White House Designer Michael Smith Talks Obamas and Industry Secrets

04/20/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Michael Smith Inc. is not just any interior design firm; it's THE interior design firm. With A-listers like Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Cindy Crawford and Net-a-Porter's Natalie Massenet counting themselves as loyal devotees, Michael Smith's company is known far and wide for distinctive and iconic home styling. At the helm is the eponymous designer himself, Michael S. Smith.

Smith's influence is seemingly everywhere in the design world. His work frequently graces the covers of the design "bibles," Architectural Digest and Elle Decor. He has teamed up with some of the biggest names in home product lines to release licensed collections, and created his own furniture and fabric collection called Jasper.

And that's not all. The most famous white house in the world can thank him for its spruce up. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama tapped Smith to redecorate the White House residential quarters back in 2008. Since then, he has made over the Oval Office and, in 2010, the President appointed him to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Along the way, Smith has also done dozens of gorgeous homes, offices and other spaces worldwide, and a high spirited, gracious refresh of the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.

In this second episode of the web series Corner Office Confidential, Smith shares his story and journey, and the wisdom he has gained along the way.

Here are some of Smith's reflections:

On the secret to forming longstanding relationships with clients...

Smith emphasizes three things when it comes to building a loyal client base: listen, respect and anticipate. As in any service industry, Smith says the key is really to listen to clients. How do they envision their project? Marrying clients' expectations with your own creative ideas is a recipe for unique and successful design. Second, be respectful of a client's wallet. It's easy to be reckless when you're on someone else's dime, but Smith exercises prudence with every project. Third, it is important to anticipate the future. Smith explains that many clients don't consider factors like more children, grandchildren, or even the need for a larger home in their current plans. To ensure a lasting working relationship, he explains that he always incorporates a vision for the future in his design--foresight that often inspires his clients.

On never diluting a personal brand...

Smith approaches all of his company collaborations with a clear sense of his own style. A deep understanding of his distinctive aesthetic allows him the freedom to channel his ideas into a company's portfolio. However, he cautions against lending your name to just any opportunity that comes knocking. Smith says it is important to design really purposeful products dictated by specific needs in the market. Creating unique items that don't exist attracts more customers than another overdone themed collection. And it helps retain your integrity as a designer.

On never losing passion for what you do...

Smith advises everyone to be a perpetual student -- because you can always learn a new way to do something. Constant travel and exposure to foreign styles and cultures are key to keeping a fresh take on design. He also recommends being inherently curious and staying vital. Once you let any sort of monotony set in, you immediately become commercial and lose the passion and edge.

On handling (somewhat overwhelming) enormous career opportunities...

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. And then prepare some more. When he was tapped to decorate the White House, Smith thoroughly researched the legendary home. He sifted through every bit of correspondence he could get his hands on, and fully immersed himself in the history of it. Developing that deep familiarity with a subject enables you to take on a new challenge with both confidence and a fresh eye.

For more of Michael Smith's remarks on design, skill and the journey to the top, check out the full episode of Corner Office Confidential above. Look for new episodes of Corner Office Confidential every month.