Post Image
Class of 2020

Class of 2020: How Interior Designer Carmen René Smith is Creating “Willy Wonka” Moments, One Quirky Coffee Table at a Time

published Oct 21, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

Who: Carmen René Smith, an Oakland-based interior designer
Nominated by: Tavia Forbes and Monet Masters of the interior design firm Forbes + Masters
Where to follow her: Instagram

Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.

Why Carmen is part of the Class of 2020: “We met Carmen at the 2019 annual black interior designers network and since have had the pleasure of collaborating with her. Carmen’s work and creative eye is a breath of fresh air. She has the ability to create spaces that look like they’ve been built over time while still implementing bold and edgy elements. We’re excited to see how she influences the industry and continue to make a name for herself.” —Tavia Forbes and Monet Masters of the interior design firm Forbes + Masters

Credit: Melinda Greer

If you take a look at Carmen René Smith’s eclectic, warm, no holds barred design-style, it may not come as a surprise that she attributes a mermaid coffee table as one of her earliest inspirations. “In the ’90s, my aunt had the most crazy, opulent furniture, and such an interesting mix of things in her home. She had this huge—we’re talking almost life-sized—mermaid coffee table base that she put on the edge of her jacuzzi tub for some reason,” says the designer. “And she also had slot machines, for some reason, but somehow everything worked together.”

While the whimsy of her aunt’s home may have inspired Smith’s later foray into design, she attributes the five years spent at an art school studying architecture as the foundation (pun very much intended). “We were learning how to approach design conceptually and combining all different types of design,” Smith explains. “Architecture is entangled in every part of life, and so I was able to combine architecture with fashion, robotics, build life-sized napping pods—which were a totally new idea at the time—it really informed who I am now as a designer.”

Credit: Derek Rungsea

After graduating, Smith decided she wanted to go the interior design route thanks in part to, well, her love language. “I realized that my love language was acts of service, and I realized that really, designing is the greatest form of an acts of service because you’re combining art with challenges and transforming experiences, which then changes people’s lives,” says Smith. Since then, she’s worked on a myriad of projects, all with her signature bold layering and unapologetic mix of texture and pattern—which is evidenced by her current favorite project that puts a plaid sofa, a dragon coffee table, and a cow hide rug all in the same space—with perfect cohesion, of course. We sat down to talk to her about creating Willy Wonka moments, where she hopes the design world is going in 2020, and all the quirky details in her own space that make her feel at home.

Credit: Derek Rungsea

Apartment Therapy: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up? What is your inspiration now?

Carmen René Smith: I definitely feel like my mom instilled some of my love of design because of her obsession with decorating our home during the holidays. She loves, and I mean loves Christmas, and so Christmas was when she would decorate the house like crazy—really and truly, she would go all out.  Every year was different—but would always have to have the white Christmas tree upstairs and then the live Christmas tree downstairs, and a whole vignette and set-up in the front of the house. The whole nine yards. It was crazy, but it’s how I learned that there are always opportunities to make a space beautiful, which I carried with me.  

As to what inspires me now, I would say unexpected details, and beauty, but in a playful way. And culture, my culture, being an African American woman. All cultures though, but especially people of color, as I feel we have a different perspective. We have a different kind of swagger, you know?

“I want to create beautiful, fun designs. Designs that make people feel good and transforms lives or moods or just evokes something positive. “

Carmen René Smith

AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2019 so far? (and why?)

CRS: I’m working on a project right now for this badass couple—one of them is a tattoo artist, and she does some incredible work. I really like this project because they’re not scared to bring on the layers—we’re layering patterns, textures, colors—it’s so fun.  And now we’ve added this dragon coffee table that I found, and it’s sitting on top of this cheetah spot, cowhide rug. And then below that is a hot pink, simple area rug. So it’s just lots of layers. We’re doing it and we’re just going for it. And it’s eclectic and it’s weird and it’s so much fun.

Credit: Melinda Greer

AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

CRS: My wife and I just moved to Oakland, and I feel like my home reflects exactly who I am as a designer. I see the space as a continuous work of art. I have gallery walls of original art above this awesome upright electric piano, and I found this amazing hand-carved, four-foot cat sculpture from the Alameda flea market. Then I have traditional crystal chandeliers that are layered in champagne fringe, and sculptural velvet lounge chairs, rose gold dipped oversized light bulbs projecting six inches off the wall, like right in your face. And the sconces are combined with a Victorian floor length mirror combined with my African coffee table. Then there’s my display case showing off all of my wife’s motorcycle helmets… it’s just a very me space. Details and vignettes in every corner.

AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?

CRS:  Eclectic, eccentric, and layered.

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?

CRS: Drama. Willy Wonka moments everywhere. Layers and weird artwork and fringe and my cats. I have two naked cats, and my dog, all of that makes me feel at home. And of course my wife, my lovely wife. But all of those elements that feel like me. I would never leave my house if I could.

AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond you can share with us?

CRS: Yes. I am very excited to be collaborating with Forbes + Masters. They’re a firm in Atlanta, these two amazing, boss, black women who are kicking over Atlanta and just doing the most amazing designs, and they’ve asked to collaborate with me, and I’m so excited for that. Along with just continuing to build my own company more. So I’m living for that. I can’t wait.

Credit: Derek Rungsea

AT: What three words would you use to describe where you see the design world going in 2020?

CRS: So I would say green or sustainable. If we want a design on this planet earth, we need to keep it here and alive. Then I would say multi-functional, co-living and co-working spaces are becoming huge, and I feel like making sure that spaces are very functional and can be used in different ways. Lastly I would say multicultural—seeing more people of color being highlighted to tell their story in design. I hope to see more of that in 2020. Just to see more of a presence and our perspective. That’s what I would hope for.

AT: What legacy do you hope to leave?

CRS: Magical experiences—I just want to design, I want to create beautiful, fun designs. Designs that make people feel good and transforms lives or moods or just evokes something positive. That’s the legacy that I want to leave. Just good vibes in design.