Matthew Patrick Smyth’s new book, Through a Designer’s Eye, features beloved design projects along with some of his favorite Instagram shots. “The book is a combination of rooms and spaces I’ve designed along with photos and details that have inspired me,” he says. His Instagram highlight reel includes travel destinations, stunning landscapes, and snippets of architectural details. While these little vignettes inspire textures, palettes, and moods in his work, he adamantly stresses that good—really good—interior design is bigger and more powerful than any photo or rising number of followers on social media.
When Matthew began working on this Westport, Connecticut, home almost nine years ago, Instagram was only a year old. Pinterest, the virtual bulletin board for traditional magazine tear sheets was also in its infancy, and popular retail brands had (almost) everyone convinced that clean lines, white upholstery, and bleached finishes were the pinnacle of high design. “There’s no doubt that social media is a powerful tool for designers who want to showcase their work, and if it falls into place, great, but you can’t get caught up in a corner of a room or a little moment. You have to think big picture,” Matthew says.
“We weren’t trying to fool anyone into thinking this was an old house. We just wanted it to have historic character.” — Matthew Patrick Smyth
His big picture view shines throughout this Georgian Revival home, a place where he thoughtfully considered scale, color, the movement of light, mood, and both visual and tactile textures. “The house was built 30 years ago. It had great bones and the architecture was fine, but the interior proportions were off,” Matthew says. “We needed to reset the spaces with classic moldings and delineate rooms to scale it back to a more intimate level.”
To do that, Matthew traveled to Colonial Williamsburg, a place he knew well thanks to his experience as a guest lecturer with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “When you are building or renovating a new home, you should always go to the most authentic source of the design you can find,” he says. “Otherwise, you are picking and pulling ideas from here and there, and it can end up being chaotic.
“Travel is one of the most important experiences you can have if you want to be a good designer,” he adds. “When you see something in person, you get a sense of the place’s volume and whether it feels intimate or massive. I advise young designers to travel—and travel often. Save your money and get out there. Go to Europe. But if you can’t travel, there’s plenty you can find locally. Visit museums and historic buildings. You’re not going to decorate that way, but you’ll get a sense of history and appropriateness. The more you see, the more you build up your repertoire.”
Returning to Connecticut with loads of images and precise measurements, Matthew stripped out the existing interior moldings so he could start fresh. “There were a lot of subtle things that needed to be done before we could start with furniture selection,” he says.
“We started working on this house about nine years ago when there was all this pressure in the design world to go white and new. Now, everything is colorful again. Design has come full circle.” — Matthew Patrick Smyth
A coffered ceiling and arched openings visually scaled down rooms. New trim replaced wall paneling. Antique mantels from France and England were retrofitted for period style, and in the library, Matthew refreshed tired paneling with paint. With the hardscape in place, the red wallpaper in the foyer set the tone for the interior colors and decorating. “It’s a simple damask,” Matthew says of the pattern by Carleton V. “It doesn’t have that heavy European feel. It’s stylized but modern, and it’s crisp. It’s cheerful in the daytime and glamorous at night. Once you start with something like that, it has a domino effect.”
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Seeking antiques to accompany the traditional bones, Matthew scoured shops and worked with dealers to source a mix of periods and styles to get a custom blend.
“When I do modern, I know exactly what the house is going to look like,” he says. “But when I am designing with antiques, it’s always an evolution and a surprise. You just don’t know what is out there or what you are going to find until you start looking.”
There are Swedish chairs, French settees, Irish tables, English paintings, and Scottish clocks. “I love antiques, but you do have to balance them with upholstery, wallpaper, and some painted pieces here and there,” says the designer. “Everything has to work together as a whole.”
The project featured in this story appears in Through a Designer’s Eye: A Focus on Interiors by Matthew Patrick Smyth (The Monacelli Press, 2020).
By Cathy Still McGowin | Photography by John Gruen | Interior design by Matthew Patrick Smyth, matthewsmyth.com