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A Heavenly Getaway in Mallorca

The Wall Street Journal.- Designer Michael Smith has remade the Mallorcan retreat of his friends Nancy and Howard Marks in a style richly evocative of its Mediterranean setting

SEA LEVEL Fragrant privet, jasmine and rosemary encircle the side garden and pool at the Marks home on the Spanish island of Mallorca. MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE
Sarah Medford

Designer Michael Smith has been working with his clients Nancy and Howard Marks on and off for 24 years, long enough that they’ve become close friends. They shop together, travel together and share an appetite for residential real estate. And for the past 13 years, one particular project has gone above and beyond to beguile them.
Back in 2004, Smith and his partner, James Costos, were having drinks at a neighbor’s house while on Christmas holiday in Mexico. Their host owned a dazzling piece of architecture—a nautilus-shaped aerie designed by John Lautner in the early ’70s—but what really caught Smith’s eye was a framed snapshot he saw there on a side table. It pictured the Spanish island of Mallorca, where a rugged coastline somersaulted down into a lapis lazuli sea, and he couldn’t get it out of his mind.
“Michael went home and googled Mallorca,” says Costos. “He turned to me and said, ‘Let’s go there on our next vacation.’ ”

NATURAL ORDER Beneath the dining room’s coffered ceiling, a Smith-designed table and klismos chairs bought at auction face a vintage Jacques Adnet commode. PHOTO: MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Before long, Smith and Costos were drinking verdejo with the Markses in an ancient Mallorcan village. One thing led to another, and the Markses bought a local finca, or farmhouse, which Smith renovated—and borrowed from time to time as a getaway during the period Costos was serving as U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra (he was appointed by President Obama in 2013). Smith and Costos soon became friendly with other regulars on the Madrid–Mallorca commute. One was the businessman Plácido Arango Arias, whose relatives, it turned out, were the owners of the Mexican Lautner house. In fact, the photo that had captivated Smith so many years before had been taken from Arango’s expansive island terrace.
Soon the Markses befriended Arango, too. “Plácido’s house wasn’t really for sale, but Plácido and Howard talked, and a deal happened,” Costos recalls. “Now it’s Howard and Nancy’s place, and Michael is decorating it. And the Arangos are best friends of ours.”

The arched entryway beneath a newly added balcony. PHOTO: MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

Few people embody the expression “You make your own luck” as completely as Smith, 53, the man threading together this daisy chain. Over the course of his career, the California-born decorator has expanded his sphere of influence from Hollywood, where his clients have included Steven Spielberg and Richard Gere, to Washington, D.C., where he redesigned the Oval Office and private rooms in the White House for President Obama (and recently spiffed up the former first family’s home in D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood), to Madrid, the site of his 2014 redecoration of the American embassy. Along the way, he’s launched two businesses selling furniture and fabric and set up house in three cities—Los Angeles, New York and Madrid—all of which now host offices of Michael Smith Inc. He and Costos keep a hideaway in Palm Springs, California, as well.
Smith’s most fully realized residential projects, the ones that hold the most meaning for him outside of his own homes, have been for Nancy and Howard Marks. Nancy is chairman of the two-year-old fashion label Sies Marjan, whose designer, Sander Lak, was a 2017 CFDA Award nominee; Howard is co-chair of an investment firm. For the Markses, who are based in New York, nesting is a pastime. “I don’t get tired of looking at things—it’s my hobby,” says Howard. “I’m a junkie. I have my wife, my family, my work, my writing—and my shelter.” As a result, Smith is encouraged to tinker with their living spaces to his heart’s content.

Aleppo pines shade the terraced waterfront facade. PHOTO: MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

The designer usually shows up at La Posada, the couple’s new place on Mallorca, carrying two or three canvas boat bags stuffed with auction catalogs and art books for them. Today he’s also brought along a silver tray earmarked for the dining room. He unknots a gray-felt bag, and the tray slips out onto the kitchen table. “I don’t think you can delegate too much,” he says, his eyes scanning the surface for scratches. “I can say to my staff, ‘I’d love a rocking chair in green; can you find me five to choose from?’ But that’s it. I do it. I mean, there was a transfer of power with the new king of Spain, and James and I went to the reception. I was in a morning coat in the palace washroom talking to a Spanish client about a grout color they didn’t like. There’s no shortcut—you’re either in it or you’re not.”
La Posada has been in the works for three years, and to most eyes it would appear done. Throughout the six-bedroom house are handmade cloisonné lamps with shirred cotton shades, North African textiles spread over deep-seated sofas, rustic, verdigris-glazed bowls on side tables and other well-thought-out details. The overall mood is lush, romantic, completely at ease—and it marks a newfound looseness to the designer’s English-inflected style. It also jibes well with the Markses’ interest in making a relaxed, welcoming refuge for family and friends.

For all its amiability, La Posada is the project Smith considers to be “probably the riskiest” he’s ever done. “It has so much color and pattern,” he says, a remark borne out by the jubilant printed cottons draping the kitchen chairs. “It’s trying to capture the entire idea of a Mediterranean experience and convey all the things that people find evocative—but do it in a way that never feels ponderous.” From room to room, the designer strikes a succession of nostalgia-laced notes—Matisse making paper cutouts from his bed in Vence, Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn holed up in a Madrid hotel suite, Paul Bowles at his writing desk in Tangiers—composing them into a lyrical melody for a seaside escape. In a guest suite, for instance, a ’40s desk and a pitted chrome armchair are pushed up against walls lined with ziggurat-patterned straw matting, a Bowlesian chord evoking sunbaked afternoons typing to the whir of a ceiling fan. “It’s a Hispanico-Moroccan thing,” Smith notes of the matting. “You’ve seen this in the Yves Saint Laurent house in Marrakech, but it’s also here in Mallorca. A friend found the material for me at the souk in Fez—literally it’s just a couple hundred euros worth unrolled onto the walls.”

REST EASY In a guest bedroom, woven straw matting from Morocco lines the wall; an Indian coverlet drapes the 18th-century Mallorcan four-poster. PHOTO: MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

All of these details came together over time. First, though, Smith undertook a reinvention of the house itself, a boxy, 15-year-old villa that needed “detail and texture,” he explains, to help it nestle more discreetly into its plot between pinewoods and the inky Balearic Sea. The local firm of Bastidas Architecture built a series of stepped terraces into the home’s waterfront expanse, many of them now planted with roses, lavender and other fragrant shrubs. Inside, Smith drew up a more traditional floor plan, taking inspiration from Mallorca’s historic merchant palaces and simple fincas, some of which still have chiseled-stone olive oil presses in their living rooms. Since Roman times, the island has been a hotly contested prize for its olive and citrus harvests. With the opening of the Gran Hotel and La Formentor in the early 20th century, Mallorca began competing for regional tourist dollars, and it’s now awash in summer visitors—though, according to Smith, not quite the tidal wave that hits Ibiza, its close neighbor.

“I mean, Mallorca’s not the Amalfi coast—people really live here,” he says, betraying some newly acquired Spanish chauvinism. He and Costos rented their own local retreat this past summer.

PATTERN PLAY Seventeenth-century Turkish Iznik plates enliven the walls of the master bedroom suite. PHOTO: MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

At its heart, La Posada signals an American designer’s deepening appreciation for the cultural heritage of Spain. “Michael didn’t come along for the ride, he came along to work,” says Costos, a former HBO executive, of their three years abroad (Smith commuted from the States one week a month). “He was very much a 50-50 partner in this deal.” The designer called on some of the country’s oldest companies, artisanal producers of carpets, glass and ceramics that were faltering, and funneled new projects their way. “He came in and said to these factories, ‘Let’s collaborate,’ ” says Costos. “He did it because he was a patriot, and he wanted to support the mission, but at the same time, it was an opportunity to bring these incredible things to his clients and to our life. Some simple, some elaborate. And the house in Mallorca has it all.”

When the Markses sit down to lunch in their dining room, the table is set with Mallorcan-made glassware and earthenware plates from Toledo, Spain, their floral patterns rendered in lustrous multicolor. Carpets in several bedrooms were woven to Smith’s specifications at Madrid’s Real Fábrica de Tapices, or royal tapestry factory; many of the upholstery fabrics are Mallorcan country cottons custom-made in the town of Santa Maria del Camí. Some of the richest decorative effects at La Posada also happen to be Smith signatures, like the stenciling on a guest bedroom’s raffia-covered walls that mirrors the technique he used in the Treaty Room of the White House. Other choices echo the broader decorative traditions of the Mediterranean basin: simple linen curtains etched with lines of embroidery, elaborately confected canopy beds.

Such keenly observed cultural references reverberate throughout the house. “To understand Michael, you have to realize he has a complete visual memory,” says Howard Marks. “And he has a random-access memory: He keeps a lot of files, and he knows exactly what’s in there.” The winter garden off the living room, for example, gave Smith the chance to channel some midcentury languor in the form of fanciful Italian wicker chairs—designed by Renzo Mongiardino in 1940 and still in production—paired with Moroccan zellige wall tile that glitters in the late afternoon sunlight. “I love this room and the idea of stylistic influences from Europe meeting North Africa,” the designer says, leading a barefoot tour of the house. “It’s a close neighbor aesthetically to the Garden of Allah Hotel in Hollywood, with Joseph Mankiewicz maybe writing a screenplay at a desk like that one. Or was it a desk in Spain that Hemingway used?

In the winter garden, Moroccan zellige tilework provides the backdrop for a midcentury Italian wing chair and a French lamp. PHOTO: MAGNUS MARDING FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE

“Decorating’s become so formulaic, and people don’t even think there’s a problem with that,” Smith observes, dropping down into a deeply cushioned English sofa. “It’s become like fashion. But you need to build up enough complexity so that when you’re in the room for the fifth or the seventh time, there’s a new combination or element that reveals itself to you. It needs to have a slower burn.”
Smith’s clients tend to get swept up in his excitement. Natalie Massenet, founder of the online shopping juggernaut Net-a-Porter and now nonexecutive co-chairman of its rival Farfetch, has known him for three decades, and he’s redecorated her London house more than once. “Michael was itching to get his hands on me and give me the life he thought I needed to have,” she says, laughing. “That’s what he does for his clients—he plays out their stories in the best possible ways.”
The Markses have taken great pleasure collaborating with their dear friend on a house that has them all speaking a new decorative language. There were occasional moments of turbulence—usually tiny, like the couple’s insistence on red, not white, potted geraniums for the terrace—but generally their latest outing has been a breeze.


“They rib, they spar, they love, they call each other out—it’s like any family relationship,” Costos maintains. He refers to himself as “the new guy” in the foursome—he’s been in the picture only since 2000. “Michael’s like Howard and Nancy’s son, but he’s also working and building things for them. It’s an interesting dynamic.”
From her shaded bedroom terrace, Nancy Marks takes in an uninterrupted view of the water. “This setting is pretty amazing,” she says. “So peaceful, and it will never be built up.” She pauses. “I always look at Howard when we finish a project and say, ‘So we’re done, right?’ ”

Island Time
More of Nancy and Howard Marks’ retreat in Mallorca, remade by Michael Smith


CHARACTER SKETCH ​In the living room, deep English sofas and antique Italian chairs take on sculptural weight against newly stenciled walls Smith describes as “dematerialized.”