In the portrait that appears in the introductory pages of his latest book, The Curated House (Rizzoli), Michael Smith sits in a chair next to a stone mantelpiece, a rakish straw hat in his lap. Impeccably tailored and glancing to one side, he has chosen to rest his Converse-clad feet on the pale beige fabric from his own line that’s upholstering the sofa. Taken in the designer’s Los Angeles house, the photograph perfectly captures the elegance, ease and comfort that define Smith’s interiors: Their inhabitants may be surrounded by Louis XIV consoles and blue-chip contemporary art, but they’ll never hesitate to put up their feet.


Smith may be happy to be recognised for his ability to create relaxed luxe, but he likes to make it clear that he has a fastidious side, too. “I like things very orderly,” he says. “Even in super-contemporary spaces I’m always a classicist. It’s literally about making the bed.” It’s also about having a well-trained eye, one that’s confident enough to juxtapose the brand-new with the centuries-old. “What I do is edit,” the designer explains. “Diverse ideas that could be overwhelming are sorted out so they make sense.” In a Spanish Colonial Revival home in California, for example, Smith made sure the undulating base of a Mattia Bonetti coffee table was visually aligned with the Baroque curves of 17th-century Spanish chairs so these disparate elements would coexist in harmony.

Smith’s calming touch is probably much appreciated by his most famous clients – the Obamas. In 2009 he was selected to redesign the First Family’s private living quarters, for which he also helped choose Modern and contemporary art. He was then tapped to update the Oval Office interior. As credentials go, that’s difficult to top, but Smith’s client roster also includes such Hollywood heavyweights and enduring celebrities as George Clooney and Cindy Crawford. Many he considers friends, like Natalie Massenet, the founder and erstwhile CEO of Net-A-Porter, for whom Smith designed a knockout London town house.


Originally from Newport Beach, California, Smith divides his time between Los Angeles, Palm Springs, New York and Madrid, where his partner, James Costos, serves as US Ambassador to Spain and Andorra. “I’m really lucky,” says the designer of his peripatetic life. Travelling has allowed him to build relationships with artists and dealers who provide the custom lighting, textiles and antiques for his interiors. And while Smith may be happily itinerant, he admits, “I love to be in my office surrounded by the talented people I work with and to stop and have a reflective moment. Not unlike organising a room, I like to organise my thoughts.” Reached by telephone from Madrid, the designer shared his thoughts about what it means to curate a house, the importance of the kitchen and some of his recent acquisitions.


What is a curated house?
 It’s about curating in a very broad way. After 30 years, I realise that doing houses and interiors is not so much an art as it is a craft. A house is not a sculpture. I’m not working in a vacuum. I’m working in tandem with other people and their aspirations, their sensibilities and how they want to be perceived in the world as well as their collections.

The word “curate” is everywhere these days. Why do you think that is?
There’s so much more information and so many more options than even five years ago. People want things that have been vetted; they want a point of view.

How do you explain that?
It’s hard to come up with the language, and I think “curated” is used a lot because it’s a way of selecting things with a distinctive point of view that still feels inclusive and collaborative.

How have your travels influenced your work?
Whether it’s Paris or Hawaii, all travel is influential. The more you see the more you know. Because I’ve been living partially in Spain, I’ve been looking at a lot of Spanish architecture. Seeing it not as a revival but in its original home has such power.

Could you share with us a recent acquisition?
Every day I see something I’m captivated by. I recently bought a Maison Jansen armoire; a beautiful John Altoon painting for a project; and a midcentury Karl Springer chair at a shop in Palm Springs. In Madrid I just found some antique textiles to make into cushions.

I think 'curated' is used a lot because it’s a way of selecting things with a distinctive point of view that still feels inclusive and collaborative.

What is the most important thing to keep in mind when mixing new pieces with antiques?
The issue with mixing is about balance. It’s extraordinarily difficult to explain because it’s an abstract idea, but there are generally strong cues to take direction from. If you live in a Spanish-style house, that gives you a basic structure. But it’s a breakable rule. A Tudor house with traditional English upholstery can be filled with Italian modernist painting and the elements will hold together.

Have you ever revisited a project?
Clients redo things all the time as their lives change. It’s exciting to go back and reimagine their collections. A house has to be stretched. It’s a book you never really finish because the story is always evolving.

What are you working on now?
I’m doing a big house in the Caribbean that I’m excited about because I’m obsessed with architects like Oliver Messel and others, who did amazing classical-style houses there. I’ve long had a desire to immerse myself in that aesthetic.

Is there a piece of advice you have for someone embarking on a renovation or redecoration? If you can choose your kitchen cabinets, you can define your style – is it a modern kitchen? A traditional one?
There’s a lot of information distilled in the kitchen. Even if you do different things in other rooms, the kitchen really informs the overall vocabulary.


What is the best part about working with collectors?
I’ve worked for some of the biggest collectors in the world who are passionate about what they have, and I learn from them. I’ve also had clients with very little art who want to expand their taste and knowledge, and I get to learn with them. It’s incredible to be both the student and the teacher.

Are there artists who you are personally interested in right now?
Anthony Pearson, a California artist who plays with a lot of texture, the painter Amy Sillman – she’s a great colourist – and Kerry James Marshall is terrific.

How would you characterise your profession?
I always say two things. First, decorating is essentially like stand-up comedy: You’re up there risking it. The second is that the best designers are portraitists. You define someone’s aesthetic. You make them look a little better. You give people more than they think they would ask for.

Meghan Dailey is Executive Editor of Sotheby’s magazine.