Design Experts

Inside design: Michael S. Smith

Inside design: Michael S. Smith Author: Style At Home

Design Experts

Inside design: Michael S. Smith

With a celeb client list and even a makeover of the Oval Office under his belt, Michael S. Smith is no stranger to the decorating spotlight. The American interior designer is known for timeless interiors that give the term “traditional” a new lease on life. His latest tome, Building Beauty, chronicles the journey of a Malibu beach house from conception to completion. We chat with him about his signature livable-luxe look, his inspiration and more.
STYLE AT HOME: The house in Building Beauty was inspired by 16th-century Italian villas built by famed architect Andrea Palladio. How did that inspiration translate into your design?
MICHAEL S. SMITH We live in a world where there are so few aesthetic rules, but we subconsciously respond to what we like – as though it’s in our DNA. Palladian architecture is all about balance and human scale, so the spaces feel very comfortable and settled when you’re in them. In the house featured in Building Beauty, it was particularly amazing to see these big stately rooms given a sense of informality because they were so Palladian and symmetrical. The house’s great bone structure allowed me to use a diverse mix of fabrics and artwork that was unified by architectural details like crown moulding and high ceilings throughout.

SAH: What is it about Italy that moved you so much?
MS Italy is amazing in the sense that you have thousands of years of history visible around you and then modern styles layered overtop at the same time. It gives you an incredibly rich narrative of the country’s evolution, which is much like the evolution of one’s home decor. inside-design-smith-sidetable.jpg
SAH: This book is unique in that it focuses on a single home from start to end. Is this a story that you’ve been wanting to tell for a long time?
MS It’s very hard for a book to convey what a house feels like, so by having all these different photographers sharing different perspectives of the house in one book, I thought it would put readers in the middle of it and give them a sense of what it’s really like to be inside. In the same vein, I had all these great people who worked on the house tell their story to create a richer context – almost like a movie. If the book focused solely on the experience of me and one photographer, you wouldn’t get enough information or a real sense of what the house is like.

SAH: How do you explain the concept of livable grandeur?
MS Think of decorating your home as, essentially, a teeter-totter. For every formal piece, there’s an informal pairing. For every beautiful sculptural item, you’ll find something more casual. You can live in the grandest of rooms and yet still be comfortable if you make sure that the sofas are plush, the space is well lit and you have somewhere to put your feet up. With the right furniture, you could even be comfortable at Versailles!

SAH: So you found the balance of formal and informal, but how did you determine the right dose of your various influences and styles?
I think that’s an incredibly personal thing. It’s all taste at the end of the day, and how do you convey taste? There’s no formula. It’s like seasoning – what’s too salty for you? Those are personal choices. I think the most interesting houses are the ones where personal tastes and choices are most visible. inside-design-smith-vase.jpg
SAH: With your flair for hunting down the perfect antiques, what’s your advice for people who are looking to start their own collection of furniture and decor accessories?
MS Read a lot, develop a sense of what you’re drawn to and really hone in on it. In a world where there is so much information and inspiration accessible on sites like 1stdibs and Pinterest, it’s important to understand the story behind the look you love and the pieces you buy. Whether it’s the 1950s, Art Deco or 18th century, learn about the quality: What makes it a good chair? What should the wood finish look like? What should it feel like? I think it makes you more qualitative in your home decor decisions.

SAH: If your clients could only invest in one trade, which would you advise them to choose?
Well, a good architect is everything. You could build the most expensive house in the world, but if the architecture isn’t good, then it doesn’t matter. If you have expensive ingredients but a bad cook, the meal won’t turn out very well. But when it comes to trades, it’s probably best to invest in the millwork and the painting because those are the things we really see. Millwork done beautifully by an incredible, talented craftsperson is just extraordinary looking, and a beautiful paint job is key because it’s essentially the skin of the house.

SAH: How does it feel to be able to apply your decor principles to the White House, one of the most famous residences in the world?
It’s an incredible honour. There are people who have worked for decades on the White House and I have huge respect for them. It’s an incredible opportunity to be part of history. Michael four tips for making a formal space feel informal:

1 Reduce the amount of things in the home. Simplifying the background makes the furniture look a little more sculptural and creates a lighter overall aesthetic. It’s all about editing.

2 Use a spare colour palette with plenty of natural linens or off-white slipcovered furniture.

3 Switch out a heavier antique area rug for a nubby sisal with a simpler, more natural feel.

4 Replace curtains with simple matchstick blinds that have an organic quality.


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Design Experts

Inside design: Michael S. Smith