Michelle Smith is of rare form. And I’m not just saying that because she launched a career in interior design while simultaneously practicing law and getting her master’s degree in tax law, or because she sees the color green in places some of us see yellow and blue. All of this is impressive, of course, but what truly makes Michelle’s presence unique, is that she does it all seemingly effortlessly.
And by effortlessly, I mean she strolled up to her Sag Harbor home at the exact moment Erik and I arrived, her arms full of mini croissants, bundles of kale, and her dog Ingy, wearing an outfit that required no substitutions for our shoot.
You can get a taste of her style through projects she carries out with her design team at Studio MRS, but perhaps it’s most honestly reflected through the two homes she’s designed for herself – both of which could be presented as a work of art, but not so much that you don’t also want to plop down on the couch and stay forever.
What’s your approach when it comes to interior designing?
I focus on the bones and the finishes of everything before I start decorating. A room should be beautiful empty, then you bring in the furniture and it just keeps adding to the beauty.
Does your interior decorating taste extend to your wardrobe? Do you have a go-to uniform?
I think I dress a little more androgynously than I decorate. I love a good pleated skirt on a sofa or a pair of chairs, but you’ll rarely find me wearing a skirt. In decorating and in dressing, I avoid trends and “pops” of color. I’m usually wearing jeans, a navy blazer or sweater, boots, messy hair.
Your career began as a lawyer, can you talk a little about that time?
I grew up on the Bayou Teche in South Louisiana. My dad was in the tugboat business, and if I had come to him and said “Dad, I want to pick out pillow trims and grout colors when I grow up”, it never would have flown. I knew I wanted to move to New York, and honestly, law school didn’t sound so bad. I’m a bit of a nerd and love taking tests, so it was actually fun. In hindsight, it was a brilliant bait-and-switch, right?
What was the turning point when you decided you were in the wrong profession?
I was working at a big law firm, long hours, and renovating my own apartment at the same time. I had done my own smaller apartment a few years before that was cute, but this was a bigger undertaking. I would work on it late nights. It turned out really well, and when it was complete, I missed doing it. I started renovating a partner at my law firm’s apartment after that, and it was more fun than doing my own.
Was it hard to make the switch to a seemingly very different occupation?
The transition kind of made itself. After I finished the apartment of the partner at my firm, he was so pleased and talking about it to anyone that would listen. He really pushed me to keep doing more design. He sat next to Daniel Romualdez at a dinner party one night and mentioned me to Daniel. Daniel said I should come in and talk, and next thing you know, I went from being a laywer at a big firm to an interior design intern.
Is there crossover in anyway between your career as a lawyer and now as an
Law school isn’t really about learning the law. It’s about learning how to find the answer and then communicating that answer clearly and directly. So in that way, law school was very useful. Interior decorating kind of feels like a forever classroom.
Is there a certain philosophy you have when it comes to designing?
I need my designs to have longevity. I tend to avoid recessed lighting – it never ages well and the style always changes. I only do full length curtains or fabric shades rather than solar shades. A lacquered finish will eventually look damaged, where unlacquered just gets better with tarnish. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have clients that play along.
Do you find it challenging to achieve the client’s vision while still maintaining creativity or have you found a formula?
I’m here to give my clients what they want while making sure it all fits, flows, and functions. A lot of times, clients will come to me with a lot of what they want, and the project becomes the result of a bunch of considered no’s and a couple of yes’s. I like to build the room around these yes’s they bring to me. If they have a deep connection with a bathtub style or a particular wallpaper, then I can be more creative with the surrounding and give them the best version of a room with that particular piece.
What is your most memorable project thus far?
Good or bad? Just kidding, no project is bad if you can learn from it. I think my most memorable project so far is an upstate house. It has so many layers and murals and trims. I really got to flex a lot of muscles on this project – I can’t wait to show this project.
What would be your dream project or collaboration?
Maybe not my forever dream, but my dream right now – I would love to do a house in Colorado, maybe for a country singer. That’s one style you don’t get to play with a lot in New York – a place you can kick up your cowboy boots and play country music, light a fire outside.
How does your style change or remain constant across different clients, cities, etc.
I think my style is different for every client. I’d be very bored if I was just doing my same signature style for all of my clients. I think that the one constant is that all projects are referred to as “cozy.”
You split your time between Clinton Hill in Brooklyn and Sag Harbor. When did you first start coming to the Hamptons and what made you want to get a place here?
I was looking with a client for places in the Hamptons for him. My mom is always up to speed on what’s happening in my office, so she was looking for houses for him online. One night, she forwarded me the link to an old cottage in Sag Harbor that was falling down – very Grey Gardens. She said “He’ll never like this, but …” That was our first thought of getting a place here, and I think it was my second time ever visiting Sag Harbor.
Which home did you enjoy decorating more, your city home or this one here in Sag Harbor?
I would say it’s like picking your favorite child, but not really. I always like my most recent project the most, so right now it’s my house in Clinton Hill.
Where do you find inspiration? Is there ever a shortage?
Never a shortage – it’s exactly the opposite, and a lot of times, I think that’s a problem. Pinterest is a revolutionary tool when it comes to finding and organizing inspiration, but sometimes, it’s just too much. I think projects are better served if you just pick one inspiration and then try to keep it mind while making it your own.
What is the most important aspect to you when it comes to making a space feel like home?
My own home needs a good coffee pot, a bathtub, and a comfy bed with Netflix on the TV.