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Publication Date: 2016-04-11

Design Insights

Talking Trade Secrets with Michelle R. Smith of Studio MRS

New York based interior designer Michelle R. Smith brings a dose of Southern elegance and charm to her classic interiors. Her work is subtle and her palette soft, and I especially like her appreciation for antiques and the way she combines unexpected elements. Ahead, get to know Michelle, a South Louisiana native and Daniel Romualdez  alum who opened the doors to her New York City firm in 2012. 

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A Southern interior created by Michelle R. Smith, with a unique assortment of beautiful antiques with patina and symmetrical accents

Photos courtesy of Studio MRS

Q: What designers have you worked for and where did you study to learn the trade?

A: My dream was to train under a top interior designer, and that came true when a partner at my old law firm introduced me to Daniel Romualdez. I started as an intern and trained under his team. For me, I can’t imagine a better “schooling.” I taught myself AutoCad and Sketchup watching YouTube videos on nights and weekends. 

Q: When did you know this was your calling in life?

A: The joke is that I was designing in the womb, so probably always, but I took a pretty convoluted path to get here.

 Q: How did you know you were ready to strike out on your own, and when did you?

A: I always did it as a hobby, so even as teenager, I could talk plumbing fixtures and tile layout. I decided to pursue interior design as an actual career mid way through getting my Masters in Tax Law at NYU.

Q: Do you have a signature look and how would you define it?

A: I really don’t. I have to cater my designs to how my client envisions their dream home. How boring would it be to do my look over and over again? I try to make my clients more aspirational and have them appreciate the importance of a comfortable and complete home.

Q: Do you have a design mentor?

A: Daniel Romualdez and his entire team. And all of the contractors I’ve worked with through the years.

Q: What did they teach you that you can't learn in design school?

A: I respect and envy everyone that went to design school, but I wouldn’t trade my training for anything. I renovated my own apartments in the city before I decided to pursue design, so I learned the importance of having an organized and thoughtful renovation. At Daniel’s, I learned the importance of a great relationship with your vendors, a thorough and maintained budget, and a well-organized binder!

Q: What was the biggest surprise or challenge in starting your own firm?

A: Keeping up with the sales tax and the bookkeeping!

Q: What advice do you have for others wanting to do the same?

A: Be organized, check every measurement twice, and then two more times, and realize that 90% of the day is not picking pillow and curtain fabrics.

Q: What is the most practical knowledge you learned from working for a master designer?

A: Daniel once told me to never make boards for client presentations. If they strongly dislike one thing, then they won’t like the entire board. He’s totally right.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of being your own boss? Has that evolved from when you first began?

A: The biggest challenge is that when you’re your own boss, you never stop working. I’m very lucky to love what I do, but it is very hard to turn it off when I leave the office. As my business grows and evolves, I would say this challenge only becomes more and more intense.

Q: Whose work of the past do you hold in high regard?

A: Eileen Gray, Syrie Maughan, Henri Samuel …  So many of their designs feel as fresh today as ever. I particularly love that Syrie Maugham’s style spanned clean lined to opulent, nailing both. She wasn’t confined by a style.

Q: What books do you own, old and new that you constantly refer to?

A: Litchfield Style. At Home with Town & Country. Interior Life: Gert Voorjans.

Q: Where do you go for inspiration?

A: The usual suspects: Pinterest, Instagram, my library. I hope the answer to this question in three or four years is travel. And really, my clients and my designers inspire me every day. 

Q: What's it like being a Southerner in the city? How do you create the same sense of hospitality and gracious entertaining that goes hand in hand with the pace and frenetic city living?

A: My boyfriend is from Florence, Italy, and he considers being from a swamp town in Louisiana as “exotic.” I wish he were right, but I just think people think I’m a little too comfortable and open. In the South, you never really meet a stranger. Here, sometimes it works out, sometimes I make people uncomfortable.  Creating the same sense of hospitality is simple: good (fattening) food and alcohol. Also, I love a screened porch. I have one in Sag Harbor, and we’re building one in our new house in Brooklyn. When people have a place to drink, smoke a cigarette if they want, and just relax without any sense of formality, that’s kind of the Southern vibe. That’s not to say there’s no presentation and pretense with the food, the dishes, the candles, but I like to hope my guests think that’s effortless.

Q: What do you think is next regarding trends in color, material, style, influence, historical period and locale?

I think chartreuse is going to be everywhere soon. I’m doing a skirted table in a chartreuse silk damask for my new house. A skirted table is a great way to satiate your craving with a trend, because it’s really easy to get rid of when you’re sick of it. Then, you can take it out again when the trend is over, and it’s like a throwback.

Q: How do your clients find you?

A: Mostly word of mouth. I am extremely grateful to have happy clients that refer to me great people.

 Q: What material do you love?

A: Silk velvet. I love how it ages and has so much movement.  It’s not for particular types of perfectionists though. I’m a perfectionist, but I find the little markings and rubs to be perfect because they are natural.

Q: What design material or movement will never go out of style?

A: Can I say silk velvet again?

Q: Where do you shop to get inspired?

A: I love going into all the shops on E 10th Street between University and Broadway. I used to live on that street, so I got to browse them every day. They’re like little art galleries.

Q: What are your favorite useful apps and what Instagram feeds are inspiring you lately?

A: TaskRabbit. I used the app on Friday. We had a wood floor shortage emergency, and we needed 22 more square feet (read above: measure twice, then two more times fail) from the Bronx in two hours. $48 later, and it was on site. I just went through my screenshots to see the posts I screenshot the most. The latest and greatest:  @acroterion.co @peterdascoli @jasonmowen

An antique table andFrench chair in leopard velvet welcome guests to her Sag Harbor home

In her country dining room, a mix of antique styles and eras

A charming country kitchen painted mint with scallop details is my favorite part of the house

Smith is great at creating considered moments, using a combination of styles and materials

Capturing the easy breezy style of this former whaling enclave, an all white bedroom

Perfect for large gatherings on warm summer nights, the porch has an old farm table that seats 6

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