Jay Smith's name is almost unknown, but his influence is everywhere
Peter Webster -- Interior Design, 4/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The graphic on the business card of J.W. Fred Smith, Designer; Smith in East Hampton, New York, in the late 1980's. Courtesy of Marion Greenberg.
Diana Vreeland might well have tossed off her famous fashion zinger “Elegance is refusal” while looking in the expansive window of Linda Dresner's store in New York. From Park Avenue, the superbly austere, artfully lit shop gave almost no clue about what went on inside. The white composition, with an enigmatic black cube looming at the center, suggested an art gallery, perhaps a cloister, not a women's clothing store. But, boy, was it elegant.
The designer of the shop—which recently closed after a 25-year run selling a meticulously edited selection of such edgy labels as Jil Sander and Comme des Garçons—was the late Jay Smith, a world-class refusenik. “Jay insisted on having nothing in the window, absolutely nothing,” Dresner says. “The only thing on display was the space itself.” Initially nervous, she asked him, “How will anyone know I'm here?” He said, “Someone who doesn't want to come in is someone you don't want to talk to.”
Clothing displayed behind the 8-foot cube at Linda Dresner, New York, so as not to be visible from the street. Courtesy of Marion Greenberg. The Park Avenue storefront. Photo by Paul Warchol.
This was not Dresner's first encounter with the uncompromising aesthetics of the man formally known as J.W. Fred Smith. In 1978, he had designed a small, black store for her in Troy, Michigan. “It was done on a tiny budget, using residential materials—bathroom tiles, shower doors—with iridescent pink leather upholstery,” she recalls. “It was a knockout. Very animated but also very calming.”
Smith, who was not a trained architect, developed his ultrarefined style by melding a love of the natural world, a fascination with ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures, and a deep passion for American modernism as embodied by NASA's vast Manned Spacecraft Center, built during his Houston boyhood. The black cube at Linda Dresner not only hid mechanical equipment and a stairway down to the basement stockroom but also evoked the obsidian slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that shared his vision of the gleaming promise of technology. “I can't stand old-fashioned architecture. I want to. . .explore the future,” he told fashion and design publicist Marion Greenberg, his great friend and client, in one of the only published interviews he ever gave.
The store's custom granite-and-marble table, Smith's trademark, with T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings stools, another signature. Courtesy of Marion Greenberg.
After studying art history at the University of Texas, Smith worked for a number of Houston designers, honing his innate sense of proportion, materials, and detail. He explored the use of light with his professional and, for a time, personal partner, Cris Howard, a lighting designer. When Dresner met Smith in New York in the 1970's, he was designing exquisitely attenuated sets for an influential Estée Lauder ad campaign art-directed and produced by Alvin Chereskin of AC&R. Chereskin is quoted in a Columbia University Journalism School master's project by Louise A. Rosen that remains the only substantial written work on Smith: “What Jay did—create the 3-D innovation for the Lauder image—was the equivalent of what Robert Wilson did for the theater.” Also: “He was a perfectionist, which meant he was not always an easy person to work with.”
Not that Smith was any easier on himself. His own all-gray apartment and studio, a half floor in a brownstone, was as extreme as anything he gave his clients. A stainless-steel Pullman kitchen and a shelving unit for his plans ran down one wall. The only furnishings were a square granite-topped pedestal table, an element he used in all his projects; three klismos stools by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, specified almost as frequently; a drafting table; and a mattress. “And there was a huge horse's skeleton lying on the gray carpet,” Dresner recalls, still gobsmacked more than 30 years later. “That was the first space of Jay's I ever saw, and it completely won me over.”
Mario Bellini's Cab chairs at publicist Marion Greenberg's office in New York. The marble stair at longtime PR and advertising executive Barbara Dente's former New York duplex. Photos by Paul Warchol.
It was 1982 when Greenberg launched her namesake firm and commissioned him to design an office in the original Henri Bendel building. With plain white walls, quartzite flooring, and a partition of frosted glass, he created a pared-down suite of perfectly proportioned, subtly illuminated spaces. The only furniture in the 14-foot-high showroom is one of Smith's pedestal tables and three of Mario Bellini's black leather-wrapped chairs. Clothing can be hung on a single bar spanning an alcove, while a granite pedestal supports a video monitor for screening runway shows.
The project's architect of record was a young freelancer, Michael Gabellini, then at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. “Jay had a very intuitive, very emotional approach,” Gabellini says. “But he also had an innate sense of program and function.” Smith was always searching for purity, the absolute ideal, and Gabellini helped in those painstaking investigations, a role he would continue to play. “I consider Jay an important mentor and myself his protégé,” says Gabellini, now a member of the Interior Design Hall of Fame and partner in Gabellini Sheppard Associates.
A duplex penthouse for Barbara Dente, a veteran PR and advertising executive, was the last project Smith completed before he succumbed to AIDS in 1990. “The designer Zoran recommended Jay to me,” Dente recalls. Smith employed honed marble, frosted glass, and white plaster to give her one of the first truly minimalist apartments in the U.S., with a living-dining area occupying the top floor and a contemplative bedroom suite below. To connect the two levels, he reinterpreted a photograph of a curving staircase, which Dente had shown him, as a winding ribbon of thick marble treads that float on a single steel stringer—a sculptural object of piercing archaic beauty.
Dente sold her apartment last year so, with the closing of the Dresner shop, Greenberg's office is now all that's known to remain of Smith's New York work. But his aesthetic lives on, particularly in the many boutiques and showrooms Gabellini designed for Jil Sander. Though Sander never met Smith, she knew his work well—she even went with Greenberg to visit Dente's apartment. When Sander was looking for an architect for her expanding retail empire, she was introduced to Gabellini by Greenberg as Smith's natural heir. That meeting resulted in the collaboration that launched Gabellini into the architectural empyrean.