Portrait of a Lady
From city to country with interior designer Michelle Smith
The door of the Shingle Style cottage in Sag Harbor, New York, cracks open to reveal a woman with rumpled blond hair tucked into a gray turtleneck, hands wrapped around an Astier de Villatte mug. As she stands in the entryway, propping a bare foot against her shin in an offhanded tree pose, Michelle Smith greets the photo crew temporarily invading her weekend retreat—and immediately steps in to serve as the last set of hands in the assembly-line chain. Behind her, bleached white canvas totes hang from slim brass hooks above a line of muck boots, Manolos, and a pillar-like umbrella stand. Not even five feet into her home, it’s clear that the transplanted Southerner embodies an innate sophistication that extends to all aspects of her life and work.
With a sensibility that blends the refinement of mentor Daniel Romualdez with the versatility of a modern-day Frances Elkins, Smith exudes the confidence of someone who’s been at this for decades. And in a sense she has—even though she only founded her interior design firm, Studio MRS, in June 2012. “I spent most of my childhood at Lowes and Home Depot,” says the Louisiana native, whose parents built or renovated homes in their small town northeast of New Orleans every few years. The budding decorator saw this as an opportunity to reimagine her bedroom—one year convincing the staff of a local Benjamin Moore retailer to mix a purple paint inspired by the apartment in Friends, another time installing a chair rail so she could apply her of-the-moment obsession, a paper border, precisely at eye level. “My clients should be thankful that my parents let me get that out of my system at a young age,” Smith says, laughing.
Despite such early harbingers of design creativity, Smith initially chose a different career path, moving to New York for law school and then practicing at a large firm. Speaking of her subsequent decision to leave law and pursue interiors, she refers to a whirlwind moment in her personal life. “I was renovating my apartment at the time, and friends and even a partner at my law firm were asking me for help with their own places,” says Smith. “I was staying up working on schemes—I [basically] took the plunge overnight.” So she signed on with Daniel Romualdez Architects, the firm behind such projects as Tory Burch’s color-drenched apartment at the Pierre hotel and Renee Rockefeller’s beiged-out Park Avenue aerie, and trained for two years under the architect-designer.
It was only after her childhood best friend asked her to design her dream home, a mansion in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, that Smith considered striking out on her own. Now her roster of clients includes high-profile personalities such as fashion-world darling Prabal Gurung, for whom she recently finished an apartment and showroom. She cites decorators Madeleine Castaing (“her repetitive use of one color was just so her”) and Rose Tarlow (“her own living room has vines growing through cracks in the wall”) as two of her biggest influences, and is adamant in her belief that rooms should be “almost accidental looking.”
Smith spends the week at her prewar apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where the style evokes an offbeat manor owned by a tomboy sophisticate—think periwinkle velvet–upholstered slipper chairs and layered, mismatched art. A six-minute walk away is her white-walled Union Square design studio, where a pink-and-cream striped love seat lives next to floor-to-ceiling built-ins painted in Farrow & Ball Charleston Gray. But her weekend home, in the former fishing village of Sag Harbor, is a bucolic ode to her brand of idiosyncratic elegance. Which is not to say it’s any less directional. “It’s ‘English Country House comes to Sag,’ but with less red and less seriousness,” says the designer.
Built in 1790, the home still has its original sloping floors and wide-plank doors—as well as much of its eccentricities. Over a lightning-speed one-year renovation, Smith gutted the bathrooms and built a screened porch and kitchen cabinetry. She left untouched a few interesting additions by the former owner, an artist, including Delft tiles randomly placed on the wall of the entryway and a handmade sconce adorning the shingled facade. “I can’t stand when a contractor’s first reaction is to redo everything,” she says. “What about all the wavy floors? The years of globbed-on paint? I like to keep character intact.”
Smith’s clearly defined aesthetic—which she describes as “granny meets nautical with flesh tones and burled woods”—is as much about what she gravitates to as it is about what she swears off. “I’m so tired of rustic and masculine,” she laments. “If I can continue my career without ever installing an industrial coffee table or a vintage marquee letter with Edison bulbs, I will be a happy woman.” More design tropes you’ll never see in a Michelle Smith–conceived home? Accent walls, white trim, or voluminous bed skirts (“I’m trying my damnedest to make cropped bed skirts a thing!”).
Furnishings are a mix of antiques sourced from trips to Texas’s Round Top Antique Fair with her family’s horse trailer and custom pieces designed by Smith herself. The white lacquered coffee table in the living room is one of the debut pieces from Smith’s furniture line, MRS . JG. “It’s called the Sag Table because it’s exactly what I envisioned for the room,” she explains. “I wanted a piece that had the life and quirkiness of a John Dickinson footed table—something modern and weird that makes a quiet statement.”
There is little doubt that Smith is making a quiet statement of her own. Next on her agenda: a waterfront Hawaii home and an RV that could well be the pinnacle of trailer design. It may be subtle in the details but, like all of Smith’s creations, its visual identity is sure to speak profoundly—to all who stop and listen.
video: a day in the life of michelle smith