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Designer Michael S. Smith Writes New Book 'Building Beauty'

Paried with a Christie’s auction, the designer bids his final farewell to the Malibu house that is the subject of his latest book.
Francois Halard. BUILDING BEAUTY: The Alchemy of Design by Michael S. Smith, Rizzoli New York, 2013

The release of Michael S. Smith’s fourth book, Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design, marks the end of a major chapter for the renowned Santa Monica-based designer. The coffee tabler is a sumptuous look at a palatial property he designed over the course of seven years in Malibu, the contents of which were auctioned off at Christie’s a few weeks ago. And the house itself – which was owned by investor Howard Marks – was sold for a stunning $75 million earlier this year to a Russian billionaire. The transaction represented the highest residential real estate sale ever in Malibu.

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Of the design presented in his book, Smith says: "For me, it’s very cinematic. I’m building each shot, from room to room. The idea is to be flexible. One of the most important skills a designer can have is the ability to improvise. Sometimes magical things happen at the last moment."

Captured within the pages of Building Beauty is the 20,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom main villa, situated on almost 10 acres of prime 300-foot beachfront, vibrant with worn silk carpets, glossy antiques and chalky Venetian plaster walls. But this paean to the home’s elegant, albeit ethereal, beauty is more just glossy decor porn. It’s also a detailed examination of the combined efforts of Smith, architect Oscar Shamamian, landscape designer Mia Lehrer, along with the many craftsmen and workers. It covers the delicate balancing act between creativity and practicality, imagination and zoning laws, that it took to transform an ordinary existing home into something extraordinary.

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The devil is definitely in the details: from Shamian’s explanation of how he worked within the city of Malibu’s strict restrictions to foreman Jim Sangster’s note that the windows are washed every three weeks to ward off erosion from the salt coming off the ocean, to cabinetmaker Chris Kemmerling’s discussion of the difference between slotted and Phillips head screws, this is at once a how-to book, albeit on a grand scale, and a love letter to a place that was, while it was being constructed, truly a labor of love for all involved. 

The Christie's auction achieved a total of $6.5 million doubling its pre-sale estimate, seeing bidding from 19 countries. Lalanne sheep, work by Sean Scully, the De Trafford “Shrub” carpet and an Irish George III giltwood mirror were among the decorative offerings from inside Smith's Malibu house.

"It was gratifying to discover that people found the objects compelling outside s of the setting," he said. "It was a very special house and it’s been amazing to be able to go through the whole process."

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Smith has been named three times to Architectural Digest’s AD 100 list and been named designer of the year by Elle Decor. In 2010, he was appointed by President Obama to the committee of preservation of the White House. The 208-page Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design is available through Rizzoli for $55 and includes a forward by Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Margaret Russell.

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