The Talent

Legally Chic

Louisiana-born, New York–based Michelle Smith has always had a knack for keeping spaces fun, bright and simply sophisticated (photo by Stephen Kent Johnson). Top: The recent buyer of Smith’s old apartment was so taken with her work that she asked her to decorate it; Smith chose a floor lamp by Karl Springer and hung a cool, atmospheric painting by David Harouni above the sofa (photo by Joy Sohn).

Yes, she was born on the bayou, but Michelle Smith knew early on that she wasn’t much like her Cajun kin. “My mother likes to say I came out of the womb pretentious,” she laughs, recalling her backwater Louisiana childhood. “That’s why I’ve never had an accent.” Call it hoodoo, but she knew that a more exciting life as a decorator awaited her in New York, even if the path would be a roundabout one. And it was.

Smith’s love for gutting houses and decorating interiors came from her mother, who built and renovated houses for the family as a pastime. Smith followed her everywhere she went, learning, almost by osmosis, about construction, renovation and design. “It was always a fun hobby,” she recalls, “and never a job when we did it. I think that’s why it doesn’t feel like a job today.” When it came to her own rooms, Smith was encouraged to indulge her passion. “I think I picked my bathroom’s grout color at eight! It was a terrible choice — pale yellow, to match the walls!”

Other than her mother, who were Smith’s early influences? Bunny Williams? Barbara Barry? “I didn’t have any,” Smith chortles. “My mother says we got Southern Living, Traditional Home and Veranda, but I don’t remember them.” She does confess, however, to being inspired by certain television shows. This resulted in some “crazy” decorating choices, like painting her bedroom a specially mixed mauve hue to resemble the apartment on the TV sitcom Friends.

For the living room of a home in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, Smith matched sunny-yellow Rose Tarlow curtains and a green-velvet chair by Jonas Workroom with a mid-20th-century coffee table in the form of a bronze antelope. Photo by Joy Sohn

“I didn’t get a proper education in decorating until I was a bored law student in New York,” Smith explains — adding that attending law school at Manhattan’s Cardozo after graduating from Tulane was the only way her father would let her move north of the Mason-Dixon line. Decorating, she figured, would be an eventual second career. In 2009, as a creative release after she had settled into lawyering at a high-profile firm, Smith purchased a never-renovated, prewar two-bedroom in Greenwich Village — and got to work on a remodel. Her early flamboyance had by now matured into a piquant-but-polished style, making for an interior that was as down home as it was urbane. (This was the result, no doubt, of Rose Tarlow having replaced Friends‘ Rachel Green as Smith’s role model.) The only brightly painted surface of which to speak was the sky-blue interior of a former living room closet, which Smith turned into an open display case for shoes.

Captivated by her apartment’s welcoming insouciance, friends (as well as one of the partners at her firm) asked for Smith’s decorating help. Soon she resolved to focus on toile rather than torts. Supportive of Smith’s sudden career swerve, her boss turned client secured her an internship at the studio of a buddy, who just happened to be the celebrated architect-designer Daniel Romualdez.

Two years later, in 2012, after Smith had gained an expert understanding of upholstery, the organizing miracle of binders and the productive capacities of a tightly knit crew, a childhood friend asked for her guidance with the decoration of a grand house she and her husband had purchased in the South Carolina Lowcountry. An equally grand budget for its remodeling and kitting out in fresh, slightly tweaked Provence-meets-plantation splendor provided the means and impetus for Smith to set up her own firm, Studio MRS (the R derives from Smith’s middle name, René). Since then, she’s attracted an ever-growing list of high-profile clients, including fashion trailblazer Prabal Gurung and Iron Chef star Emma Hearst.


Renovating houses with her mother was always “a fun hobby,” Smith recalls, “and never a job when we did it. I think that’s why it doesn’t feel like a job today.”


Legally Chic
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Legally Chic

For the kitchen in Iron Chef star Emma Hearst’s Hawaii home, Smith designed a tile scheme of cream and pale green to bring a bit of the surrounding tropical oasis inside. Photo by Olivier Koning

In Hearst’s Hawaii home, sleekly textured tilework in the master bathroom (left) is complemented by the various materials in the master bedroom (right), which includes a Pierre Freyupholstered headboard, a sheepskin rug and cement-tiled floors to keep the room cool. Photos by Olivier Koning

For Hearst’s Hawaii living room, the clean angles of a shagreen Garrison Rousseau coffee table are juxtaposed with a playful wall-hung surfboard — custom-designed to echo the beige and black hues of a nearby oil painting. Photo by Olivier Koning

Left: In her own Sag Harbor home, Smith pairs vintage finds, such as the 19th-century Empire dining chairs upholstered in fabric by Manuel Canovas with the contemporary Charles Edwards light fixture overhead. Right: A handful of objects found at the Round Top Antiques Fair in Texas adorn a vintage wooden vanity. Photos by Joy Sohn

Left: Always a champion of smartly colored walls, Smith painted her Sag Harbor kitchen an inviting sea-foam green, and channeled a patriotic spirit with red, white and blue dishes. Right: In her bedroom, an antique crocheted bed canopy brings a soft country touch. She found the Art Deco ceiling fixture on 1stdibs. Photos by Joy Sohn

Despite this Sag Harbor guest room’s diminutive size, its cheetah-motif wallpaper is always a hit with visitors: “Tiniest room ever,” Smith says, “but everyone wants to sleep in it!” Photo by Joy Sohn

Left: Smith created custom Gracie wallpaper for this sitting room in a grand home in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina: “The scene is what you see out of the window,” she says, “oyster beds with the indigenous birds.” Right: On the wraparound porch, an overhead fan by Aria Ventilatori and printed rocking chairs by Janus et Cie convey languid Southern luxury. Photos by Joy Sohn

Left: In Smith’s former New York apartment, she personalized the living room mantle with Georg Jensen candlesticks and a pencil drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec. Right: A Chiavari chair sits beneath an Audubon print and a painting of a monkey she found at a Paris flea market. Photos by Joy Sohn

 

When commissioned to decorate the apartment of a a partner in the New York law firm at which she was then employed, Smith got creative, pairing a print by Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha with gently curving candlesticks she found at a Paris flea market and transparent blue-gray Ikea chairs. Photo by Joy Sohn

If success has come with lightning speed, Smith’s projects still have the air of circuitous sagas, albeit ones spiced with serendipity. When she was first hired by Hearst, whom she’d met in Pilates class, it was to decorate a Brooklyn townhouse. Smith had already begun the plans when Hearst decided instead to relocate to a surfer’s dream house on Oahu’s North Shore. “Can we please just do Brooklyn?” Smith remembers thinking, since logistically this presented a daunting undertaking for a fledgling firm. Plus, she says, the house was “a 1980s throw-it-up with an awful popcorn ceiling.”

The home’s plain-Janeness, however, also signaled opportunity — and Smith doesn’t lack spunk. So despite her hesitation, she resolved to right its wrongs, embarking on a major long-distance overhaul. As she predicted, there were trying moments, like having to make critical remodeling decisions via cellphone snaps from the contractor at 10 at night after a couple of glasses of wine. Ultimately though, Smith delivered a clean-lined, cool-toned home with a spacious customized kitchen worthy of the culinary diva who’d be cooking in it and just enough tongue-in-Tiki details to proclaim “Polynesian paradise.”

Smith also got what she had asked for at the start: a Hearst commission closer to home. Captivated by her easy style and genial Southern air, Hearst’s parents asked her to remodel a recently built Colonial Dutchstyle pile for them near Albany, New York. Working closely with Hearst’s mother, Smith is planning an ornate interior of bespoke fixtures, and brocade, damask and cut-velvet upholstered furnishings and draperies — along with some requisite Delft tiles.

For her own home in Sag Harbor, purchased by going “halfsies” with her mother, Smith added on a screened porch, whose look she kept casual, adding wicker chairs, a pair of industrial-style lighting fixtures and a taxidermied fish she caught herself in Costa Rica. Photo by Joy Sohn

It was via another stroke of luck that Smith got her adorable weekend retreat in Sag Harbor. Charged with finding a summer house in the Hamptons for a client, she enlisted the help of her real-estate savvy mother to scan the listings, and it was there that she discovered a barely touched whaler’s cottage dating from 1790. When Smith saw it, she remembers, she was smitten. Her mother, meanwhile, recognized it not only as a find, but also as a place where she and her husband might occasionally rendezvous with their work-engrossed only child. Offering to go “halfsies” on it, she made the dark-shingled nest affordable for her daughter. “I thought it would be decades before I got my own place in the Hamptons,” Smith gushes.

Not wanting to tamper with the character of this antique gem, which has its original wide-planked floors and doors, Smith contained her zeal for remodeling and limited herself to updating the bathrooms and building a screened porch. “I let the house speak to me,” she says. Channeling a “granny meets nautical vibe” — the spirit of the house is evidently as whimsical as its owner — Smith painted the walls in her favored palette of neutrals and furnished the rooms with some new cabinetry and antiques collected on annual trips to the massive Round Top Antiques Fair in Texas, as well as custom pieces.

Though modest in scale, the dark-shingled cottage has garnered Smith some sizable commissions, including a Montauk beach house, which, she says, “is much cleaner and whiter” than her own — “with lots of custom furnishings” — and the renovation of a gorgeous farmhouse in New Jersey hunt country on which she’s currently working. The remodel that she’s most excited about, however, though it’s the one she has least time for, is the townhouse in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill that she recently purchased with her fiancé, the Italian photojournalist Sebastiano Tomada. He’s more contemporary than she in his decorative tastes, and there have been a few contretemps concerning the design. But considering Smith’s Bayou magic, it’s hard to imagine he won’t end up charmed.


Michelle Smith’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

I adore that the cane legs are striped. I’ve wanted this so long for myself, but it’s just too deep to be an accent chair.

The cut-outs remind me of Lucio Fontana, and I love the scale.

When you want finishing items that are just as special as the furniture they sit on, Laserow Antiques is my favorite place to look. This silver sugar bowl is a perfect example.

I like to inject color in a room with an antique piece. It’s less a pop of color forced by a decorator and more like it’s always been there.

Clean and rustic. It’s a city appropriate farm table.

Alberto Levi Gallery’s rugs are always artful. I haven’t seen many Chinese carpets with this color combination.

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