West Coast Decorator Michael S. Smith Gets Nod for Obama White House

Michael S. Smith is known for classic modern design.
Michael S. Smith is known for classic modern design. (By Sheila Metzner)
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By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Michael S. Smith, who was announced Tuesday as the new White House decorator, is a native of California whose style is steeped in European tradition.

Smith was one of three finalists in the designer selection process, according to Katie McCormick Lelyveld, spokeswoman for Michelle Obama. The Obamas selected him to redesign the private quarters, she says, "because he had a similar vision of what they were looking for."

His interiors reflect a well-traveled look that includes the use of fine fabrics and rare antiques and a combination of different time periods, cultures and price points. His designs are known for being comfortable yet sophisticated, classic yet modern, filled with priceless pieces yet inviting and livable.

"He takes classic modern and he makes it usable to people today," says Key Hall, chief executive of the fabric house Cowtan & Tout. "His homes are very inviting and very livable."

Based in Santa Monica, Smith, 44, works on residential and commercial properties around the world. He was named one of Architectural Digest's top 100 designers in 2002 and 2004 and was Elle Decor's designer of the year in 2003. His long list of celebrity clients includes Cindy Crawford, Steven Spielberg, Rupert Murdoch, Dustin Hoffman and Michelle Pfeiffer.

In addition to his interior design business, Smith is involved in a number of commercial ventures, including his furniture and fabric lines called Jasper; a fabric and leather collection with Cowtan & Tout; bath collections with Kohler's Kallista brand; a collection of tile at Ann Sacks; and licensing agreements with Visual Comfort Lighting, the Mansour Modern rug company, Samuel and Sons Passementerie and Agraria Home Fragrances.

Speculation about who would be named White House decorator had been rippling through the design world for weeks. For a time, it was rumored that Chicago designer Nate Berkus, who appears frequently on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," would get the nod. District designer Darryl Carter has also been mentioned. Just recently, and seemingly out of nowhere, Smith began getting attention. Although he has no obvious connection to the Obamas, one theory advanced to explain his choice is that someone from the designer's high-profile client list made an introduction.

With so much design talent in Washington and Chicago, the California designer was an unexpected choice to some. "I was a little surprised, I have to say," says L.A. designer Kathryn Ireland. "But Michael is a good choice, because he does beautiful rooms. His rooms are flawlessly produced, and his eye for detail is exceptional."

But to others, the selection of Smith is not surprising.

"I think there are many qualified people, but he really stands out as being one of the top designers of our time," says Margaret Russell, the editor of Elle Decor magazine. "He's an extremely versatile designer, and he's someone who doesn't inflict his personal style on his clients. He's a good fit. . . . I think he'll help the Obamas make a lovely statement about what change is, while respecting the history of the White House and bringing a fresh look to it."

Warrenton designer Barry Dixon says he has been a big fan of Smith's for years. "He has a really wonderful understanding of the history of aesthetics and decoration and the past, and he designs comfortable, present-day interiors. It's one of his talents among many. . . . He takes serious things, and in his hands they don't appear overly serious, but they are still reverent to our aesthetic history."

Raised in Newport Beach, Smith studied interior design at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and decorative arts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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