Opulent taste of the man redecorating White House
Michelle Obama has hired Michael Smith, a Hollywood interior designer, to spruce up the White House, says Charles Laurence
Will the White House survive Michael Smith? He is the Santa Monica-based home decorator to the stars who has been hired by new First Lady Michelle Obama, and he has a taste for movie-set opulence featuring naked Greek statues.
When the design magazine Domino asked him which was "the most beautiful room you've ever been in?" he answered: "King's bath at Versailles."
This conjures a vision of the new First Family basking in the sort of over-the-top repro-palais style known as Louis Farouk, for the Egyptian king whose excesses prompted revolution in the Middle East. America does not expect this as it joyfully embraces regime-change in Washington. What is Mrs Obama thinking?
She might just be thinking 'cosy'. A cruise through the websites reveals a range of Smith bedrooms featuring four-poster beds, romantic drapes, and solid armoires standing guard. The First Lady's first job is to make the private quarters on the top two floors of the White House bearable as a home for a family amid secret service agents and servants, and, at least since Jackie Kennedy moved in with the kids in 1960, they have been free to impose their own ideas of home decor. Malia and Sasha can play princesses among the drapes.
Smith, 44, established his reputation making homes for Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman, supermodel Cindy Crawford and media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who probably couldn't care less. He studied at Otis College of Art in Los Angeles, and then at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. What, we can only wonder, did he make of the gilded wedding cake of the Albert Memorial?
To some, the idea of pitching the White House somewhere between a museum and a stage set is ideal. "He sounds," says William Seale, author of The President's House: A History, "like a wise choice." It was the Reagans, Seale goes on, who last did "spectacular things", when they brought another Californian designer, Ted Graber, to Washington to "create a stage set for his presidency".
Since getting the Obama nod, Smith has been keeping tactfully mum. But he had revealed all to Domino last year. His favourite film sets, for instance, include Portrait of a Lady, On a Clear Day and The Leopard, of 1963. "I would love to redecorate the White House," he said at the time. "I am sick of the paint colour."
Smith's decorating no-no? Family photographs in the living room. Decorating favourite? Classical busts and torsos from the gift shop at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At least Smith appears to be an Anglophile, to judge by his shoes. He wears John Lobb shoes and Clarks Original desert boots. This is encouraging, given President Obama's depiction of Brits in his bestselling books as bristle-moustachioed exploiters of colonial peoples. But perhaps the oddest thing about Smith's call to the White House is that by tradition the First Family looks to its own State for decorating style. That's why Nancy Reagan went for the Cecil B. DeMille look, why Dubya Bush put a Frederick Remington cowboy on the Oval Office mantle piece, and First Lady Laura hurried to tone down the bright colours favoured by Bubba Bill Clinton and his Arkansas decorator Kaki Hockersmith.
The Obamas hail from Chicago. The Windy City may be murderously cold and absurdly corrupt, but it boasts the finest architecture in America, if not the world. It invented the skyscraper and was the birthplace and proving ground of Frank Lloyd Wright. It defines the classic American aesthetic. So why is the 44th Presidency to be styled in Louis Farouk out of La-La Land?