At first glance, Michael S. Smith's new line of industrial-style kitchen components for Kallista seems like a radical departure from his trademark luxe-with-a-light-touch look. Even the collection's name, For Loft, suggests a hard-edged East Coast urbanism alien to the Santa Monica-based designer's sensibility, which runs more to the relaxed opulence favored by Beverly Hills aristos than to the bare-bones minimalism associated with SoHo artists. But on closer inspection, its elegantly understated kitchen ensemble—an oversized fireclay sink ($695), brushed-nickel wristblade faucet ($937), Carrara marble countertop, and floor-level maple grate, all housed in a freestanding metal frame that soars to the ceiling ($12,730)—reveals Smith's subtly romanticizing hand at work. Materials are rich and beautiful, surfaces warm and tactile, forms soft and rounded: This is no-frills functionalism with a luminous human face.
In fact, by emphasizing simplicity while avoiding severity, Smith has been true to his fundamental design principles and produced kitchen fixtures that would harmonize successfully with many of the houses he's decorated. He characterizes the latter with a deceptively simple series of adjectives: "Comfortable. Pretty. Flexible. Forgiving." If that sounds rather Californian, it is—Smith was born and raised in Newport Beach and first gained prominence in Los Angeles—but note the absence of that ultimate California descriptive, "casual." Smith is not casual, nor is his work. You can feel the edge of intellectual curiosity about him (he can tell you what every artist from Vermeer to Rothko has done with red, a color he himself wields judiciously). And the ineffable sense of well-being that his rooms generate comes from complex symmetries that he's carefully thought out and then partially disguised to avoid predictability.
At 38, Smith is a star in the design world precisely because his sensibility, grounded in studies of art, architecture, and design history that extend from L.A.'s Otis College of Art and Design to London's Victoria & Albert Museum, is at odds with his environment, the yesterday's-gone West Coast. The decorating strategies with which he resolves this apparent contradiction began drawing attention in the early '90s when he helped the late Hollywood executive Dawn Steele reconcile her love of American country style with her passion for monochromatic minimalism. Since then Smith's clients have ranged from Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Pfeiffer, his work has been in the top interior design magazines, and he's developed an astutely edited line of reproduction furniture.
"As much as I want to divorce myself from the idea of 'California decorating,' I really can't," says Smith. "It's a big part of my memory and imagination." But it's informed by his understanding of the historical traditions of style. "I don't use the word tradition in the horses-and-plaid-and-buckles way," he says, "but in a greater sense, as an anchoring structure. You can't roll out personality unless there's a framework." The California part of Smith's aesthetic comes as "a matter of knowing when enough design is enough, when comfort, humanism, and light come in." (It's this quality that shines in the Kallista kitchen.) A while back, Smith was quoted widely, favoring Indian print bedspreads in the same room with expensive antiques and tapestries; but this is just one of the ways in which he counters rules with relaxation. With all due respect to tradition, he says, "I object to conventional expectations—they're just frozen trends."
Though Smith radiates the controlled energy of a perfectionist, he warns that "perfection is a slippery slope." What he truly seeks is design that is "structured but not perfect. Beautiful rooms are like wise people," he says. "They have a strictness about them, but also something unexpected and compelling."
He says the "wreck" of a house he just bought and is starting to design for himself will have nothing show-stopping, theatrical, or openly impressive about it. Not that it won't be compelling. "The pendulum swings between the classical and the romantic," he says, "and I think we've just moved away from the former and toward the latter. It seems like time to have a cozier life." Smith's chastely romantic kitchen collection is a harbinger of that new, warmer mood.
For information on the For Loft Collection: 888-452-5547; www.kallistainc.com.