Michael S. Smith, the ELLE Decor A-List designer, took time out of his busy schedule to talk to articles editor Charles Curkin about his new book Designing History (Rizzoli), out in September, which tells the story of how he decorated the White House private residence for the Obama family in 2008 and 2009.
ELLE Decor: Your new book is a good, long read—not your typical coffee table book.
MSS: We thought a serious subject warranted a serious examination.
ED: A friend of yours, real estate agent Katherine Malkin, who was close with Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary from 2009 to 2010, wrote you a letter of recommendation for the job. She stated that you move at the speed of lightning, stand by your convictions, and are socially responsible and a genius. Did she forget anything?
MSS: I make it a practice not to question positive hyperbole.
ED: When Rogers called to say that the Obamas were considering you for the position, you were sunbathing on a beach somewhere. How did the call go?
MSS: In a movie, you always think those kinds of calls are fake. But she was very definitive and factual, so I knew it was for real. The call came during Thanksgiving break, so I was on vacation. It was an extraordinarily nerve-racking time.
ED: What did you first take into account when starting to design rooms at the White House?
MSS: Mrs. Obama was very clear: The number one issue was that they would be transplanting their young children from a place where they were super comfortable. I needed to create within this very large national landmark a space that was homey and tucked-in. So creating the girls’ rooms was the big agenda item.
ED: During your first meeting, Mrs. Obama mentioned that her daughters, Malia and Sasha—10 and 7 years old at the time—wanted “pops of color.” Do you have to change modes when designing for children?
MSS: These obviously weren’t the typical kids’ rooms, but the big thing was to be as thoughtful and investigative as possible, knowing that their interests will change quickly. What they want at 5 years old, for example, will be different by the time they’re 8. Anything permanent and age-specific in a child’s room is a bad idea.
ED: What were some other challenges you faced?
MSS: Designing in the White House is like building a model ship in a bottle. The process, the scheduling, the security: It’s a lot of labor required to make very small movements.
ED: As a decorator, you were also tasked with designing the presidential china. What other unexpected jobs were you given?
MSS: I was asked to suggest state gifts for the Obamas to give to visiting dignitaries.
ED: You chose works by great American artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha for the private quarters. What did they bring to those spaces?
MSS: What’s surprising about the White House interiors is that the rooms are super tall. A big contemporary painting is really wonderful, and the walls can accommodate one. Art made the spaces feel more 21st-century.
ED: Upon meeting you, then president-elect Barack Obama commented on your demeanor, saying, “I suspect you must be really good at this.” Is that line a contender for your epitaph? “Here lies Michael S. Smith. He was really good at this”?
MSS: It’s pretty nice for him to say. It would be great if one aspect of my character was that I was good at my job, though I hope people have other things to add.
This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE