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The Natural

DECK: From an early age, he knew he had what it took to design stylish custom interiors. His long list of clients knows it, too.

May 20, 1999|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Interior designer Michael Smith knows a lot of things, and one of those things is that he's talented. And he doesn't at all mind telling you.

"I have always had a really good sense of my own destiny. It's like, everyone is insecure and has ups and downs, and God knows I have all of that, but one thing I never really questioned was my own talent.

"It's not meant to come across as egotistical," he says, "but I just know. I always have."

He's known it since he was a student at Otis College of Art and Design, or really before that, as a child when he decided to build a Japanese garden in the backyard by flooding it with water until it was a sea of mud.

The result?

"I think my parents were probably unhappy with me."

That sense of destiny has taken him far. His client roster includes Cindy Crawford, hotel-restaurant mogul Peter Morton, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, director James Burrows and a mega-famous producer-director whose name he doesn't want to mention because privacy is still respected in this blab-happy world.

They come to him for his warm, livable, classically rooted interiors, which Elle Decor editor in chief Marian McEvoy describes as "graceful, colorful, and there is a European something going on, whether it's English or Portuguese. There's also a Modernist feeling, which is American and could be Italian and French. He loves color, but he doesn't hit you over the head with it. He's not stagey or theatrical."

Smith does homes all over the world, some of which have been featured in such upscale shelter magazines as House & Garden, Elle Decor and House Beautiful. He designs his own line of reproduction furniture, which retails for $1,100 to $8,000 and is sold through his Santa Monica store Jasper (due to reopen this fall following renovations). A line of Michael Smith for Cowtan & Tout fabrics will debut soon, and he has manufacturers clamoring for more Michael Smith products. His new, spacious Santa Monica studio boasts 17 employees, including eight design assistants.

You'd expect Smith, 34 and single, to be still engaged in the struggle, not at the top of his game in this intensely competitive field. But that's where he is right now, in the midst of such projects as an apartment in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, a Malibu beach house and a 25,000-square-foot house and winery in Santa Ynez.

His baby face and curly dark blond locks belie the drive that makes Michael run. The telephone--car, cell or otherwise--is a constant appendage. A day can take him through several client appointments, an interview, dropping by a site, dozens of phone calls, a workout with his trainer and dinner.

But you won't hear Smith whining about the pace--he likes it that way.

"I went to Hawaii for this project," he says, "and you see people jogging on the beach and windsurfing, and that's their choice. It's just not what I choose for myself.

"After a day of that, I'd go nuts. It's hard for me to actually not work. When I do go away, it's to Barbados or the Caribbean, and for a couple of days I'll look at real estate. That's relaxing to me."

Busy Atmosphere Keeps Him Going

Sitting in his office with three or four design assistants on a recent weekday, he stays focused during a dizzying discussion of furniture, clients, what mirror will work where, which rug will be hand-woven in custom colors, which wood stain has the right hue, which knobs are right for a drawer and the correct shade of off-white for a wall. In between he volleys a few phone calls and every once in a while holds up fabric swatches for approval.

Even his friend and colleague, architect Mark Rios, rarely sees him turn it off.

"We'll go the beach and veg out," he says. "But more often we'll be at dinner and he's . . . definitely aware of what's going on. He's a very intense guy."

Maybe that's why his Brentwood hillside home, which he's lived in for a year and a half (it took six months to renovate), is a cool oasis from this frenetic life. It was featured in Elle Decor last year. A request to see it is met with a huge sigh.

"I'll show it to you later," Smith says. "I'm really sick of showing this house."

From the living room, huge glass windows look out on the canyons and the massive Getty Center, so close you can see the tram crawling up the hill. Terra cotta tiles, whitewashed bricks, robust wood furniture and natural, neutral tones emphasize the sense of calm.

Smith makes a cup of coffee in the kitchen (where cereal is kept in the Viking oven--a throwback to living with dampness at the beach) and sinks into a marshmallowy living room chair, barefoot, wearing faded jeans and a gray cashmere sweater. He recalls that his earliest memories of growing up in Pasadena and Newport Beach have become the underlying aesthetic for his work today.

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