Fred A. Bernstein

Lessons Learned at the Academy for Anything

Cass Calder Smith comes to New York

Published in The New York Times, May 18, 2007

CASS CALDER SMITH spent much of his childhood with his mother on a commune in Northern California, where their house was made of surplus lumber.

Periodically, he would leave the commune and fly to New York, where his father, Howard Smith, lived in a West Village apartment and wrote the Scenes column for The Village Voice. "Every day," Mr. Smith said, "It was, ‘Here's a pile of press passes. What do you want to do?' " By the time he was 16, he was accompanying his father to Studio 54.

Now that he's 45, Mr. Smith is again dividing his time between New York and San Francisco, alternating coasts every two weeks. It's a schedule he adopted in 2004, when he decided to turn his architecture practice, based in San Francisco, into a national operation. In some ways, it's as if the back-and-forth occasioned by his parents' long-ago divorce continues.

But Mr. Smith no longer lives in a hut on a commune. In San Francisco, he turned three studio apartments on Telegraph Hill into a sleek Modernist house with postcard views. In New York, he wanted a smaller place that wouldn't require much remodeling. "Professionally, I wanted to be able to hit the ground running," he said.

He found the sort of apartment he was looking for at 505 Greenwich Street, a condo building at the corner of Spring Street, with a Zen rock garden off the lobby.

The building is around the corner from Giorgione, the restaurant co-owned by Giorgio DeLuca, a founder of Dean & DeLuca. Mr. Smith found himself hanging out at the restaurant, and soon he had a commission to design Mr. DeLuca's newest place, Giorgione 508, on Greenwich Street.

Mr. Smith had proved the value of establishing an office in New York.

For the first few months, that office was in his apartment. But after renting a commercial space on Varick Street, Mr. Smith focused on making the condo homier.

He had a builder cut a four-foot-high slit into the wall between the living room and bedroom. Instantly, the two rooms felt less boxy and more connected, Mr. Smith said. Not only that, but the slit was situated so that from his living room sofa he has a view right through the bedroom - to the Empire State Building. (Sometimes, Mr. Smith may need to be reminded which city he's in.)

His decorating scheme reflects his love of mid-20th-century design: He chose a classic Florence Knoll chair and vintage storage units from USM Haller. Though USM has been selling the modular system for more than 40 years, Mr. Smith prefers the original pieces, which he said "have a little more character" than new ones.

On the floor is a patchwork kilim rug, made, Mr. Smith said, "by a guy I met on the street in Istanbul."

Mr. Smith spent the first 10 years of his life in the West Village, where he attended Public School 41. "My parents were both hippies, in the good way," Mr. Smith said. While his mother, Susan Smith, painted landscapes, his father segued from journalism to movies. In the early 1970's, Howard Smith co-produced and co-directed "Marjoe," the Academy Award-winning documentary about a charismatic preacher/charlatan.

When Mr. Smith's parents broke up, he first moved with his mother and younger brother, Zachary, to a commune in Rockland County, N.Y., where the houses were Quonset huts and geodesic domes. Then came the pilgrimage to the Star Hill Academy for Anything in Woodside, Calif., a commune on 1,800 acres that included an abandoned lumber mill.

While there was no running water or electricity, Mr. Smith recalled, there was plenty of discarded wood. For three years he didn't go to school; instead, he helped to build makeshift houses, including his family's own off-kilter agglomeration of old windows and odd doors. In retrospect, that was the start of his architecture career.

"I was always a pretty entrepreneurial kid," Mr. Smith said.

By the time he was a teenager, he was earning money from his carpentry. On the commune, "there was a lot of sitting around doing nothing," he said. "That's what I rebelled against, not the politics. I was always busy."

He continued working as a carpenter to pay his way through the University of California at Berkeley, where he attended the undergraduate and graduate architecture schools. After receiving his master's degree in architecture, he opened his own firm, which at first provided construction as well as design services.

His first big break came in San Francisco when he was asked to design Restaurant LuLu, wildly popular almost from the moment it opened in 1993. Mr. Smith quickly realized the value of highly visible projects: "If you do a good job, where a lot of eyes will see it, it's a great thing," he said.

Since then Mr. Smith has designed dozens of restaurants, and he is mentioned in San Francisco food columns as often as the top chefs. His girlfriend, Kelly Lasser, is one of San Francisco's hot interior designers.

These days, Mr. Smith has assignments across the country, including redesigning the bars and restaurants at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, the original John Portman hotel. And his first restaurant in the Hamptons, called Townline BBQ, will open early next month. Mr. Smith described the look of the place as "a modern dive."

The rest of his time is spent designing houses. In addition to his work on the West Coast, which keeps 20 employees busy, he said, he has four residential projects in the Hamptons.

But don't expect him to pack a bathing suit for his trips there. He would rather be working than relaxing. Echoing Philip Johnson, Mr. Smith said, "Why go to the beach if you could be designing a building?"