Behind an automatic metal gate that looks like a Donald Judd version of a white picket fence, the Nineties, modernist, Los Angeles home of Michael S Smith rises like a concrete citadel. 'It's the new severity,' jokes the designer, whose deft blend of Old World charm and California casual has attracted an A-list clientele including Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and Michelle Obama. 'The house looks fancier and more imposing on the outside than it really is on the inside,' he adds with a smile, 'so it sort of says "stay away".'
Not a chance. In fact, it was designed specifically as a place to entertain - the previous owners were empty nesters and socially active board members of the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA - and in the three years that he has lived here, Michael has already hosted hundreds of guests, including the First Lady. Tomorrow, he says, he and his boyfriend of 14 years, James Costos - a former television executive and the Obama administration's ambassador to Spain - are having an open house for the Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia. So, although it's 10pm and he has just flown down the coast from Monterey, California, Michael is in the throes of party planning. The doorbell is ringing, his phone is pinging, workers are checking lights and moving furniture, Labradoodles Jasper and Sport are barking, and Michael's Bedlington terrier Lily has done a runner and is playing hide-and-seek amid the box hedges in the garden.
'I feel like I'm in the middle of The Italian Lesson,' Michael says, referring to the classic 1925 monologue by the actress Ruth Draper, a recitation of a New York society matron's hectic life of obligations and interruptions.
Lily reappears, scampering past a massive painting by the contemporary artist Gary Simmons, which has recently arrived and sits - still wrapped in plastic - on the limestone floor of the sitting room, which is so vast that Michael calls it an 'interior pavilion'. 'Is it weirdly incongruous?' he wonders aloud, looking at the Simmons painting, propped against a wall adjacent to an eighteenth-century, school-of-Rubens oil.
Hardly. Though the designer is often associated with English-country-style decoration, part of the appeal of his new property was its 'heroic' architecture. The 1,000-square-metre house, which has only one bedroom, nods to both the International Style and postmodernism, with the stature of a small-scale, late-twentieth-century museum. 'You see a lot of houses like this in Spain and Latin America, built with large volumes for people with large-scale art, which sadly I don't have a lot of,' he says. 'They have state-of-the-art lighting and finishes that make them seem dated in 10 years, so you are always going up the down escalator.'
None of this, not even the red marble that, as he puckishly puts it, is 'in the school of Joan Collins', particularly bothered the designer. With so many projects under construction - including a redecoration of the American embassy in Madrid and his own Seventies home in ritzy Rancho Mirage - he was happy to find a house that was bring-your-toothbrush ready. The layout was equally intriguing. The glass front door opens into a grand side vestibule, which Michael has filled with Georgian stools, Asian antiques and contemporary art, and leads to the grand salon/sitting room, with its five-metre ceilings. To the right, there is a formal dining room, kitchen and staff area.
On the other side of the sitting room is a den and bar, the main bedroom suite and an additional room that he intends to transform into a library. These wings jut out into the garden in a rakish U-shape, defining outdoor terraces that Michael has punctuated with abstract sculpture, stands of papyrus and a reflecting pond that he has turned into a water feature with lily pads.
It is a radical departure from his previous house, an elegant Georgian-style manor that he designed and built - 'a traditional moment' that was so strictly vernacular, it informed his decorating. 'This house is a blank canvas,' he says, 'and because of the volumes of space I can create sculptural compositions with furniture and put things together in a way that is compelling.
'It's not the kind of house anyone would really think of building now. It's wacky and personal,' he continues, referring to the soaring galleries, angled rooms, curved ceilings and stone-clad sideboards built into the floor-to-ceiling window bays. 'It's not my personality, but it's impressive just the way it is.'
Michael's CV is equally formidable. The California native graduated from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, studied at the V&A in London and worked with the legendary classicist John Saladino in New York before opening his own firm at the age of 24. Now, a quarter of a century later, he designs furniture, fixtures, fabrics and fragrance, and has penned four books for Rizzoli.
While he is celebrated for a cultivated and updated traditionalism, Michael has always practised what decorators like to call 'the mix'. 'I am eccentric in my taste,' he says. 'I owned all this crazy stuff I had in storage and I put that together in this house, and started to buy twentieth-century pieces.'
I love that European idea, where you walk into a house like this and it's filled with a collection. I like what happens when different things that have their own character, vibration and voice, have a conversation.'
These dialogues echo throughout the house, which offers unexpected pleasures. 'I never would have had a bar in a house, but now I can't imagine not having one,' says Michael. 'People come over and they gather here.' Guests sit on three-legged, art-deco seats bought at auction and new Roche Bobois chairs. 'These ones have four legs, so you can drink more,' he says, grinning. 'People fall off those three-legged chairs all the time.'
In the sitting room, where Michael has paired a Steve Chase chrome and glass Seventies table and Robsjohn-Gibbings klismos stools with a mirror by Claude Lalanne, the eighteenth-century chimneypiece is flanked by concrete coffee tables and sofas by American company CB2. While he still adores the sculptural lines of Georgian and Italian neoclassical furniture and the graceful Twenties upholstery of Paul Dupré-Lafon, Michael's new residence is an easy fit for American modernists George Nakashima and John Dickinson and contemporary designers such as Mattia Bonetti. A Jack Pierson photograph of Yves Saint Laurent's apartment hangs in the dining room, which is furnished with a Directoire table and Karl Springer chairs.
'I love the idea of buying things that are iconic and putting them together in a way that makes me seem cooler than I am,' Michael says. And in this thoroughly unexpected house, he has found a place where all the things he loves can coexist. 'It's like living in a museum,' he concludes, 'and the weird thing is, it's great, because everything you put in it becomes part of an exhibition'.
Michael S Smith: 00-1-310 315 3018;
Taken from the April 2014 issue of House & Garden.
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