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Modern Alchemist

Interior designer Michael S. Smith’s fourth book describes his vision for a Malibu house situated on 10 acres of beachfront property.

Michael S. Smith

Smith’s fourth design book, Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design

The master bedroom with a tree-of-life design on the bed hangings 

A portico on the rear façade has woven rope club chairs inspired by a 1930s design 

Just as temperatures are rising and city dwellers are retreating to coastal beach houses, designer Michael S. Smith delivers a masterwork on the genre, devoting an entire book, Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design ($55, Rizzoli), out this month, to one Malibu residence. His fourth design tome chronicles the transformation of an ungainly 1993 house into a Palladian refuge. Smith, a California native, started his Santa Monica-based firm 23 years ago, and was appointed by President Obama to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. The homeowners remain anonymous, but Smith calls them ideal clients and he uses the book to describe major decisions made over six years to rework the house and its approximately 10-acre grounds. Architectural Digest’s Margaret Russell notes in the book’s foreword that magazine editors dream of committing so much space to one house. Smith says he quickly realized he wanted to tell this tale through multiple perspectives, so he enlisted nine photographers and the artisans who worked on the project (including the architect, landscape designer and painter) to contribute. “It’s like an oral biography because you get a tapestry of voices and views,” he says. Here, Smith shares his insights on creating the spare yet breathtaking retreat.

Have you worked on any beach projects of this scale? I’ve done a lot of beach houses, but this is the biggest overall property. The scale, the height and the way the house is situated on the coast, you couldn’t do this now. It’s a one-off situation.

You compare a Palladian house to 16th century loft living. What sparked that comparison? There’s a universal aesthetic here, a sculptural sensibility, when you look at the pure shape or patina of things. A painting from the ’60s or a Giacometti sculpture can be as interesting as an antique chair; it’s all historic in its own way.

Architect Oscar Shamamian added a large portico and four Doric columns to the center of the back façade. How did that change the look of the house? We took down part of the house and reduced the scale, so the columns gave it a more uniform façade and a more vertical, symmetrical look.

What inspired you to buy furniture for this house that belonged to fashion designer Bill Blass? He had a very spare sensibility. He curated those sculptural pieces and they’re very naturalistic. They fit into the composition with a handsome, reductive quality. You put them into a plain room and they have real power.

What about the reproduction William Kent mirror in one of the bedrooms? It’s very early 1700s, not fussy, but architectural. These pieces are mini buildings, just like the Blass furniture. Architecture on top of architecture really works—this mirror repeats the look of doorways in an adjoining room.

How do you go about designing a house to look and feel so light and airy? It’s a very tonal palette though it’s not all super-light. There’s lots of cotton and not much wool or silk. Everything has a patina; it feels less solid, less hard. The plaster has dimension.

How did you create an air of austerity in this house while preserving its elegance? The spareness keeps it approachable and fresh, not overdone. Modern rooms and 16th-century rooms have this simple breadth and space. You see the way light moves around the space—it’s cinematic. To make this beach house feel distinctive from other properties, there’s a bit of an elegance-is-refusal effect.

As summer nears, what are some elements from this beach house that can be applied to L.A. backyards? Creating an organic sensibility conveys harmony. Select textured creams and natural linens for curtains and there are wonderful paints from Ralph Lauren that have a sandy finish. Cover all your furniture in plain natural linen, and edit down your possessions so you can see the forest for the trees.