Michael Smith

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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.

In the entrance hall of the duplex penthouse that Michael shares with his partner James Costos, a Japanese lacquer robe chest is tucked under a circa 1816 Italian console. Architect Oscar Shamamian worked with Michael for three years to complete the Upper East Side apartment’s renovation.

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!

The light-filled living room with its double height ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows has a formal yet cozy feel. The wall paneling is by Féau & Cie.
Michael’s signature mix of textures and periods is showcased in the grand living room space. One of his own matte linen stripes, Jasper’s Le Havre, in a soft celadon, covers a pair of Louis XV-style fauteuils.
A painting of ferns by artist Philip Taaffe is mounted on a panel of antiqued glass.
A lively Louis XV Aubusson covers the wood Parquet de Versailles floor by Peiser’s Sons.
More views of the living room. Antique mirrors, sheer curtains and simple roman shades make the most of the light.

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.

A stunning Russian commode is positioned in the northwest corner of the living room.
An Ellsworth Kelly lithograph hangs above a glossy black Regency writing table and an 18th century chair. A collection of 19th century Chinese blue-and-white porcelain flasks is arranged upon the writing table.
A gilt Louis XV clock is centered atop a “neo-classical” mantelpiece made in China.
Another Ellsworth Kelly lithograph hangs above a Maison Jansen sofa covered in cream-colored linen.
A tidy corner of the living room.

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!

Michael and architect Oscar Shamamian upgraded the living room’s original French doors and windows with custom-made, larger-paned steel doors and windows.
Open city views from four sides can been seen from the spacious terrace. Michael spied the apartment while working on a nearby Park Avenue apartment and simply “had to have it”. The apartment had previously been owned by Newsweek editor, Osborn Elliott and his wife, Inger Elliott, founder of the fabric company China Seas.
Sprawling southern views.
Michael and James love to entertain on the lushly landscaped terrace which features seating by Kenneth Lynch & Sons. The seat cushions are covered in a Rose Tarlow Melrose fabric and the table lanterns are from Restoration Hardware.

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.

Peeking into the master bedroom from the main gallery. The bedroom was originally the apartment’s formal dining room.
Michael used classical French design, including copies of period boiserie paneling and elaborate plasterwork, to transform and create a totally enveloping master bedroom.
A reproduction chandelier from Mathieu Lustrerie hangs above a Louis XVI-style bed by Jasper. The bed linens are by Nancy Koltes.

Looking across the master bedroom. The “neo-classical” fireplace mantel is from China.

A flat-screen TV stands atop a handsome French chest of drawers.

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.

Double doors with ornate plasterwork lead to the master bath.
Large slabs of marble cover the walls of the stately master bath. Hand -carved details distinguish the custom-made vanity; the marble-mosaic floor was designed by Michael for Ann Sacks.

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.

A favorite Chinese porcelain bird is perched on a gilt hallway table.
Original 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from Gracie hangs in the jewel-box sized dining room. The wallpaper had once hung in the much-admired dining room of publisher Condé Nast, designed by Elsie de Wolfe in the 1920s. After purchasing the apartment Michael planned to have Gracie reproduce the wallpaper but much to his surprise he was able to obtain pieces of the original.

L to R.: A standing lamp by Isamu Noguchi illuminates a corner
of the dining space.; A silver tea set is displayed on a table by John Dickinson.
The compact but very functional kitchen includes a Wolf range and E.R. Butler & Co. cabinet hardware.

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.

The main staircase leads to a separate guest suite.
The walls of the guest room are lined with a striped fabric and decorative border, both by Edmond Petit from Stark Carpet. The rug is Chinese.
The tufted guest room bed by Jasper Furniture is upholstered in Jasper leather and dressed in Nancy Koltes linens. The bedside table lamps and pillow are also from Jasper.

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.

The walls of the guest bath are sheathed in marble and antiqued mirrors with a geometric patterned marble-mosaic floor.

But are you a worrier?

I am an anticipator—does that count? I think about how things will go …

Anxiety inducing?

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!

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