Michael S. Smith is considered one of the most original and respected talents in the design industry today. With an international profile of residential, hospitality and commercial clients, Smith’s style is a seamless blend of European classicism and American modernism—always fresh, always evolving, always underscored by the belief that everyone should live with things they love.
What are the constant elements always present in your design projects? I try to make the rooms really interesting; have things that reveal themselves over time. For example, I prefer a room that is not all one shade of white. I like 4 or 5 shades of white; there is more to take in and experience then. Comfort is always important. Simple things like good lighting, tables that provide a place to put a drink. Also, try to work with architecture in a way that is both supportive of it but not slavishly devoted to it. It’s a hybrid that makes it more personal, kind of like a fingerprint. And finally, leave some space to be filled at a later date. A house should be adaptable. Life changes; interiors should accommodate that.
Mixing design periods and historical styles comes naturally to you. What advice to have on how to effectively do that? Try to be true to things that you really love and hope that they work together well. I think that there are no mistakes. It’s about balance, which is hard to explain. Balance and composition. If you are going to take a chance to mix something together, it is driven by what’s meaningful to you. Love it and believe in it, and it will work.
What is the secret to designing a layered, collected interior? Again, it’s the same idea. Start with good furniture in simple shapes and classic forms, go slowly and try to balance it together. It’s such an abstraction—it’s dependent upon the person, it’s about what you respond to.
What material, finish, or color will never go out of style? I can’t think of anything that will go out of style, because as someone said to me years ago, “there’s no bad fabric, there’s just bad application”. If it’s good, true, or correct, it will never go out of style. It will emerge again at some point in time.
What makes your spaces timeless? This desire to compose things in a way that is orderly, classical, and symmetrical. Simple curtains and classical upholstery shapes are a hedge against trending changes.
How do you design a functioning, well-utilized space? Be mindful of how you use the room. If you want to hide the TV in the living room, terrific, if you want to show the TV, great, but listen to how the room needs to be used. Think about being practical and sensible and what works for you, not what you want for some abstract reason.
What advice do you have for people when they undertake designing for themselves? Try to begin with basic things. If you live in a rental, then I would start with really simple classic, tailored upholstery. Go with a classic sofa. If you own your home, I would start with the background– curtains, walls, and creating texture. I am a big believer in wall coverings and dressing all those things, and then going to upholstery. I am always very interested in the texture on the walls, and there are a range of paper options at a range of prices, from a Farrow & Ball striped wallpaper to a great inexpensive raffia or straw. Try to think as much as you can about the whole, get the basics down first, and then add as you go. There is a lot of choice now, and there are amazing options. It’s easier and easier to create an attractive room on your own.
What advice do you have for developing an eye for design? I have three things— travel, travel, travel. Go to the museums in your town, go to lectures. Having a good eye means also having a good ear. If you’re curious, there is so much that you can explore in every town in America. Be out in the world and try and look at as many things as you can. The edit and context of what you see, however, is really important. I think for me, for something to make sense, I need to understand what the original inspiration or intent of the piece was.
What are the three items, elements, etc. every room needs? Comfort, a sense of function, and a little touch of something unexpected, like an antique piece in the middle of a modern loft. It adds a little bit of whimsy and quirk, and looks personal.
When designing for Jasper, what do you keep in mind? Youth, practicality, my ability to use it, and to like it so much I can live with it. My criteria? If I had to use it in my own house, I would.
Jasper reflects your love of beautiful things, from historical influences to artisan-made pieces from furniture to fabrics. Tell us about what the collection offers and how it is uniquely Michael S. Smith. It started out as finding things I needed for a project. If I loved it, I wanted to be able to use. If I like it, other people will love it too. The idea is, these are the things I’m always going to need, they have a beautiful integrity and usability as an asset.
When it comes to scale, how do you think about a space before designing it? The biggest thing in terms of upholstery and wood furniture is to err on the side of safety with proportion rather than taking shots at it. For example, a 20-inch-high sofa arm and a 40-inch-high side table won’t work. Consider scale.
You are influenced by architecture, antiques, textiles, and historical styles. How do those influences show up in your work? I try to apply old rules to a new situation, so I like looking at classic design books for the origin of design style over time. I will look at a Colefax and Fowler book when working on an English country home.
Where do you tend to find the best antiques? I am highly Spain-centric now. I am fascinated at how many things in design are Spanish in origin. When shopping, keep an open mind. You can find things in your hometown or on websites. You need to look at each piece as something you really want to live with.
What is your all-time-favorite room? It changes all the time. To be impressionable and be immersed in a space makes you want to be present. The room downstairs where I live in Spain is my favorite room today. Visually, I try to engage wherever I am. Tomorrow, I head to a beautiful area in southern Spain, and that could be my favorite that day.
What design legacy do you hope to leave? I wonder what kids who live in the homes I designed will be influenced by as far as design, how it affects their perception of how they live as adults. I am intrigued by what that impact is.