Designer Spotlight: Michael Simon

Living Room, Los Altos Hills Home

Living Room, Los Altos Hills Home

Michael Simon is in a state of deep focus. We’ve been sitting in a cozy Italian bistro a couple of blocks from his office on the fringes of NYC’s theatre district for just 10 minutes and we’ve already touched on technology-driven information overload, God, and the importance of divining a life’s purpose for oneself. And now he needs to figure out what he’ll eat for lunch.

He is a man with a solid sense of value in both the spiritual and physical realms, and he makes reference to his desire to continue moving toward the light. “The light” he speaks of is “not about God in the traditional sense,” he says. “It’s about action that stems from reflection. I just want more time to reflect and less time to react. I think so much of today’s ‘instant’ culture is about reactivity. When you can watch a war being fought live, in real time, how in the world do you process that? Everyone wants a response and the complexities of the situation are just enormous. I think people who are moving toward the light aren’t afraid to take the time, step away from the phone or computer, and reflect on a situation. To realize that your words and actions really do have an effect on the world around you is hugely important. We all have a responsibility and that’s why I’m always lobbying for greater reflectivity and less reactivity.”

In a career where beauty is ephemeral and good taste and style is no longer represented by a period of years or even seasons, how does a traditionalist ensure that he will be able to honor his meticulously honed sensibilities, while still giving a client the type of space that will feel organic to them? “I tell my clients up front… when I’m doing work for you, I want that work to be classic. Which doesn’t mean that it’s antique… that’s not what it’s about. It’s that it will last on some level, and so in order for something to be classic, to me it means that it’s got to have soul and in order for something to have soul it must refer to something before this instant in time, because we are part of a continuum and we’re always recycling energy and spirit. Antecedents matter greatly.”

Michael Simon is as traditional as he is evolved. He believes in proper spelling and punctuation, especially in text messages, and is resolute in his desire to thoroughly craft spaces, down to the smallest details that others might consider unseen minutiae. He meets the demands of the world around him with the storied gentleman’s grace of a time before now. He is transparent with his thoughts and intentions and still remains something of an enigma. He is someone with whom you can spend two hours dining and talking and still feel as though you’ve just barely scratched the surface… he is utterly fascinating.

Read on for Michael’s views on philosophy, the reinterpretation of classicism, and his life-long love affair with the decorative arts of the Ancien Régime.

ABC Stone: After studying classical music at Carnegie Mellon and the Manhattan School of Music, you moved into interior design. Can you talk about how your background in music influences your decorative aesthetic and creative process?

Michael Simon: Yes! Composers have to create a “language” or sound universe that is comprehensible to the average listener. “Leitmotifs” serve as markers for the composer and guide posts for the listener. These motives are manipulated in numerous ways to shepherd the audience through a wide-ranging experience of emotion for the duration of the piece. I like to call these leitmotifs “cells.” As a designer, I limit myself to a handful of ideas, or cells, that are systematically engineered to realize a décor where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. My manipulations occur in two and three dimensions where the cells are exploded, augmented, inverted, made linear or horizontal, and so on. In order to create this cosmos, textiles, carpets, furnishings and myriad other decorative elements must be made custom.

ABC: Are you able to say what, specifically, prompted the change in your artistic medium of preference from music to design? Was it a single moment or more of a series of shifts?

MS: It was a matter of practicality. My music was well respected but it was difficult to make a living by it. I was always attracted to architecture, design and decorating from an early age and it seemed if I applied the skills I learned as a composer to the designing it would allow me to create residences filtered through a somewhat unique lens.

ABC: You’ve said that you are a “composer” of rooms. Can you elaborate on this idea a bit? What does it mean to you?

MS: There are a set of established forms in music: symphonies, concerti, operas, chamber music, solo music and so on. In most forms of music there is an “arc” to the composition. My projects also have an arc as ideas are mapped out and planned that reflect each client’s sensibility. These musical forms almost always inform the sweep of a project.

ABC: Your design philosophy seems to be one of dialoguing with the past, and designing for the future—in other words, creating work that withstands the test of time, but also acknowledges the aesthetic achievements of lost time: what are some ways in which you achieve this?

MS: I’m interested in creating work that is classic and stands the test of time. In order for something to be classic it must, by design, have a soul. In order for something to have a soul it must in some way refer to the past since we are part of a vast, never-ending continuum. That doesn’t mean it’s old-fashioned, but an antecedent, or reference to the past, is required to ensure permanence, meaning and substance. I am invested in the promotion of savoir faire since each hand-made creation is endowed with spirit.

ABC: To what extent and in what manner does research play a role in your creative process?

MS: Research plays a significant role in our projects. Depending upon the nature of a project I can go down a deep rabbit hole in search of details that inspire our present needs. As an example, we created a master suite for American clients in Minneapolis, descended from Swedes. We settled on a Gustavian aerie for the aesthetic. The design featured twelve custom-made textiles that formed a boiserie of fabrics for the walls. We researched flowers from the period and drawings of them to establish a “hand” that would convey the sense of the history without being enslaved to the past. These flowers formed the basis of the design in printed, woven and embroidered textiles.

ABC: What sorts of decorative artifacts interest you most as a collector?

MS: I have always been drawn to seating furniture and chandeliers. The seating is most like a human, with arms, legs, back and seat. Chandeliers are illuminators, so both seating and lighting have a spiritual essence to them.

ABC: How do antiques and art objects figure into your interiors?

MS: These are project-specific since they have to communicate with the “backgrounds” and furnishings I typically create. I tend to select antiques and art that stand the test of time – often Antiquities or Asian artifacts/art – as they are not subject to the mores and swings of taste. Remember, fashion is designed to make people feel insecure. I don’t subscribe to fashion at all. I think one must ultimately seek what speaks to each of us.

ABC: Would you describe yourself as a “curator,” in addition to being a designer of interiors?

MS: Absolutely. I’m somewhat academic and have a significant library on architecture and the decorative arts. That said, there are little-to-no “random” decisions made on our projects. Hopefully they feel inevitable and not overworked or overthought.

ABC: What was the germination of your so-to-speak “love affair” with the decorative arts of the Ancien Régime, the influence of which undeniably pervades your work?

MS: I’ve always been drawn to France and Russia in both music and design. This attraction began when I was a youngster and has prevailed ever since. I can’t intellectualize it because it is essentially visceral.

ABC: Can you say why the decorative arts of the Ancien Régime are of such interest to you?

MS: By the end of the 18th century there were degrees of perfection that had never been realized previously and have never been replicated since the fall of the Ancien Régime. I’ve concluded that the decorative arts couldn’t possibly have reached any further refinement because the inspiration was exhausted and revolution was inescapable. Enlightenment morphed toward industrialization. Once the human hand was replaced the precision and flawlessness was no longer possible.

ABC: What are some examples of you “drawing inspiration from [your] patrons”?

MS: Each client has a different awareness and sense of values. These traits and characteristics telegraph themselves to me in an instant and suggest different aesthetic approaches to each project. Though the aesthetic is filtered through the same lens (mine) the outcome is always different.

ABC: Can you talk a little about different kinds of obstacles you encounter in your work?

MS: There are two big obstacles; the first is time. People want everything delivered overnight which is not possible when the lion’s share of the elements are created specifically for the project. The second obstacle is communicating the design elements. A great deal of sampling is required to explain the myriad elements of the interiors. That takes care, time and confidence for all parties.

“The Arizona project represents everything I want to do going forward, if possible.” —Michael Simon

ABC: Is it very important to you that no two of your interiors are alike? And would you say that, as an artist, you try to avoid any kind of “signature” upon your work?

MS: I’m very easily bored. If I’m not being intellectually stimulated I’m not happy. Once I’ve done something, I want a new and different challenge. Happily, since no two clients are alike this gives us the opportunity to create new environments without replication.

ABC: You’ve also said that your mission is to reinterpret classicism for the 21st century: what particular areas of the classical history of decorative arts inspire and fascinate you the most?

MS: I’d have to say the backgrounds or envelopes of the rooms. I have a greedy eye and the more detailed the backgrounds, the more I like the connection with the contents. We are not bound by classical materials, geometries or profiles – only the sense of creating a scale in which humans can play out their lives.

ABC: Why, in your opinion, is it important for interior designers to engage with the past?

MS: There isn’t a new idea under the sun — only recycling. In order to make something of substance, you have to reach into the past to create something worthwhile for the present. It’s the continuum idea I referenced before.

ABC: What are some of your favorite “interior design cities”?

MS: Paris, St. Petersburg, Lisbon and Kyoto.

ABC: Are you inspired, in your interior design aesthetic, by other aspects of 18th century French visual culture, such as painting, drawing, statuary, or architecture?

MS: Yes! All of it! I cannot separate any of the arts from one another – most particularly music and design. If you step away from any period and compare the arts – music, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, cuisine, even politics – they are inextricably linked. You can make the connections between the arts because they are all in reaction to a shared moment in history.

ABC: Anthracite grey has been described as your “signature color.” Is there a reason for this; does it have any historical resonances that inspire, intrigue you?

MS: I often look to nature for inspiration in color. My fascination with anthracite grey began with pigeons. The juxtaposition of grey with the shades of plum and green around the necks of some pigeons cannot be improved upon. The chromatic scale in music is the same as it is in design. One note has no meaning until you put it next to another. In the same vein, one color has no meaning until you put it next to another. Every color is beautiful. They only have significance when they are coupled and it is the vibration of chroma that makes a color scheme sing or look like mud.

ABC: Can you talk a little bit about Michael Simon Signature collections? At what stage is your company in the development of this venture?

MS: I thoroughly enjoy creating a small design universe. We have designed textiles and rugs that have been exclusive to our client’s residences. I also get great satisfaction from designing furniture and we are working on a series of models that I would like to supply beyond my business.

ABC: Complete the sentence, a well-designed home has to__________.

MS: …serve as a suitable backdrop for the homeowners. They are the stars and the interiors should quietly and uniquely create an ambience that reflects their world view.

ABC: Who/what are some of your “design muses”?

MS: Some are in music and some are in design. From the music column, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel, Poulenc, Barber and Copeland. From the design column, Robert Adam, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Jean-Michel Frank, Josep Maria Sert, Renzo Mongiardino and François-Joseph Graff.

ABC: Who/what is inspiring you right now?

MS: All of the above!

ABC: Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

MS: To thine own self be true. Never follow fads. React less and reflect more!

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