WASHINGTON — Michael S. Smith, who was announced this week 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; and bath collections with Kohler's Kallista brand.
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 of Columbia 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 Los Angeles 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, 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, Va., 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.
He may have won over the Obamas with his experience in family-friendly interiors.
"He works really well with families," Russell says. "I think especially for the Obamas' daughters, it would be a nice thing. I've seen him interact with the children of clients, and he's part of the family."
Smith has already been exploring "a variety of different outlets, kid-friendly everyday retail stores" for the bedrooms of 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha, Lelyveld says. "Their primary focus is that when the girls get to their home, that they see their things, and they feel comfortable."
Another plus: Smith shares Michelle Obama's penchant for mixing high and low. She has made a practice of wearing designer clothes one evening and a dress from J. Crew or Gap the next. Smith likes mixing rare antiques with custom-made and retail pieces in his interiors. It's a way "of taking the formality and stiffness out of very grand rooms," he says in his latest book, Houses (Rizzoli, 2008).
For a home in Santa Barbara that's featured in the book, Smith writes, he bought 200 Indian bedspreads from Urban Outfitters, "chopped them up and put them on the walls and ceiling and used them as curtains and upholstery in the pool house." In the same home, he filled rooms with French, Italian and Indian furnishings.
"One of the secrets of good decorating is not to be afraid to be simple," Smith writes in the book. "Sometimes all you need is a jute rug from Pottery Barn."
Smith and the Obamas might share more than a love of mingling high and low. According to news reports, the first dog will be either a Portuguese water dog or a Labradoodle. Smith has dogs, too. And they just happen to be Labradoodles.