His relative youthfulness notwithstanding, Arthur Smith might justifiably claim to be among the better-known interior designers working in New York City. The fact that he would not dream of making such a claim is irrelevant, except as an indication of two of the qualities responsible for his success: good manners and good sense.
In the contemporary world of art and fashion there is a temptation for those moving up to suggest that they sprang like Minerva, fully armed, from Jupiter's head. Here is one person at least who insists on outlining his debt to those who taught and guided him during his apprenticeship.
Born in Georgia, Mr. Smith studied for five years at the school of Architecture of the University of Auburn, in Alabama—one year of industrial design and four years of interior design. In retrospect he regards that first year in particular as an invaluable learning experience.
"It has enabled me to see at once when something is wrong with proportions," he explains.
Visiting New York while still a student, he was admonished by a gifted Atlanta designer, the late Charles Townsend, to look and look again at the collections in the Metropolitan and Frick museums.
"And that," says Mr. Smith, "was how I started to think for myself about the history of design, and learned everything I could about the past."
When he moved to New York City in the mid-1960s, he found work with the late Edward Garratt, a well-known antiques dealer, from whom he received further training in the history of design. Eight months later he was offered, and accepted, the position of assistant to Billy Baldwin in the design firm of Baldwin & Martin.
Billy Baldwin had been looking for someone not previously trained by another interior designer. Arthur Smith filled the bill and struck Mr. Baldwin as a young man of notable ability, with a useful architectural background as well as a sure sense of color and composition.
"Send them out to get samples," says Billy Baldwin, describing his teaching technique with trainees. "That's how you learn if they have natural taste. Arthur never brought back things I didn't like. He caught on quickly, but he never accepted anything blindly. He had to be persuaded, and he still battles with clients—as he used to battle with me—about what is best."
For his part, Arthur Smith, after recalling all that Billy Baldwin had to offer an assistant—including the delight of working and traveling with one who happens to be excellent company—sums it up in the following way: "He shortened my formative experience immensely. Anyone else would have taken three times as long."
In 1971 the assistant became a partner in the firm. And in 1973, when Billy Baldwin retired and the firm came to an end, the new firm of Arthur E. Smith took its place. It occupied the same attractive premises, employed the same secretary, bookkeeper and receptionist—and reserved and office with a desk and telephone for Mr. Baldwin, in the event that he should feel nostalgic.
The professional work of the one-time pupil has much in common with that of the one-time mentor: neatness, elegance, simplicity, a clean look. Despite the debt he acknowledges to Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Smith is anything but an imitator. The decorating idiom he has developed over the years is resolutely and unmistakably his own.
His duplex on the top two floors of a house in the East Seventies in New York City is a good example. Windows look over a pleasant terrace on to gardens, and there are few high-rise buildings within close range. The first effect of the apartment seems somber; the entrance hall has black walls and so has the adjoining bedroom. Following suit, the kitchen, too, is almost totally black.
But the undeniable fact is that there is nothing remotely austere or claustrophobic about any of the rooms. Paradoxically enough, the black walls of the hall, bedroom and kitchen create an illusion of unlimited space. Everywhere the contrasts of black and white—some violent, other gently subtle—recall the truism that black-and-white photographs are often incomparably warmer and more sensuous than the most brilliant color transparencies. The living room, in particular, provides an admirable example of the way color—even what might be called noncolor—has of satisfying the eye when allied with intelligent design.
Although Arthur Smith refers to himself invariably as an interior decorator, he is actually a more authentic interior designer than many others who are in the habit of using the currently more fashionable term. For example, rather than make his clients buy costly and impressive antiques in the interests of filling space, he prefers to design furniture for them, to fit their individual needs and tastes as well as the particular spatial scheme.
Since many of today's interiors tend to have a more temporary existence than the interiors of the past, he often designs easily movable and portable furniture. He has already designed more than twenty different kinds of lamps. For his own apartment, he designed the bed and chest of drawers in the bedroom, the long wall cabinet with a travertine top in the living room—for television, storage and stereo speakers—and all the geometrically patterned carpets in the bedroom and hall.
Of Arthur Smith's carpet designs Billy Baldwin himself remarks: "Arthur's carpets lie down. They don't stand up and hit you in the face."
Subtlety is Mr. Smith's particular hallmark, and it is evident everywhere in his small and attractive duplex. In trying to define the essential quality of the apartment, and his own particular approach to design—with its blend of restraint and boldness, its contemporary vigor and traditional good sense—the advice of the French philosopher Alain to those of his students who aspired to write comes easily to mind: "Memory is a form of prophecy. First, continue; and then begin."
The theme of continuity is one that is well understood by Mr. Smith, and evident even within the small confines of his New York apartment—evident, perhaps more particularly, in terms of what appears to be an essentially contemporary statement. It is only those who have studied the past with care and affection who can advance into the future and see, in the case of one in his profession, the historical continuity of design—like the artist, who must learn the realities of anatomy before he can indulge in the imaginary strokes of the abstract.
TEXT TAKEN FROM ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST'S "AMERICAN INTERIORS: TEN YEARS OF INNOVATIVE INTERIOR DESIGN IN THE UNITED STATES", ED. PAIGE RENSE, 1978; IMAGES VIA "AMERICAN INTERIORS" AS WELL AS THE BLUE REMEMBERED HILLS