Monday, April 15, 2013

Style Central: Michael S. Smith


Michael S. Smith is having a major moment in his career.

Michael’s elegant and inspiring new book, ‘Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design’ will be published next month by Rizzoli.

The book, designed by Sam Shahid, reveals and describes and romances the design process and inspirations of the architects, artists, landscape designers, craftspeople, and others who collaborated on a legendary house in Malibu.

And on April 23-24, Christie’s is selling the entire contents of this Smith-designed Palladian villa and garden in Malibu (recently sold). 

This dynamic two-day sale, with a collectible catalog, includes a kind of Grand Tour of important art and antiques, with noble Chinese antiques and a Picasso pencil on paper sketch, rare and eccentric furniture and accessories, along with hordes of minor household items such as pillows and rugs, clusters of glazed Chinese pottery and hall chairs, and newly minted beds and dining chairs and some nice pieces no doubt consigned to secondary rooms of the splendid villa. In other words—there could be some bargains among the treasures.

Come with me for a first preview of the new book, an insider look at the Christie’s sale catalog, along with tips and insight from Michael himself.

I’d like to gently suggest: This is a highly detailed and illustrated story, so click save on your iPhone, and bookmark this story, or print it out as Pamela Babey does. And then later take THE STYLE SALONISTE break…with a sip of Bellocq Lapsang Souchong, perhaps, or a splash of JCB Brut Rosé (a brilliant cremant de Bourgogne by my great friend Jean-Charles Boisset), or some fresh mint tea. Cheers! 

Edited and Eyed by Michael Smith

The key to the quality and importance of this book and the Christie’s sale is simply and significantly that they have both been filtered through the fervid brain and acute eye of Michael Smith, noted Los Angeles designer, single-minded taste-maker, and rabid auction follower. 

Vividly and cohesively portrayed on the pages are his desire and knowledge and passionate love of beautiful and evocative things—deployed here for discerning and equally passionate clients.

The former owners of this house are not identified. It is said that the husband is in the financial world, and that his wife is a chic and very under-the-radar museum trustee). This house was an apparently idealistic, visionary, and grand scheme on an unlimited budget. The clients are said to have worked with Michael for decades on many houses—and that it was a dream assignment for each participant.

Importantly, the collaboration on the Palladian villa was undertaken with leading architects, a highly talented landscape designer, and talented wood experts, craftsmen, decorative paint specialists, and antiques curators.

Come with me and see the highlights—plus an exclusive insider look at the prized and perhaps overlooked auction items with Michael himself. 

I’ve known Michael for a long time—and I’ve always admired his rigorous and romantic search for a perfection pulled off with brilliance and authority. I saw first-hand his familiarity with the history and trails of design.

I’ve toured the idiosyncratic collections in the interiors he designs for himself and his fortunate clients.

Collecting and design have never been trendy for him, and both the Christie’s line-up and the book make this very clear.

While one of the first interiors of Michael’s I published—a ravishingly beautiful penthouse in Santa Monica—had a few Charles Eames pieces in it, he has never shown a great lust for modern. That’s one reason he is called, with great affection, Granny Smith, among the dealers and hipsters in Los Angeles. His was always the love of the old, never the shock of the new.

I co-authored ‘Elements of Style’, Michael Smith’s first book (also by Rizzoli), which has become a favorite in the design world, and, I’m happy to say, a best seller. Six years later, Rizzoli editors tell me, it is still highly collectible.

I have known Michael since he founded his own design firm, Michael S. Smith Inc., in 1990, and we’ve been friends ever since.

There are many reasons that he is so successful (he now had collections of fabrics, furniture, bathroom fittings and fixtures, and too many fabulous lines to mention)—and that is that he is driven, passionate, charming, light-hearted, and highly knowledgeable. His idea of fun, pretty much every Saturday, is to check through dozens of the latest auction catalogs, searching for items for his clients, for himself, for his warehouse for future use. He travels, he knows all the art and antique dealers.

This obsession with design, auction sales, collecting, and knowing everything—have resulted in this grand new book, and this once-in-a-century sale. 

The Sale

Christie’s has created a sensational two-day sale of the entire contents (down to a shell collection) of A Palladian Villa by Michael S. Smith taking place 23-24 April.

This fascinating sale encompasses over 450 lots, and include contemporary art, English furniture, Old Master paintings, Chinese works of art and antiquities from a remarkable private property designed by Michael S. Smith, one of the most venerated figures in interior design.

The inspiration for this design sale, was the house that is the subject of Smith’s upcoming book 
‘Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design’, published by Rizzoli New York, was drawn directly from the architecture of the house, a Palladian villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

This concept allowed Smith to create a home that was informed by a classical sensibility but within a modern context, filled with extraordinary art and furnishings that span the past 500 years.

Michael Smith's Personal Favorites in the Sale:

DDS: What do you think are the most important pieces, most significant in the sale?
The Scully (lot 254), or maybe the Lalanne sheep I love. (Lot 444) (See images and information below)

DDS: Favorites?
Too many to choose! From a pair of driftwood table lamps (lot 259) to the Irish George III giltwood mirror, they are all objects I love.

DDS: Pieces you think might be overlooked--but which are really great.
Lot 155, 20th C. oak plank-top dining table. It’s handsome, versatile, and the kind of piece that would work in a modern interior or a very traditional house. 

A Large Oak Plank top Tresstle Extending Table
20th Century
Estimate: $10,000-15,000

DDS: Where would you direct a new collector? What pieces?
Start with something beautiful of course and love it. Maybe a beautiful desk (like lot 304) or chairs you can find many good uses for (Klismos chairs Lot 106) 

A Chinese Hardwood Double Pedestal Partner's Desk
Estimate: $10,000-15,000

A Pair of Klismos Chairs
Estimate: $2,000-$3,000

DDS: The art? Your favorites? I love the small and casual Picasso pencil pieces...and some of the large-scale, heroic paintings...what do you love?
The Picasso pencils are wonderful. Yes. They are unexpected. Or the Joan Mitchell (267). It has a lot of drama, emotional power. 

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower right)
oil on canvas
14 x 24 in. (35.6 x 61 cm.)
Painted circa 1967.
Estimate: $40,000-60,000

DDS: How long were you putting these pieces together...five years?
Yes, five years. I am excited though to see all of these really special pieces out in the ether, though. Very much looking forward to seeing them in others’ collections, homes and designs.

DDS: In what way do you think this is a really significant sale?
It was special project for wonderful clients, and I was so happy to collaborate on the project. Really, it was for me a pinnacle of collaboration. So many wonderfully skilled hands and minds went into this house. The location is so beautiful and the objects now in this sale are icing on the cake.

A Carved White Marble Bust of The Emperor Hadrian 19th/Early 20th Century on a black wooden base
17 1⁄2 in. (44.5 cm) high, the bust; 23 1⁄2 in. (60 cm) high, overall 
Estimate: $5,000-8,000 

A Phoenician Alabaster Vase
Circa 5th Century B.C.
Estimate: $12,000-18,000

Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), ‘Mouton De Pierre’ 
A Pair of Sheep, Designed Circa 1979, epoxy stone, patinated
Estimate: $150,000-250,000 

And there are pieces like the following:

Hubert Robert (Paris 1733-1808), The Catafalque of Pope Benedict XIV in Saint Peter’s, Rome (Estimate: $200,000-300,000)
In July 1754, Robert was among the 47 people to arrive in Rome in the entourage of the newly appointed French Ambassador Etienne-François, Comte de Stainville. Robert was given a place as a pensionnaire at the French Academy, then housed in the Palazzo Mancini on the Corso. He would remain in Rome for the next eleven years. The Catafalque of Pope Benedict XIV in Saint Peter’s in Rome is among the earliest and finest of the paintings that he completed in this time. Its figures are 
characteristically vivid but abbreviated, with Swiss Guards, exotic tourists, colorfully dressed local peasants, and men of the church making their way beneath a cloud of incense to the funeral bier to pay their final homage to the pontiff. The painting carefully conveys the particular atmosphere and effects of daylight in its specific setting — in this instance, the towering interior of the great Vatican basilica. 

Sean Scully (B. 1945), Dead Sea, 1989 (Estimate: $700,000-900,000) 
In Dead Sea – Sean Scully paints thick, textured bands of black and pale grey around a central rectangle of deep red. Drawing on Piet Mondrian’s architectonic grid and Rothko’s luminous chromatic harmonies, Scully’s work reconciles architectonic form with expressive gesture, vivid red with subdued grey-scale. The powerful and mystical Dead Sea, whose bands of densely painted vertical and horizontal color became Scully’s signature motif while on an influential trip to Morocco in 1969. There, the artist found inspiration in the geometric patterns of local, hand-dyed cloth and the faded and fragmented facades of the buildings. 

A George II Giltwood Mirror Circa 1740 (Estimate: $30,000-50,000) 
This grand mirror encapsulates the naturalistic, highly individual designs frequently termed the ‘French Picturesque Fashion’ that prevailed in important commissions at the middle of the 18th Century. Its distinctive combination of reeds embellished with paired dragons and a laurel-crowned mask draws upon the designs of London cabinet-maker Matthias Lock (d.1765). 

Elliott Puckette (B. 1967) 
Two elements: each signed and dated 'Elliott Puckette 2000' (on the reverse)
ink on paper; each: 21¼ x 30¼ in. (54 x 76.8 cm.) 
Drawn in 2000. 
Estimate: $4,000 – $6,000

Note that the sale also includes many rather humble items, like a collection of basic glass flower vases (everyone should have one), and antique silk pillow covers, as well as newly made beds, chandeliers, and the kinds of ‘secondary’ things that can fill a guest room or furnish a shelf here, a corner of the garden there, a bathroom or a dressing room. 

A French Tole Hanging Lantern
Late 19th Century
Estimate: $1,000 – $1,500

A Group of Five Mirrors
Late 18th Century and later. 
Estimate: $3,000-$5,000

The key element: all of them were found and selected by Michael Smith—and thus this extraordinary sale is named ‘A Palladian Villa by Michael S. Smith

I wish I were going to be in the Christie’s salerooms as the bidding starts. Designers and architects and art collectors, and those who care a lot about provenance or bargain or quality or delight will be sitting on the edge of their seat. 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Signed and dated 'Frankenthaler 67' (lower right); signed again, inscribed and dated again 'for Ernst Haas with thanks Helen Jan. 23, 1969 frankenthaler 1967' (on the stretcher)
Acrylic on canvas
11¼ x 15½ in. (28.5 x 39.4 cm.)
Painted in 1967.
Estimate: $30,000 – $50,000

Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996)
Correspondence Green-Blue
Signed, titled and dated 'LEON POLK SMITH CORRESPONDENCE GREEN-BLUE 1967' (on the reverse)
Oil on canvas
84 x 66 in. (213.4 x 167.6 cm.)
Painted in 1967.
Estimate: $40,000 – $60,000

Michael Smith’s Tips for Creating Authentic Interiors

I recommend doing research in books and reference materials to find authentic architecture as a starting point. It makes sense to find the most authoritative and in-depth design and architecture books on everything from ranch houses to 17th-century Dutch interiors, to historic Santa Fe houses or original Cape Cod houses. I don’t recommend necessarily creating a line-for-line copy of an historic house, but rather gaining an understanding of the logic and rationale of the authentic architecture or interiors.

Embarking on a project with historic references, I often study authentic materials used, the detailing, the proportions of rooms sand furniture. I analyze colors and the true color palette, and understand the way the architecture has evolved, and its personality and eccentricities.

Michael Smith with Allison Speer and Vanessa Getty at Hedge Gallery, San Francisco, at a special showing of some of the Christie’s auction sale art and other highlights. 


Portait of Michael S. Smith by Francois Halard.

All images from ‘Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design’ by Michael S. Smith with Christine Pittel — published in May by Rizzoli, which provided these exclusive images. All images are used here with kind and express permission of the publisher.

A Palladian Villa by Michael S. Smith, New York, April 23-24, 2013, is presented by Christie’s. All images here from the auction catalog were provided exclusively by Christie’s, and are used here with the kind permission of Christie’s.

Image of Michael Smith with Ali Speer and Vanessa Getty at Hedge Gallery, San Francisco, by Drew Altizer.

Christie’s website at
Catalogue available online at or via the Christie’s iPhone app.


ArchitectDesign™ said...

I am SO excited for his new book, were you involved with it as well? I just received my copy of the Christies catalog in the mail on Friday and POURED through it this weekend. I just admire his work so much. Thanks for this great article as always!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Yes, the sale catalog is amazing! I was impressed by the depth of the collecting...and with all the best pieces at the front of the book. Then...for those who might not be wanting to add another Picasso or Scully to their collection...there are little things, pillows, vases and beds and chairs at the end of the long sale. It will be fascinating to see he prices realized.
The book is amazingly good--it is more arty than the others...but in the end it is like a 'secret' how-to book for the observant reader, with lots of information. Highly collectible.
very best to you as always DIANE

The Devoted Classicist said...

I have gone lot by lot through the auction catalog and have already written a post about the house that is schedule to be published next week. Although it would be hard to pick a favorite space, I really like the Loggia and how it is furnished.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Thank you.I can't wait to read your report.
Yes, the loggia is wonderful...and I like the smaller more eccentric rooms as well.
best DIANE

Coulda shoulda woulda said...

Some sale catalogs do serve as a useful reference and I think this might rank as one of them. I adore the range from those sheep to the chair...

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


You are absolutely right. This is such an astute comment. Yes, MICHAEL SMITH'S will be a reference catalog for many years--a definitive collection, a certain taste and connoisseurship.
Thank you so much for your great ideas and comment.
best, DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I had the loveliest note from Terri Price. I so appreciate her comments.
One note: I often receive message and comments...that remind me (well, I write them...) that the blog posts are very long. I sometimes start a new blog post thinking 'This one will be short'...but then I keep adding more images and more information, so they are always long. of good cheers. I have some wonderful surprises for you in the next weeks.


Hi Diane, such a lovely post on Michael Smith. I read some on the treadmill and will read the rest tomorrow at work when I need a mental health break. Haha. So I will comment soon. I still need to properly read your Cambodia posts. I was drooling over the photos. You need to write a book about yourself. :)

Hugs, Terri

Greet Lefèvre said...

Dear Diane,
I can't wait to have a copy of Michael's new book in my hands!
He is such a gorgeous designer! Love love love his work! Exquisite!
PS Thank you so much for your kind comment on my latest blogpost! I so appreciate it!

mary said...

Thank you. This, like all of your posts, sets the bar high for beautifully detailing and capturing the essence of a designer's or artist's work. This villa is a masterpiece. Michael Smith vast knowledge and talent seems to be ever evolving.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Greet-

I'm so glad you have seen the Michael Smith book and catalog. You might think about requesting the catalog--there is some beautiful panelling (all new of course) and the antiques and art are a great reference! Quite Belgioque, en effete!

I love your blog and hope all my readers have seen the BELGIAN DESIGN lists...most special. DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Yes, thank you! I agree...Michael now has a 20 year career...and every year he learns more and more. It is his total devotion to his work that is admirable.

I'm so pleased you liked this post...stay tuned! DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I had the sweetest note from Michael Smith's office:

"Indeed. It is hard to capture how much we loved the piece in 140 characters."

Thank you, Michael, and thank you, Robert.


Brillante Interiors said...

Thanks for the news Diane, I am looking forward to read the book (I loved the previous one you wrote with him)and curious to know about the results of the auction.
(Please continue to write long posts, I love every single word and image!)

Reggie Darling said...

I was gobsmacked when I saw the story about this house in AD when it was published several years ago. Pored over the pictures, read every word of the story and captions, and returned to it many times over. Marvelous. I am saddened that such beauty is, indeed, ephemeral, and the house has been sold and its carefully assembled contents are now being dispersed to the winds. It suspect it is a story that does not have a happy ending. I plan on walking over to Christie's tomorrow to buy the catalog, and then returning on Friday to visit the preview. Thanks for notifying us, your fortunate readers, of this. Reggie

Capella Kincheloe Interior Design said...

I had the pleasure of working on this house while I was with Michael Smith Inc. Though I am sad to see it all dismantled because it was truly a work of genius, I am hoping to get my hands on my favorite piece in the house.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hello, Albarosa-

It is always lovely to hear from you--and your superb taste and travel and ideas. Thank you!

Hello, Capella-

So happy to hear that you worked with Michael Smith on the Malibu house! It must have been fantastic.
beautiful residence. best DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Thank you so much. I'm honored that you took a moment from your divine and getting diviner blog.

The Malibu house: no, it did not end badly. The owners (sorry I can't divulge) are wonderfully philanthropic people who have been clients/ patrons of Michael's for approx 20 years...and they have done sequential houses with him, including Majorca, London, New York (Carlyle...has been published) and Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez. They love to create houses. They created this one--there was a big offer--and it was sold. No regrets.
The wife, a lovely woman, is on the boards of major museums, and he keeps out of the papers (you would never have read their names) and it is all very discreet. Note that their names and descriptions are not in the Christie's catalog or in any press. I have always admired their discretion...never a trace. You'll be happy to know it is all good...and that museums we know and love will benefit well from all of this.

Please go back to Paris soon...or do a trip to Rome...your reportage was fantastic and you and I love all the same top three!
fondest, DIANE

Reggie Darling said...

Hello Diane, Thank you for your kind words. I am heartened the tale is a happy one, and thank you for putting my mind at rest. Today, good as my word, I walked over to Christie's and purchased the catalog. I restrained myself from peeking into it while at the office, looking forward to reading it and studying it this evening. But no, Boy wrested it from my hands and wouldn't give it up a moment this evening, as he was both wrapped in it AND rapped with it! I am looking forward to studying it tomorrow evening, and attending the preview in person on Friday. Yours ever so, Reggie

Nancy said...

He is one of my favorite designers! I love his curated style. Beautiful post!
xo Nancy