Michelle Obama was clear what she wanted when she appointed the Californian interior designer Michael Smith to refurbish the private quarters of the White House. ‘Michael shares my vision for creating a family-friendly feel to our new home and incorporating some new perspectives from some of America’s greatest artists and designers,’ she said. She could not have chosen better. Smith is brilliant at creating historically based rooms that are comfortable, light and airy. He combines antiques with family life: the television and Scrabble board taking their place alongside gilded screens and Sultanabad carpets. Smith’s style is steeped in the English country-house look (from his days studying decorative arts at the V & A), yet he does not disdain mass-produced products when they are right for the job.
‘I have no qualms about buying printed cotton bedspreads from Urban Outfitters if they have that vibration I’m looking for,’ he says. Just as well, as it is said that one of his first tasks at the White House will be the bedrooms of Sasha and Malia Obama (though he never comments). Every president is allotted $100,000 per term for the private quarters, which wouldn’t go far in the houses of his Hollywood clients: Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and Michelle Pfeiffer. One of his main tasks is finding out what his clients want – he never imposes his own style. But there are elements that recur in many of his houses: white sofas, faded oriental rugs, polished plaster walls in subtle colours, four-poster beds, hand-blocked fabrics, chinoiserie wallpapers, dark Japanese-inspired kitchens and rush matting. These lovely interiors give us a glimpse of the new style that is coming to the Obama White House.
‘The proportions of these rooms are so commanding and strong that they would be beautiful even without anything in them. As in Palladio’s villas, the materials are incredibly raw yet refined. The ground floor is covered in pietra serena – the stone used to construct the city of Florence. The walls are Venetian plaster and the carpet is 17th-century Persian. There are two seating groups focused on a fireplace at each end. I had hemp custom-woven for the sofas. The palette is pale, except for the indigo in the rug and the red fabric on two Georgian chairs, which I had copied from an antique Indian textile. I have used a large table between the seating groups in the living-room to anchor the space and mark a passageway through the centre.’
Japanese-style kitchen, Malibu
‘This is my 21st Japanese-feudal kitchen – one of my favourite rooms in this house. Someone gave me a book on feudal Japanese palaces and I’ve been carrying around those pictures in my head.
Then I crossed that idea with a northern European castle (creamy plaster walls, wood beams) and modern minimalism. The island is made of walnut over stainless steel with an inset of stone round the sink. The Japanese tansu chest is 18th century, and the hanging lamps are made of fabric over a wood frame and were salvaged from a 1940s department store in Japan. It’s Shogun in Malibu.’
Dining-room, Santa Barbara, California Smith has commissioned a painted mural here, but for his own dining-room he used a hand-painted mural wallpaper by the British firm De Gournay
‘Dining-rooms are always tough. You want to create a sense of magic and I think nothing does it better than a mural. Suddenly you’re enveloped in this otherworldly atmosphere. You’re looking beyond the walls to the trees and sky. The northern Italian-style chair is covered in a damask linen.’
The library, Smith’s home in Los Angeles
‘The dark painted-leather screen sets off the bright yellow English Regency sofa, draped with an old Indonesian quilt, which I bought because I loved the pattern. Then I threw on more pattern with the cushions covered in a Turkish ikat and Indian fabrics. The coffee table is a 19th-century Chinese table, cut down to work in front of the sofa. The whole room is layered with objects I love: blue and white porcelain, old French maps, a marble obelisk – all guaranteed to transport you to another place and time.’
Guest-room in flat, Eaton Square, London
‘The guest-room in this apartment, on one of the most beautiful squares in London, is comparatively small. Funny how you get ideas – I was invited to Christian Lacroix’s show and he sent out the models against a backdrop of enormous black-and-white blow-ups of paintings. I loved that idea and replicated it by wrapping this guest-room in a grisaille wallpaper by Zuber. The vistas expand the narrow space. Then I furnished it with a stately neoclassical Russian secretaire and hung claret-red curtains, making the grey look even more crisp. It adds romance. It’s regal.’
Smith’s own bedroom, Los Angeles
‘I couldn’t find the perfect four-poster bed, but I found these Georgian posts and built a bed round them, hung with a fabric I designed called Indian Flower hemp. Of course, it had to have a canopy. If you’re going to spend a third of your life in bed, it might as well have a sense of ceremony. Beds are for lounging and I always make them super-comfortable with plenty of pillows. The cushion on the floor is meant to be for the dogs, but you can guess where they end up.’
* Extracted from ‘Michael S Smith: Houses’ (Rizzoli, £25), by Michael S Smith with Christine Pittel