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An Extreme Home Makeover

Interior designer Michael S. Smith went to great lengths to transform one out-of-style Malibu villa into a modern dream house

“It all started with a view,” Michael S. Smith, pictured left, begins Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design, a new book published by Rizzoli that recalls the five-year long renovation of a Palladian-inspired villa on a 10-acre seaside property in California, “My client happened to go to a meeting in Malibu at a house that was for sale. It had an incredible view of the ocean, and he asked me to have a look. It turned out that there were various drawbacks to that piece of property, but the view—the sunlit waves, the vast horizon line—was mesmerizing.”

The property’s natural beauty, however, was not reflected in the home’s initial aesthetic, which Smith described as “very 1980s—fancy, formal, and Mediterranean.” Remodeling the villa to suit his client’s needs—while abiding by the land’s limitations—would be no easy task, but Smith was up for the challenge.

After studying interior design at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the lifelong Californian—who is known for classic, eclectic homes that fuse European and American tastes—has become one of the most renowned names in the industry. (In 2010, he even redesigned the White House’s Oval Office for President Barack Obama.)

But an extreme home makeover like this could not be completed alone: Smith recruited his trusted team of collaborators—including architect Oscar Shamamian and landscape designer Mia Lehrer, who each explain their contributions in Building Beauty—to work on the house. Since completion, however, much has changed: the homeowners have put the house up for sale, the furniture that was painstakingly crafted and selected is being sold at Christie’s auction house and Michael S. Smith has moved on to his next project… well, almost. Here, Smith talks to DuJour about the lengths his clients will go to in order to build their dream home, what it’s like to see a house he’s designed entirely transformed, and why he still feels like he’s not quite yet done with the Palladian Villa.


Building Beauty has an interesting structure: Each of the collaborators who worked on the home share their perspective on the renovation. Why was it important for you to include this in the book?

When you work on something like this, that goes on for so long, you’re so focused that one of the charms of the finished product is the process. I think it felt really appropriate to talk about other people’s involvement, because I sit  on the top of a very large pyramid of people. Everyone knew that in the case of this house it was going to be something really specialthere’s only so many houses that you ever get to build like this. We wanted to just record it and talk about other people’s perceptions and how they were all really, really proud that they had been involved in it. Houses don’t get built on their ownthey require a lot of work and a lot of effort.

You explain in the book that you wanted to make the home less formal and instead more modern and organic. Is that a trend you see in interior design?

There’s a perception these days that large spaces must be formal, which is not necessarily accurate—there’s nothing formal about an old warehouse, a garage or an abandoned castle, right? So there’s the whole idea of how to create a sense of breath and informality in a really big space, and part of that is about being naturalistic and organic and enabling people to feel really comfortable in the space.

What did you think was the hardest part of the renovation?

The time involved. I still have a sense of enthusiasm, and it’s not wavering, but it takes a tremendous amount of time to do these houses. It takes forever, and I get very impatient and just want to do it quickly and be done.

Have you ever had clients become impatient during a long renovation?

When you know what’s going on and are briefed, it becomes easier to deal with. But everybody wants their house—and quickly. 

A home is also so personal that you want it to be perfect. What are the greatest lengths that a client’s gone to in order to get exactly what they want?

Everybody has those things that they care about, and people are prepared to wait a longer period of time to get what they want, which is great. Everyone is rational, and it’s part of my job, too, to provide options that are not crazy. It’s important to try and create something that’s reasonable. If I can’t deliver something, there are a lot of beautiful things in the world and hopefully I can figure out a way to shortcut it. A big part is to be flexible, and sometimes out of compromise, better things happen.

What are some places in this home that you feel like you compromised to get the best results?

You know, I really didn’t compromise, because I had the time and the client’s commitment. These are people who are sophisticated and good at understanding what it takes, financially and time-wise, to get something done. That made it easy. I’ve also worked with this team of craftspeople before, and that helped. The only thing that was daunting was it did take a long time, but houses take time. It’s always surprising, because you keep thinking it’s going to go really fast but it does take time.

What are your favorite elements in the home?

I like all of it. It’s so weird—when you’ve worked on something for so long, you tend to develop favorites but there’s a sale of all the contents of the house [at Christie’s] and bizarrely there is not one thing that I am done with. Usually, I’m ready to move on from a project, but the reality of this house is that I’m not really finished with it. I love every aspect of it. All of the objects I would still buy again. 

Is there any room in particular that you love?

The kitchen is fantastic. It might be my favorite kitchen that I’ve ever done, and that directly relates to the ability I had to take time to figure out how it should look, with custom-made pieces that fit into it. It’s both warm and has this historical vibe, but it’s incredibly modern at the same time. It’s just a kitchen, but it’s a beautiful, romantic idea of a kitchen.

Having worked on so many different homes, what is it like to see a house after it’s been lived in and the family has changed things around?

It’s great! That’s a big part of what I’m interested in: I think the best houses are houses where you do the majority of the stuff and then you step back and people inhabit them. A home needs to be something that has life, and it’s not necessarily for me to put the life into it. At the end of the day, it’s about people inhabiting their space in a personal way. It’s great when I leave and they step in. It’s cool; you go back and there’s kids stuff and whatever. It’s kind of amazing to see how it has evolved.