondence and I had the great luxury of being able to call Nancy Regan and ask her questions. I had huge resource of information so I understood the ramifications of decisions but I also had the ability to make fun, interesting rooms that could later be adapted by another family. It’s so extraordinary the idea of being able to ask Nancy Regan how long it took curtains to be made or where the piano went. And then having the time with Mrs. Obama [to find out] how a room would work for her and her family.
If you had to advise someone coming up in the field, what is one good question to ask a client?
Ask incredibly direct questions!
Also, how people answer the question is incredibly insightful. I have a client who doesn’t like to talk on the phone—we only email. Decisions are made in a short amount of time over email. I think adapting to the way a client likes to work is a very successful way to start a project. It’s a personal service business. It’s a luxury! You have to be adaptable.
Many think of you of as having reached “the top”—what kind of pressure does that put on you?
I don’t think of myself of reaching “the top”. For me it’s about having the work being more and more interesting and pushing myself in different ways. I think it depends on what your definition is. I think I can always do better, be more thorough. I don’t think you ever—in a craft or art—are ever finished. You have moments; it’s an ever-evolving process. I always want to learn new things, new techniques. Producing furniture, learning about new artists, new crafts-people. I’m always moving forward. I don’t think I’ll ever been done or feel I’ve achieved everything.
What has to be sacrificed for getting to where you are?
I was so work obsessed—I still am. I feel it’s my job to be accessible so much of the time, to respond to emails immediately. But I think that is sort of part of the job. If someone wants to talk to me on a Saturday about their molding or dining room table and they are interested, I think that’s great and I should take that opportunity to be accessible. Sounds corny but I love what I do! If you love what you do, can you ever really feel like you sacrificed?
Did you have a work ethic as a kid or as a teen?
Yes … I was driven by curiosity. If I go to a flea market in Madrid, I’m like, “What am I missing? What is around the corner?” I’m so lucky to go to work. You hope that you get more canvas. I took choices in my career path because I was committed and interested in doing it. I’m having a thing for the first time where now my firm is a certain size … it’s fascinating to see what I do through the eyes of interns. It’s fascinating to see the business, the idea of what we do through someone who is completely fresh—so interesting! It’s all new and wonderful because they haven’t gone through it. It’s extraordinarily endorsing to realize what I have been able to achieve in terms of a team, resources, people we work with … it’s quite something! I worked really hard. I’m always excited for what I get. I never took things for granted. I felt I had to perform and live up to expectation.
So can you say what continues to drive you?
I heard something described the other day drinking from a fire hose—there’s just so much access to … everything … it is all so interesting but it does build a sense of “overwhelmingness”, like what white paint of the thousands white paint do I get?! My point is I’m always learning about a new white paint, attempting to do something new with white paint. It’s easy to talk about designers as an abstract idea but the reality is that if you are really good, you are driven by your path, whether a jazz musician or baker, you are your own competition and your own sense of accomplishment. And you always have to fight to not turn off.
Yes, the whole staggering sum of human creativity …
Exactly! That is a constant source of inspiration and thirst! I’m unbelievably overwhelmed by how many things I want to see. Yesterday I spoke to someone about going back to see the India I didn’t see. That is what drives me, desire for visual information.
You have four homes, three dogs (I think?) and a partner— but you travel so much. How do you get to get to “go home” as it were and be with your dogs and your partner?
It just works out! It all works and it is all in rotation.
How do you get to be in your own home when you’re so busy making homes for other people?
For a long time that was the situation and that was the way it was, and then I got to a point where I am now much more interested in my own houses being together and well managed. I’ve learned it’s important to do things for yourself. It’s important to live in a certain way where you get to enjoy it.
But are you a worrier?
I am an anticipator—does that count? I think about how things will go …
Super anxiety inducing!
And a drink at the end of a long day—what do you have?
Whatever is around! Not such a big drinker, tequila … glass of wine? I don’t live to cross the finish line to drink. I’d rather take a hot bath!