Some people employ a broker to find their dream apartment, others search the internet. But Los Angeles–based designer Michael S. Smith discovered his Manhattan pied-à-terre—a duplex penthouse off Madison Avenue—by looking out a window. He was working nearby and noticed a terrace of elegant proportions that skirted the top floors of a prewar building. “It had such a beautiful perspective,” he says of the apartment. “City views that unfold gently, on four sides, with town house rooftops in the foreground and glass towers in the distance.”
On a summer afternoon nearly five years later, Smith is admiring the lushness of that terrace from a Jansen sofa in the adjacent living room. He and his partner, TV executive James Costos, enjoy the contrast of this consummately old-world aerie and their spacious modern house in Holmby Hills. “LA is a dinner-party town,” Smith says. “New York is a dinner-reservation town. We love hosting cocktail parties here—you get that crazy wall-to-wall people, Breakfast at Tiffany’s vibe between six and eight, and then you’re done.”
When the penthouse came on the market, Smith “leapt at the chance to buy it,” he says, “thinking naively that I could just do a little freshening up and move in. But it needed everything. New beams, windows, electrical systems, floors, exterior stucco. And there was way too much ‘back of the house’”—maze-like service rooms—“so it turned into a total gut. We’re still fine-tuning the central air. Aren’t you a bit hot?” —Judith Thurman
Considering the epochal achievements of the Obama administration—the Affordable Care Act, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Recovery Act, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and so much more—it seems trivial to append a footnote that reads, “The former president and first lady had a pretty chic dining room too.” But the fact is, they did. And for anyone who appreciates the power of design, Michelle and Barack Obama’s emendations to the White House spoke volumes about the sea change in American culture the two have championed for. Adorned with an unprecedented array of 20th- and 21st-century artworks, their private quarters remained an oasis of civility and, yes, refined taste in a political arena so often bereft of both.
“Because of Michael Smith, the private residence of the White House has not only reflected our taste, but also upheld the proud history of this building. Above all, it has truly felt like a home for our family,” Michelle Obama said in praise of the Los Angeles–based decorator, who collaborated closely with the first family during their tenure in Washington, DC. Smith returned the compliment by describing his work as a response to the first lady’s progressive spirit: “Mrs. Obama often talks about bringing new voices into the national conversation, and that idea informed many of the decisions we made,” he said. “We selected artists and designers who would never have appeared in the White House before.” —Mayer Rus