Saturday, January 24, 2009

Michael Smith and a Trashcan Makes The News


The White House:  The Queen’s Bedroom under the Bush  Administration.  I’ll wager this bedroom is where Michelle’s mother will live.

Note:  Picture updated.


News of Michael S. Smith is everywhere these days.  And rightly so, being named by the Obamas to decorate the  private living quarters of the White House, is big, big news.  The appointment was first leaked by blogger The Peak of Chic, causing much excitement throughout the design blogosphere.  The official news came via domino magazine’s web site - how fitting for what is called the first high-tech presidency.   Who knows, maybe Obama downloads domino’s web site on his famous blackberry?  I can’t remember another White House designer creating such a stir.   Truthfully, I still don’t know which interior designer the Bushes used.  The choice of Smith was a surprise to me, a total surprise – though in hindsight he is a perfect fit.  His love and knowledge of antiques is legendary as is the way he puts together his interiors, warm, cozy and inviting despite the high price tag of the furnishings.  I had thought the Obamas would choose Sheila Bridges, an Afro-American designer from NYC.     I couldn’t have been more off-base.  As the days go by, the anticipation grows, and those first glimpses of Smith’s work for the Obamas will be highly sought after.  Unfortunately, the news this week concerning Smith was actually not all that great - in fact, it was terrible.  Read on.




This decor by Smith would make a wonderful guest room in the White House.   Smith’s style – mixing grand and not so grand antiques in warm and cozy interiors is exactly why the Obama’s hired him.


Californian interior designer to the stars, Michael S. Smith, couldn’t afford the huge amount of press he’s received in the past few days.  Too bad it’s all been bad press.  After a career unblemished by any hint of misconduct, this week has been a public relations disaster for the genial designer.  Smith, riding high after being named the Obama’s interior decorator is now embroiled in the Wall Street scandal and the story couldn’t come at a worse time for him, the Obama’s and for The White House.


Michael Smith and Wall Street?  What?  It goes something like this:   The disgraced CEO of Merrill Lynch, John Thain, was fired this week (or resigned as he puts it) by the new owners of the once reputable stock firm.  Apparently, Thain was unceremoniously dumped because he hoodwinked Bank of America, the company that bailed out Merrill Lynch:  the merger was finalized after just two days of due diligence.  Bank of America execs have been less than pleased with Thain ever since the magnitude of Merrill Lynch’s losses became apparent – something Thain apparently tried to hide.   Hired just a few years ago to bring Merrill Lynch back to profitability, Thain tried to salvage the firm, firing thousands and cutting expenses for everyone except himself.  While his firm was suffering  unprecedented losses, he hired Michael Smith to decorate his office at a total cost of $1,220,000.   The Manhattan office includes Thain’s conference room and private dining room.  Smith’s invoice was splashed all over the news this week – in detail, leaked no doubt by a disgusted Bank of America official.  I can only imagine the sheer horror Smith must have felt having his exorbitant tab laid bare for everyone to leer at.  Business blogs have had a field day with Smith’s bill – and Thain will forever be remembered for his parchment covered trash can, for which Merrill Lynch paid Smith a princely $1,405!   The maligned trash can is surely destined to become the symbol of Wall Street greed, 21st century style.  


What is especially galling about the story is that while Thain was spending millions on redecorating his office, he insisted his employees curtail their own expenses on travel, entertainment and cars.  At the same time, he paid his private driver an $85,000 salary with a bonus of $18,000 and  $128,000 in over-time pay.  It’s interesting to compare budgets:  the Obamas hired Smith to design their White House living quarters for a paltry $100,000.  While everyone realized this sum was probably not realistic – contrast this with Thain’s $1,220,000 budget.  Even more telling, Thain paid over $100,000 for just three chairs!   How in the world is Smith going to work with the Obamas’ $100,000 limit?   In Elle Decor’s Margaret Russell’s interview with Matt Lauer about the White House commission, she brags that Smith is known for shopping at bargain places, like Target and Anthropologie.  Really?  The only thing I’ve ever seen Smith do that was budget friendly was to purchase these bedspreads, below, at Urban Outfitters, which he used for wall coverings, curtains and upholstery.  The cost of labor to install all the Indian bedspreads surely catapulted this budget into the stratosphere.  So much for cost cutting.



Smith decorated this guest room using bedspreads from Urban Outfitters.


Smith’s public relations fiasco puts a damper on the jubilation that greeted the news of his White House commission.  It will be hard for the Obamas to justify hiring Smith while he is playing such a public role in the current excesses of Wall Street.   The leaked statement highlights the greed that these top CEO’s have and the cash it takes to fuel their lifestyles.    Thain’s personal life takes lots and lots of money to run and we have all paid for it.   While untold millions of people are facing financial doom, the ones responsible for the financial disaster  live lives that Kings would envy.   As Merrill Lynch faced collapse, the United States government, using tax payers money stepped in to stop the bleeding – averting their inevitable bankruptcy.  Using those tax payer funds, Thain made sure his buddies got their share – an estimated 3 to 4 billion dollars in bonuses.  Thain himself, perhaps in a rare moment of guilt, declined to take his promised $100 million bonus.  Nice of him, huh?

Thain and his wife Carmen live in a Park Avenue duplex worth $27.5 million.  Additionally, they own a country home that straddles two different towns – Harrison and Rye, New York.   His property taxes are over $150,000 a year to those two towns.  Purchased in 1995 for $3.7 million, the country home is now worth over $10 million and is on 10 acres of pricey real estate.  Included in the estate are beehives, a river, a stocked lake, a clay tennis court, several horse paddocks, and two swimming pools - along with a barn larger than neighboring houses.  The house is 97 years old and has 14 bedrooms and an underground heated garage.   Smith decorated both Thain houses, natch.

Though now out of a job, Thain will be busy in the coming months preparing a defense.  New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo is investigating the bonuses that Thain paid his cronies last December – just before the deal with Bank of America closed.  Bonuses at Merrill Lynch are normally paid in either January or February.  The timing of those ill-gotten bonuses, along with his decorating bills have made Thain public enemy #1.

Smith’s invoices, obtained first by CNBC news, show that Smith was hired for $837,000.  I have found two different lists of items ordered for the office, with some pieces appearing to either overlap or are misnamed.   Most prices are eye-popping.    The area rug for Thain’s conference room came in at $87,784.   Compare this with the $61,000 rug Laura Bush designed for her hubby’s Oval Office.  Obama is said to love that rug and will continue to use it – at least until he orders his own!



The Oval Office rug that Laura Bush designed – Obama is said to be keeping it, for now.

Other items ordered by Smith for Thain’s office are listed below.   I went to 1st Dibs to see how Smith’s prices compared to those on 1st Dibs and what the furniture might look like.  Most prices on Thain’s invoice are at the top of heap, unbelievably high, some items I had to really search to find a comparably priced item.  It makes one wonder if all of Smith’s clients pay such prices.   Thain’s list is below.   Enjoy!


1.    Mahogany Pedestal Table -  $25,713


On 1st Dibs, I found this Regency table from 1820 for $18,900.


2.   19th Century Credenza in Thain’s office -  $68,179, this must be a very nice credenza!


1st Dibs had nothing in this price range for credenzas, the closest I could find is a 16th century credenza for $23,800.


3.  Pair of Guest Chairs $87,784 – seems quite extravagant for an office.


Coming in higher on 1st Dibs are these George III Library Chairs, 1770, pair for $110,000.


4.  George IV Chair, this has also been reported as a desk - $18,468


1st Dibs has this wonderful George IV chair, although it still needs fabric!   $4350.


5.    Commode on Legs at $35,115 – this item has caused much  amusement as people think it’s a toilet!


On 1st Dibs I found this beautiful Louis XV Period Walnut Commode Raised on Cabriole Legs, c. 1760, France for $42,000. 



6.   Sofa for $15,000


At George Smith, I found this sofa for just $10,000.   Thain’s sofa probably came from Smith’s own company.


7.   Six Chairs for his private dining room - $37,000 – rather pricey


1st Dibs had this set of six, Chippendale Style chairs, from 1770 for $16,500 – a steal!


8.   Mirror for the dining room - $5,000 – this is actually reasonable for an antique.


I found this on 1st Dibs, French 19th century Bird’s eye maple mirror, $5,000.


9.   Chandelier for the dining room - $13,000 – again, somewhat reasonable for an antique.


1st Dibs had this beautiful chandelier, just slightly higher priced than Thain’s.


10.  Custom Coffee Table for $16,000 – seems pricey.   Probably came from Smith’s own company.


1st Dibs has this antique coffee table with slate top, late 19th  century for just $9,750.’


11.  Regency Chairs - $24,000.


1st Dibs has this almost perfect match, a pair of parcel gilt Regency period armchairs from England, Circa 1810 for $28,500.


Other items for Thain’s office includes:

6 Wall Sconces $2,741 – reasonable – again, wonder if these are from Smith’s line for Visual Comfort?

Rewiring of sconces $3,000 – reasonable.

Parchment Waste Can $1,405  – I can’t even comment on this.

Roman Shade Fabric $10,967.

Roman Shades $7,315 – reasonable for high end design.

Pendant Light Furniture $19,751 – not sure what this is???? Anyone know?

4 Pairs of Curtains  - $28,091.

40 yards of fabric for wall panels, $5,000 – actually not totally outrageous, but this is retail pricing.  Wonder if he used his own line of fabric?

Thain personally signed off on $30,000 in expenses that Smith incurred doing the job, in addition to the $800,000, presumably room and board while in NYC, I suppose.

I’ve added up all the items, plus Smith’s fee and I come out over the $1,220.00.  I’m not sure if Smith’s $800,000 fee includes these purchases or not.  Also – it’s possible these prices are retail and Thain was offered a discount.  It’s possible!!!!   These figures were originally made public on both CNBC and The Huffington Post.



A Manhattan high-rise designed by Smith – this could possibly be what the Thain’s apartment looks like.


Wait, the news blitz on Smith is not over.  As if the coverage of Smith’s unfortunate association with Merrill Lynch wasn’t enough – there was even more press for the beleaguered  Smith.     An antique bed he purchased for the Obama White House showed up in the newspaper, leaked by the owner of the shop from where it was purchased.   The Providence Journal broke the story of the now sure-to-be famous bed.   “The bed is an antique tall post adapted to king size from bedposts fashioned from tiger maple in the early 19th century” reads the press release, but exactly who released the press release was not released.  Oy!  The bed was purchased at Leonards New England.  Leonards, a 75 year old landmark,  has two locations, one in Seekonk, Massachusetts and another in Westport.   Leonards’ stock is pure Michael Smith and I can surely see why he shops there.  The manager confirmed that Smith is a customer, as is Steven Spielberg (a Smith client), Julia Roberts and Bill Cosby.  I’m surprised Oprah is not a client, she loves Americana. 

Concerning THE bed, the owners, the Jenkins, father and son, AND the store manager all had different tales to tell.  One says they delivered the bed to a warehouse in Maryland that Smith is using to store Obama goodies.  The delivery men couldn’t see what else was in the warehouse that is headed for the White House because it was all tightly covered up.  Another story says Leonards delivered the bed directly to the back door of the White House.  And still another story confirms the bed is tagged for the master bedroom.  The elder Jenkins said the phone call from Smith confirming the White House sale was the call of a lifetime.  I’ll bet!  But still, it leaves me wondering what the privacy-loving Smith thinks about all this publicity surrounding the bed.  After all, Margaret Russell told Matt Lauer that Smith hasn’t yet given any interviews about the White House commission and “he won’t.”    Maybe someone should tell that to the Jenkins, but who can blame them for their excitement?



Leonards, only in New England are shops this picturesque!  I wouldn’t mind moving in here!


Is this photo shopped?  Apparently the bed was delivered the night before the Inauguration, but I didn’t think there was snow on the ground then.  



The actual tiger maple bed the Obama’s bought from Leonards.  No surprise here – how many times have we seen Smith use beds similar to this?   I think the girls would love that carousal horse for their rooms!



Classic English Tall Post bed in Mahogany found on Leonards’ web site – I can see Smith buying this bed for another White House bedroom– it’s gorgeous.



On Leonards web site - 1880 English Oak – dog kennel Dresser – this would be a great piece for the playroom or private dining room, especially with the cubby for the new Obama puppy!



How American does it get?  This Federal New York sideboard from the 1840’s from Leonards would be a nice piece in the White House private quarters.



This estate in upstate New York, designed by Michael Smith and featured in November’s Elle Decor, reminds me of the type of furniture that Leonards carries.  I wonder if some of this was purchased there?   I hope Smith incorporates elements from this room in the White House, such as print curtains, cane furniture, tufted ottomans, and comfortable seating.



More from the New York house.  Wouldn’t this be a wonderful look for the Obamas’ private dining room? 


I am so curious as to whether the Obama’s will have a canopy over their new tiger maple bed.  Canopies are wonderful in large rooms, they become a room within a room and cozy up an oversized space.  I wonder if the First Lady perused this particular layout and felt a connection with this house and The White House?



After all, the house IS white and three stories!!


Hopefully, the press on Michael Smith will die down this coming week.  Along with most of the design blogosphere, I can’t wait to see what Smith does to America’s house.  I can’t remember another White House makeover – since Jackie Kennedy’s -  which sparked so much interest.  Most likely, Smith isn’t too bothered by all the negative press as he is frantically finishing up his work for the Obamas.   And hopefully, there won’t be any more bad news, as long as he isn’t the interior designer for the Taliban!