James Merrick Smith, an internationally recognized interior designer who ushered Miami into its modern style, died Friday.
He was 94.
Born in 1919, Smith represented the very best of the Greatest Generation, his friends said. He was a true gentleman, incredibly hard working and rarely spoke of his success. Instead, Smith made those around him feel loved and appreciated.
“He had unparalleled gentility and charm,” said Ruth Shack, former Miami-Dade County commissioner and president of the Dade Community Foundation. “He lived honestly with integrity, loving those around him.”
To say Smith had a profound impact on the interior design industry would be an understatement. He helped turn a business of salesmen into a legitimate and accredited industry of men and women educated in design.
During a time when designers — even the household names of New York City’s Fifth Avenue — simply sold beautiful furniture, Smith pushed for designers to be experts of style in order to help buyers bring class and quality into their homes and businesses.
He came to Miami in 1948 and set up interiors in a pavilion outside his Coconut Grove business to show customers what modern design looked like. Over the years, he helped Miami shed its Spanish colonial style and replaced it with the modern. Over time, he gained the trust of hundreds of clients who welcomed him to their homes.
“They wouldn’t move a pillow without asking him,” longtime friend Helen Kohen said.
Eventually, Smith’s efforts led to the formation of the American Society of Interior Designers. The organization now boasts 40,000 members throughout the United States and Canada.
Smith’s contribution to Miami went far beyond the scope of design. A lover of arts and education, he was a founding member of the Vizcayans, the Museum of Science, and the Metropolitan Dade County Council of Arts & Sciences.
During the Great Depression, Smith’s family had to take in boarders and it was his responsibility to cook for them.
“He was a fabulous cook,” said Liz Collins Powell, a friend and longtime client. “He could take anything and make it into a fabulous dish like chicken pot pie soup.”
Smith’s passport was as decorated as his résumé. He traveled to more than 90 countries on seven continents with his partner, Hal Birchfield.
The pair had been together for 44 years and were married while visiting New Canaan, Conn.’s Glass House on Oct. 11, 2012.
They met at the Fillmore Hotel in San Francisco in the summer of 1970, and for Birchfield it was love at first sight.
“For me there was never a question,” Birchfield said. “He had style; he had the real stuff.”
The two lived and worked together, accumulating a long list of high-profile clients including Chase Manhattan Bank, Bacardi and Playboy. Smith also worked as a consultant in places like the Florida Governor’s Mansion and the White House.
Among their closest friends and most loyal clients was Leonard Abess, chairman of the City National Bank of Florida.
“[Smith] has decorated many of my homes and my banks,” he told the Miami Herald in a 1987 profile of Smith. “He’s one of my favorite people. When you walk into a place he has done, you feel good. He has great taste and a great associate in Hal.”
Instead of arranging services, Birchfield mailed notices of Smith’s death to friends and family. Smith only used one kind of stamp — a square decorated with bright neon-colored letters that spell “CELEBRATE!”
Even in death, Smith continues to make friends smile.