Meet the Smiths

And Their Contemporary-Art-Filled Repository

Laurann Claridge. Interior design Terry Prather. Photography Jack Thompson.
September 23, 2011

Above the hearth in the family room is an oil on canvas by Yoshitomo Nara. The small sculpture to the right of the painting is by Houston artist Sharon Engelstein. Donghia Stellare Gold Dust chandelier. Sofa, armchairs and vintage draperies were all crafted by Custom Creations. Geometric tone-on-tone rug from Creative Flooring Resources.

Leigh and Reggie Smith are living a love story. Not only are they parents to three school-aged children, but they are completely entranced with one another — and with the ever-growing collection of contemporary art that fills the soaring walls of their River Oaks home. The Georgia-born and -raised couple met in law school and lived in Atlanta for a time before making Houston home. Leigh’s sister Carol McCranie Magri — a student at Parsons School of Design during the ’80s who also worked with Christie’s auction house — introduced Leigh and Reggie to the galleries and artists about which the New York art world was then abuzz. “We started buying art literally the first year we were married, in the late ’80s. It slowly became a passion we shared,” recalls Leigh, a bubbly brunette who was drawn with Reggie into the Pop Art movement of the era. Reggie adds, “We couldn’t afford to buy a big painting right out of school, but we could buy print work. That’s primarily how we started, with a lot of prints by Rosenquist, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, Ruscha and Rauschenberg. They are all great print makers, and we bought pieces that have really held their value and escalated in crazy ways. But back then, it was really affordable.” Today, these art patrons are active on the boards of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Glassell School of Art and the Aurora Picture Show, among others.

When the family of five outgrew their Museum District Georgian-style house, they found a grand and gracious River Oaks home whose expansive wall space, 14-foot ceilings and large rooms could not only handle the depth of their present collection but give the couple space to acquire still more. Built in 1982 by legendary local real estate magnate Harold Farb, the house passed through three owners and, in 2009, was acquired by the Smiths, who reinvented the floor plan with family in mind, collaborating with friend and designer Terry Prather.    

While the former formal living room made a smashing presentation in all its fabric-festooned glory (adorning walls, ceiling and windows) as one walked through the front door, the Smiths reimagined the buttoned-up style as a toned-down family room awash in easy-to-live-with neutrals. Now their Yoshitomo Nara painting over the hearth is the focal point of the room.Surrounded by playful Japanese art such as the pastel-hued, 60-inch-tall resin sculpture in the library, also by Yoshitomo Nara, and a gelatin silver print of a work made with Bosco chocolate syrup by Vik Muniz in the dining room, one is tempted to assume a certain facile aim behind the Smiths’ collecting. But dig a little deeper. The couple is cognizant of the fact that with three children in their midst, it’s important to veer from dark or sexually charged imagery created by the artists they favor, so the messages in their chosen works can indeed appear mixed.“So much of our collection has a cleverness to it,” says Leigh. “It’s conceptual with an intellectual, funny twist. Like Yasumasa Morimura dressing up like someone else, or playing with a historical image like Oscar Wilde or the iconic Frida Kahlo portrait rendered way too big (she never worked in that scale), where if you look at it, you realize it’s not a woman but an Asian man … The Japanese art isn’t so cute when you get into it. It’s rather dark. They use imagery that looks like Hello Kitty, but there’s a rock-n-roll edge. It’s a little subversive with a counter-culture slant.”
And when it comes to discerning what artwork her children would like to live with in their own bedrooms, Leigh says, “They definitely ask for certain pieces in their rooms; especially moving here, now that they’re older, there was a lot of bargaining back and forth.” The children are budding collectors of art, too (as well as dolls and action figures). They’ve grown up traveling with their avid art-supporting parents, who nearly always include museum and gallery excursions on holidays. The Smith kids even managed to get in on the art-buying act this past Christmas, when they teased their mom for weeks, saying they were going to get her the pet monkey she’d always longed for, when in fact they conspired with their dad to splurge on a Donald Roller Wilson monkey painting for her.A collector of many things outside the realm of contemporary art, Smith’s sentimental fondness for pieces of the past, particularly ones  that tie back to her childhood, has a place here, too. You’ll find dollhouse furniture, royal commemorative plates and English presentation plates dating from the early 1800s to the turn of the last century, which might have been gifts given on special birthdays or christening presents. In the breakfast room, Smith has neatly stacked a trove of tin picnic baskets, several of which once belonged to her grandmother. “Then we collect seashells,” she says. “All my children and I are crazy about seashells. Everywhere we go, we collect them and stick them in boxes all around the house.”One thing is for sure: This is a home constantly evolving as the Smiths add to their art stash by supporting Texas’ emerging artists and traveling to discover others whose work has the art world chattering — all while remaining true to their own marvelously quirky collecting predilections.

One corner of the large family room features Misc Tyrone, an oil painting on canvas by artist Barkley Hendricks, who recently exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. To the right hangs a painting by German artist Ulf Puder, from Barbara Davis Gallery. Cigarette tables from Mecox. The sculptural box atop the two-tiered side table is by Yoshitomo Nara. The lips pillows are by Marilyn Minter, commissioned by the Aspen Art Museum.




The dining room has Venetian-plaster wall treatment. Antique oval Italian dining table and chairs, from the former Brian Stringer Antiques. Flowers by David Brown. Aubusson rug from Matt Camron Rugs & Tapestries. Curtains custom made by G&S Draperies, with Vervain fabric from S.Harris. Above the hearth is a self-portrait photograph by Monica Castillo, mounted on acrylic.

In the garden room hangs a 1937 oil-painting portrait by Francis Picabia, an artist from France whose estate is represented by Waddington Gallery, London. Waylande Gregory vase from Sloan/Hall. The daybed covered in natural linen is from Antiques on Dunlavy. The shape of the sofa, designed by Terry Prather, mimics the curve of the window bay; it was created by Custom Creations with F. Schumacher & Co. fabric.

In the entry hall rises a grand staircase with iron and brass railing. The sculpture, Girl Balancing on a Globe by Yinka Shonibare, is a piece the Smiths purchased at Art Basel in Switzerland from Stephen Friedman Gallery of London. The tiger-striped carpet on the stairs is from Creative Flooring Resources. 

In the master bedroom, a pencil portrait titled Green Diane by John Currin from the Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Curtains by Custom Creations are Pindler linen with Kravet leaf trim. The chairs are covered in linen printed-vine fabric by F. Schumacher & Co. Area rug with coordinating vine pattern by Creative Flooring Resources. Paint is Farrow & Ball Light Blue No. 22.

A peek inside Sarah’s room, the Smiths’ daughter. The photograph-like portrait of the Smith children is actually a pastel-and-acrylic on paper by Heidi McFall, commissioned through the Annina Nosei Gallery, New York. Phillip Jeffries grass-cloth wall covering. Heirloom chairs upholstered in fuchsia chenille. Bed by Crate & Barrel, with bedding from Serena & Lily. Vintage white ceramic chandelier.

In the expansive entry hall, lined with glossy parquetry floors, is one of a pair of French Louis XV-style settees. The gilded chandeliers are original to this circa-1982 house. Over the hearth in the library, a photographic portrait by Yasumasa Morimura of himself made to resemble one of several famous self-portraits by artist Frida Kahlo. Entitled An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo, the piece is from Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York.

In the corner of the library stands Quiet, Quiet a 60-inch-tall resin and lacquer sculpture by artist Yoshitomo Nara from Blum & Poe. The lacquered floor-to-ceiling cabinets are painted River Oaks Green, a hue that actually appears black. Look closely, and you’ll spy Nara and Murakami collectible toys. Aubusson rug from Matt Camron Rugs & Tapestries.

The sitting room outside the master suite includes fabulous portraiture by artists James Drake (top left), Jim Nutt (bottom left), John Alexander (top center), David Hockney (bottom center) and Larry Rivers (bottom right and top left).

Julian Opie’s oval orange portrait from Galerie Bob van Orsow, Zurich. The Laurie Simmons sculpture is entitled Clothes Make the Man; starburst demi-lune table from Carl Moore Antiques.

The breakfast-room niche features photographic works by Liliana Porter from Sicardi Gallery and a toile-inspired piece by Sarah Charlesworth, from Baldwin Gallery in Aspen. Lining the shelves is a collection of Leigh Smith’s vintage tin picnic baskets. Wallpaper by Phillip Jeffries .


In the garden room is a baby grand piano by German maker August Förster. The Louis XV-style daybed, covered in linen and topped with two Fortuny-covered pillows, is from Antiques on Dunlavy. Custom rug from Creative Flooring Resources. The curtains depicting cacao beans are Vervain fabric from S.Harris.

A view from the pool toward the back of the house. Leigh Smith, left, and her children, Sarah, Sam and Ross, stand at the landing.