There's no one more interesting than people; we're all different, yet really the same as we don our daily costumes and head on out the door. I'm in heaven, sitting in a restaurant and imagining who people are, where they come from, what they do, and what makes them tick. I'm fascinated, learning about people's idiosyncrasies and exactly what it is that separates them from the pack. In this column, I'll introduce you to some of the best and brightest -- the charismatic and the quirky -- so you can get to know them, too.
First up, Michael S. Smith: interior designer extraordinaire, supposed enfant terrible, man of lofty accomplishments and, I'm pleased to add, my dear friend. Although his success has to stick deep in the craw of other worthy decorators, I am here to tell you it is well-deserved, hard-earned and, despite what you may have heard, couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
Born and raised in Orange County, Michael was busy rearranging furniture for his grandmother by the time he was nine. With his photographic memory, he probably stockpiled favorite color chips and fabric swatches even then. Michael, a natural observer and lover of all things beautiful, recently showed me the house he grew up in, and I envisioned the tow-headed little boy I've seen in old pictures pouring over decorating magazines and dreaming of a bigger life to come.
He studied at Los Angeles's Otis School of Design, spent a year in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he honed his sense of history and proportion, and returned to the States where he apprenticed for Jep Durenberger and John Saladino. At 23 he struck out on his own, not with the brash over-confidence of youth, but rather with a mature-beyond-his-years knowledge that if he didn't take care of himself, no one else would. He must have been terrified, but he clung to the hope that he had something special to offer and ultimately made the best decision of his life.
Michael has built his business brick by brick, cementing them together with a sure hand and the work ethic of a stevedore. He stokes his mind by constantly trolling the Internet, magazines, museums and galleries for what's new, beautiful, quirky and chic. When you travel with him, say to Paris, he leads and you follow to the only shop making custom flip-flops, the best Chinese food in the land of the French and finally, to Monsieur Feau's atelier filled with the most divine 18th Century paneling you've ever seen. He'll encourage a quick trip to Versailles for a tour of Marie Antoinette's private rooms and then to the flea market for hours of fun searching the stalls for unique treasures.
The man has an eye, there's no doubt about it. In the midst of a redo of our California home, we decided to chuck some Doric cement columns, and offered them to Michael. I was relieved to be rid of them, freeing the outdoor space for some planting. When next I visited his Georgian home in Bel Air, there were the columns, incorporated in a new pergola on his sprawling back lawn, looking regal and perfect and right. I thought, "Hmm, is it too late to get them back?"
You've read about his global clientele, but did you know that in the course of one week his schedule took him from the White House, to New York, London, Mallorca and Dubai. I mean, come on -- who does that? He continues to attract not only names we all recognize but many others who are more than willing to sign on the dotted line for his non-negotiable "no matter who you are" fee.
And here's why: people love working with him, not just for his talent but because he's so damn much fun. I promise you'll laugh your ass off! He's charming, well-informed, irreverent and has the most interesting friends (and unlike some, he shares!), but hear me: the real news is that if his decorating business hadn't taken off, he could have been a great shrink. He is supportive, highly ethical, insightful and kind.
So, negatives? We need negatives to give this piece some juice. Could the hair be less bed-head? Could he arrive for appointments just a bit earlier? Could he make decisions on your schedule rather than his? Yes, yes and yes. But who's perfect, who wants to be, and -- frankly -- when the finished product is beyond beautiful and unique, who cares?
Bottom line: get back to work so you can afford to hop on Michael Smith's magic Bessarabian carpet because, believe me, it's one hell of a ride.