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Designer Tommy Smythe Is Carving His Own Creative Path—With Lots of Books


You may know Tommy Smythe from TV. The Toronto-based designer served as HGTV star Sarah Richardson‘s second in command for 19 years and was featured on her various shows: Design Inc, Sarah’s House, Sarah’s Cottage, and Sarah Off the Grid. When Smythe graduated from his post at Sarah Richardson Design in 2020, it was to start his own interior design studio called TOM Design Studio. While short for his first name, the “T” stands for traditional and the “M” stands for modern—representing Smythe’s love of classic designs and interest in what’s new and next. Alongside Lindsay Mens Craig and Kate Stuart, Smythe is a partner of the firm.

Unsurprisingly, the Toronto-based studio creates breathtaking designs that are full of personality. Smythe believes every beautiful space has one thing in common: It’s deeply individual and authentic to the person who lives in it. “I hope that when people see the work I do for clients, they see the client and not me—that’s my genuine desire,” the designer says.

To get you better acquainted with Smythe as the star of his own show—see: how he got into interior design in the first place and his favorite room of all time (it’s full of books!)—we spoke with the designer to learn it all. After reading, you have a good excuse to build out your personal book collection… at the very least!

 

preview for Dream Rentals

See Some of Tommy’s Work:

library

Q & A

House Beautiful: How did you get into the design field?

Tommy Smythe: My grandmother Dorothea Smythe was an interior designer. When I was growing up, I was exposed to a lot of change within her homes. She had a few different homes in different places. They were all really beautiful and layered and interesting, and she was a very talented person. Growing up with that, I developed an interest in it and an aptitude for it. Then she started to show me things, take me along on trips to auctions and in the country, just sort of fun excursions that even further enhanced my burgeoning love of the world of design. So it was really through immersion, to be honest. It wasn’t really just something that was a light bulb moment. I was fully immersed in interior design and homemaking from my earliest memories because of her.

HB: So would you say she’s someone who has made a huge impact on your career so far?

TS: Definitely. Up until the day she died, we had a really intimate relationship in terms of my career development and the choices that I made in developing my own home environment as well. To this day, I live with so many things that were cast-offs of hers, where she would just sort of say, “Oh, I bought new lamps for my bedroom. Do you want the old lamps?” And I would always say yes. I just took everything that I could possibly absorb from her world of beautiful objects and decorative items. She had a huge impact in that way and also from an advice perspective. She was really the first person who mentored me, which actually set me on a journey of mentorship versus formal education. I don’t have a degree in interior design. I was not formally educated in the field. I actually was mentored by a handful of extraordinary talents, starting with her and then sort of continuing through a few other people who I worked with over the years who taught me everything I know and how to develop my own point of view by observing how they had done that.

HB: That’s so wonderful and one of the best ways to learn.

TS: It’s the best way to learn almost anything. It’s the best way to learn how to be a good person. It’s the best way to learn sports. It’s the best way to learn languages. The world of creative pursuits is really like languages. You have to learn certain things, but you also get to apply your own accent to it. I always look at it like language study. What are the principles I really need to know? And then I research those on my own. I have a very extensive library that I built over many, many decades of interest and focus on design and art and photography and geography and all these things. So, you know, there are different paths to a career in this business. That was mine—just immersing myself in it as much as possible and seeking out the company and proximity of other extraordinarily talented people.

HB: Where do you look for inspiration now?

TS: I always talk about inspiration being something that is not exactly what people think it is. It’s really not a light bulb moment. It’s not a vibe. It’s actually a practice, like yoga. It’s a practice that you have to apply to almost everything you do. And it’s about observation—not just observing things and saying, Oh, I saw that, but actually saying, What did I gain from seeing that? How was I informed or educated or otherwise enriched by seeing what I’m seeing? So much of it is visual that a lot of it is also things like taste and sounds. And certainly, travel inspires me. I think any creative person will tell you that traveling and seeing other cultures and other architecture in different regions is really important to creative life. But also other designers I’ve had epic, great friendships with all throughout North America and Europe inspire me.

“Inspiration is really not a light bulb moment. It’s not a vibe. It’s actually a practice, like yoga.”

HB: Is there any piece of advice that stands out to you that you’ve received, given, or both?

TS: John Manuel, who is a great designer, was one of my mentors many years ago. He would move like a person who was in the witness protection program. He was always moving, but he had this very extensive and very special, beautiful library. I had a special talent for arranging bookshelves. And so every time he moved, he would have me unpack his book boxes and put them on bookshelves. One day, while I was doing that, he said: “I don’t often give you specific advice, but I wanna tell you something. You love books. So what you need to do is every time you get a paycheck for anything, buy a book. And what that will do is it will give you a library that is something you will enjoy, and that will inform your work and your private moments in the most enriching and satisfying way for the rest of your life. And when you’re too old to go anywhere, you can still go into those books and travel through them.”

It was just such incredibly brilliant, simple advice—the kind of advice that anyone could follow. You can go to Value Village or the Salvation Army and get books very inexpensively. Or you can go to a really beautiful art book store. Everyone can afford to have a library, and everyone can afford to enjoy books.

Now in my design practice, I refer to the books that I have in my home daily. When I’m looking for something, when I’m looking for a historical reference, I have all the books by Mark Hampton, David Hicks, you know, all the great designers of the 20th century. Then I have huge collections of art and photography books that really do actually, on a daily basis, bring me joy but also bring me the information I need to be able to serve my clients better. I know all of that’s available online. But the experience of sitting down and going through a book versus going online and absorbing the information is very different.

HB: Are there any books you’re looking forward to reading this year?

TS: The fall book season is always so exciting. Rose Tarlow’s new book is out (called Rose Tarlow: Three Houses). I’m dying to read that. Her first book, The Private House, was one of the most influential books for me. It has beautiful pictures, but the text in the book is so beautiful and personal and enriching. So I’m really looking forward to this new one.

HB: What’s your favorite room, anywhere of all time?

TS: My favorite room is the library at Trinity College Dublin. It’s very widely known to be one of the most beautiful rooms on Earth. It is the one room that when I’ve stood in it, which I’ve been lucky enough to do a few times, I feel as though, I could live and die here. It’s just so incredibly beautiful architecturally. It has all the vibes that you want from an old space, but it also feels timeless. It could be any decade.

daily life in dublin

Stefano Guidi//Getty Images

HB: How about your favorite area to decorate in a home?

TS: Hallways because they’re so neglected, but we spend so much time in them. Hallways are the conduit from room to room within your home. We actually spend a lot of time traveling from space to space within our homes. But a lot of people don’t really focus much energy or money or effort on designing hallways. I love working with clients on their hallways because they always say to me after we’re done, “I’m so glad we actually paid attention to those spaces because now when I walk through and I see that mirror at the end of the hall, instead of a blank wall. I’m pleased with the way it looks.” It’s a life-enhancing experience. It’s really important to address all of the spaces that you spend time in because those are the spaces that are supposed to give you joy.

HB: Switching gears here: Is there anything we’d be surprised to learn about you?

TS: I can cook, and I’m not high maintenance. People have said to me, “You have a reputation for having expensive taste.” That’s not necessarily fair because my eye is educated to the degree that when I walk into an environment, my eye is immediately attracted to the thing that’s made with the best materials by the artist’s hand. And that should have the highest value in terms of what you pay for it. So it’s a natural instinct toward those items. But I’m also not a high-maintenance person. I’m pretty easygoing, I don’t need hotel rooms to be opulent. I just need them to clean and quiet. I’m quite self-sufficient.

HB: What do you like to cook?

TS: I’ve been fully vegan for four years. So my favorite thing in the culinary realm is the challenge of making some of my old pre-vegan favorites vegan. I do a lot of experimenting with recipes like chicken pop pie and trying to get those kinds of comfort foods more in line with my ethics now, which are really about the environment and animals.


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