Reprinted from T Magazine, September 20, 2016
“I love your outfit,” Michael Smith (Environmental Design) says as he looks up from a sheaf of fabric swatches to greet Kim Gordon ('77 Fine Arts), dressed on a hot Los Angeles afternoon in a gray A-line dress. “It’s deliciously matte” — a simple but surprisingly effective icebreaker for this arranged meeting. Smith, a well-known, high-end interior designer who has been the White House decorator since President Obama was first inaugurated in 2009, often spends time entertaining dignitaries and celebrities in Madrid, where his partner, James Costos, is the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra. Gordon is an indie-rock legend who co-founded Sonic Youth, playing bass and singing for the seminal alternative group until their final performance in 2011. She is also the author of last year’s acclaimed memoir “Girl in a Band,” and an artist who experiments with paint and Plexiglas, and has shown at Gagosian in London and White Columns in New York.
We caught the pair, who seem to come from vastly different milieus but who both once lived in nearby Santa Monica, as they were heading out of town, Gordon to Seattle for “some art fair,” Smith to Washington, D.C., for the president’s birthday.
Michael Smith: So, I was Googling you: We both went to the Otis College of Art and Design. It has a new location by the Los Angeles airport, but it used to be in MacArthur Park where there were a lot of artists and studios.
Kim Gordon: I thought the neighborhood was mostly just homeless people. I had a painting teacher there. I forget his name, but I remember bringing in these beautiful car brochures where I’d painted in the windows. I said, “These are my paintings,” and he just said, “I’ve never failed anyone before.” He didn’t end up failing me, but he called me a fascist.
Smith: I was such an outsider. But at art school everyone is. It’s like popcorn. Everyone is popping at a different time. When you go to art school in California you’re kind of robbed in the sense that everything is so New York-centric.
Gordon: There’s been so much going on in L.A., though, since the ’60s, but people are just now really mining it. When I first moved to New York I started seeing things around SoHo that reminded me of California, that were trying to be more bohemian, like the way plants were hung with macramé. I had a sense that the California aesthetic was starting to be exported.
Smith: More than anything, the California vibe, the idea of it, seems to be about being multidisciplinary, being a visual artist who does music, or a musician who does visual art, the freedom of it.
Gordon: See, for me that’s all New York. That comes from Warhol, the Factory. I don’t think the music here in L.A. was about being multidisciplinary.
Smith: I’m thinking about someone like Joni Mitchell.
Gordon: She is great, but my influences, musically and in art, are more New York, although there are some amazing things to have come out of California — like Joan Didion. I didn’t even start reading her until a few years ago.
Smith: I went to school in England, and the only book I took with me was “The White Album,” which is, to this day, the best book about California, a kind of poem about it.
Gordon: There’s the sense that you can get lost here and find your own way. New York has become such a media fish bowl and it’s so formal now, especially in the art world.
Smith: You’re not as defined in L.A. So many things that I think of as “my style” — which is actually kind of a meaningless term — but things that I think of as personal to me, I got from growing up here. Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell-
Gordon: The Joans.
Smith: Tom Jones. [Laughter] I’m obsessed with a sense of place, but it gets dissipated so quickly.
Gordon: Driving down the street and looking at the contrasts in architecture, I always think of L.A. as the product of people coming to escape with their fantasies. You can have a ranch house next to a colonial house next to a weird storybook house. People customize their homes so much that it’s almost like to them it’s the ultimate freedom.
Read the full interview..
Image: The musician and artist Kim Gordon and the in-demand decorator Michael Smith. Credit: Jeff Minton