When I saw Michael S. Smith’s recently renovated apartment in AD’s September issue, I thought it had such an ethereal feel. While the pre-renovated rendition published a few years ago brought my eye in to the seamless blend of fabric and color and object, the current palette of silver, grey, and green drew my eye out to the terrace and the city skyline (not that I wouldn’t like to linger on the lovely insides, too). It was great to begin with, and better now; I was curious what brought on the change.
“I had tried to buy an apartment in Paris and it didn’t work, but I had a whole idea of what I wanted,” Smith explains. “It was really a set idea that I decided to bring to New York.” A set idea, perhaps, but there was some back-and-forth. “There is a piece of the process in the beginning that is constantly questioning, a rethinking to determine if this is really it.” In this case, it turned out that it was.
I’ve taken images of Smith’s rooms before and converted them to black and white, to see if they hold up drained of color. Doing so enables you to examine the space’s structure, much as David Hicks emphasized the same when he published his garden book in two tones. “I’m obsessed with structure,” admits Smith. “It is intentional and thought out, a sort of 3-D checks and balances, but I don’t sit down and graph things out.”
I wondered if such a balancing act is instinctual or if Smith believes it can be taught. “I think you can teach fundamentals. You know, anticipatory thought—they need a TV; it would be nice to have an ottoman. What’s hard to teach is the idea of, ‘That has too much blue.’ I think that is instinctual. That and scale.”
Not that Smith discounts training. The AD100 designer has worked in the industry since he was 17, and he has a deep appreciation for history, particularly design history, believing it is a critical component of the practice. He will put that passion to use as the new creative director of the 112-year-old fabric house Brunschwig & Fils. “When you go through the archives,”—Smith just happened to be on his way there, his voice filled with excitement—“you see the patterns are so well drawn and so well colored. It’s really interesting, the level of taste; it may not be yours, but you can’t argue with the quality. Brunschwig calls to mind Billy Baldwin, Sister Parish, Jackie Kennedy.”
Smith comes to the partnership with broad decorative-arts experience that reaches beyond his role as a designer. He launched Jasper Furniture and Fabrics in 2000. The comprehensive line includes more than 170 pieces of furniture (with over 60 chairs—heaven for an addict like myself) and a varied selection of lighting, accessories, and fabrics. Smith says that even with his own successful line at Jasper, he cannot do everything he’d like to. It’s also possible that he will have both a new collection with Brunschwig and an influence on reimagining old patterns: “There is so much that is good that has been there forever. We can add to that without changing their DNA.”
Maintaining this continuity has significance to Smith all the way down to the client. “The worst thing I do as I get older is that I forget to explain. The importance of history is continuing the education. If you understand the history of the fabrics, you see them in a different way. Like La Portugaise”—a longtime designer favorite of strong brown stripes bordering a red and green floral print—“if you’re aware of Billy Baldwin’s house in Nantucket, that all-white cottage with only the La Portugaise print, or Hadley using it for Brooke Astor’s library, you begin to see it in the continuum of the history of fabrics. That’s completely different than just seeing it hanging in a showroom.”
In this sense, Smith thinks it is important to provide a full explanation of B&F the brand. Without perspective, it’s just fabric. “It’s like the Kelly Bag,” he explains, referring to the iconic Hermès handbag that Princess Grace of Monoco used in 1956 to hide her pregnancy from the paparazzi long before Us Weekly and the term baby bump existed. “If you don’t have that image of Grace Kelly in your head, it’s just a bag.”
Last year Brunschwig was purchased by Kravet, the high-end fabric house that also owns Lee Jofa and GP & J Baker, and Smith thinks its fourth-generation leadership brings a similar philosophy. “The family understands that B&F needs its own identity.” Smith also feels they will be able to freshen some of the products so that they are more connected with 2012 and beyond. “What sold in 1993 may not be relevant today. I don’t want to see someone re-create the Astor library, but to use it as an inspiration, to do it in your own way. Ultimately, what brings rooms alive is the people who inhabit them.”