City’s vibrant theater scene fuels designer

Jim Smart’s influence is felt nationwide, but Minneapolis remains his natural home

Nature is dramatic. Think of the visual and aural operatics of a summer thunderstorm. Think of the ballet of falling snow or the whispered, rhythmic lullaby of a lakeshore. Look at the intersection of lines, planes and solids in a mountain and the use of color, shading and shadows in an oak tree in autumn. It’s all high drama and it’s all impossible for humans to re-create, but we try anyway with our theaters, paintings, dances, plays and buildings.

Interior designer Jim Smart sees the drama of nature. Smart, founder and president of the Downtown-based design firm that bears his name, has put his creative stamp on dozens of restaurants and retailers nationwide. But Minneapolis is his natural home.

“This city is by far one of the most culturally alive cities in the United States,” he says. “I’m inspired by the beauty of our parks and lakes, and I’m awed by some of the great architecture. And I’m thrilled by the offerings of theater and music available to us.”

The city’s vibrant theater community, in particular, serves as creative fuel for Smart, who worked as a lighting designer with national music acts before launching his interior design career in the 1970s .

Smart also spent five summers with a theater company designing sets and appearing in plays. He remains a patron of the arts and now encourages his staff to attend plays for design ideas. He sent his 10-member office to “The Lion King” when it ran at the Orpheum Theatre in 2005.

“[Theater] always seemed like magic happening right there in front of me,” Smart says of his attraction to arts. “We incorporate a lot of that imagination and creativity in the work we do.”

The Children’s Theatre Company in the Whittier neighborhood is a chief inspiration because it routinely creates sets that are “visual knockouts,” he said.

Part of the allure is that the set designers create complete worlds in confined spaces that draw in audiences to become part of them. These technical skills in lighting and set design Smart learned early in his life are central to his work today.

“Design is kind of like dominoes in that every thing affects the next thing. If I could say that there is one thing that I think that I personally do better than any other part, it would be lighting,” he says. “I have a saying around the office that good lighting is 80 percent of a successful design.”

At Hubert White in the IDS Center on Nicollet Mall, Smart’s firm found a way to give the longtime family-owned men’s clothing store a fresh look when it moved to the Downtown skyscraper in 2000 after 50 years on Marquette Avenue.

Owner Bob White says Smart found ways to enhance the store’s ambience through improved lighting, brighter colors and more inviting display tables. The updated look now is a model for men’s clothing stores across the country.

The store presented design challenges given its awkward shape and varying ceiling heights that range from 12 to 30 feet. The firm put in a floating ceiling in one-half of the store to create equilibrium and a more integrated design.

“In order to get customers to walk around that horseshoe, we used a curving floor and ceiling pattern that pulls customers through space going either direction,” Smart says.

Good design doesn’t simply reflect the creative abilities of the designer; it also must remain true to the owners’ vision and respect their pocketbooks. Smart especially doesn’t want to create beautiful spaces for businesses that ultimately fail because of unrestrained spending on extravagant designs.

“He combines a real artistic sense with a business approach to things,” says White.

The popular Chang Mai Thai restaurant in Calhoun Square was another of Smart’s design projects. Owner Charles Lodge appreciates that his needs were put first in Smart’s design strategy.

“He’s very responsive to his client,” he says. “He listens up front extensively before he starts putting things down on paper.”

When Smart first meets with a prospective client, he tries to get a sense of the big picture. “The needs of our clients are our first priority. Our primary job is to spend our client’s money prudently and to help make their businesses successful through good design,” he says.

“I think anybody can go out and make a place look like a million bucks for a million bucks,” he says. “I think it takes real talent and it takes a real dedication to your clients’ needs to make a place look like a millions bucks for $100,000. Now that’s creativity.”

Part of the excitement of living in Minneapolis is that it has extraordinary cultural assets but remains a city in transition.

“I want Hennepin Avenue to get done,” he says. “We have some of the most beautiful theaters in the country on that street.”