Jim Smart wears a freshly ironed shirt everyday.
All the shirts hanging in his closet — where I recorded my startribune.com/video with something extra beyond the credit— needed ironing, he said, because “freshly” means ironed that day by him. The president of Minneapolis-based Smart Associates, designer of retail spaces and restaurants, has been persnickety about his shirts since middle school. “In those days it had to be a Gant shirt with a box pleat. I wanted my mother to iron my shirts so that the box pleat went all the way down to the tail of the shirt,” Smart said. “She said, No. If you want that you go ahead and do it yourself.”
Smart believes he works better when he looks — and this is the word he used — “OK.” I’ve never seen him looking less than fabulous — even when dressed casually. His style, like his unfailingly pleasant demeanor, is stratospheres beyond OK. Smart just laughs whenever I tell him what a style icon he is. But I’m right. A few weeks after we did this interview, Smart told me he’s scheduled to be in a stylemakers edition of an upcoming Mpls.St.Paul mag.
Q: How many business spaces have you designed?
A: A couple years ago I did a count, just on restaurants, because we were putting together a request for proposal. At that stage, I think I had 342. Some of those are chains. You design one as a prototype; by the time you get to the third and fourth, they kind of roll themselves out. We’ve being going quickly since that time. We just opened three last weekend. It’s probably closer to 360 or 70. And retail stores. I haven’t done a count on that but we’ve done chains where we’ve done 200-and-something retails: shoes; shoe stores, cellular phone stores. Probably close to a thousand, I don’t really know. We’ve done everything from kiosks to department stores — not many of those around anymore. We are the largest designers in the United States of high-end men’s clothing stores. In this town we’ve done Hubert White, Twill by Scott Dayton, The Foursome. Marty Mathis Direct.
Q: How did you translate your background in making theater sets into a successful career in designing business spaces?
A: It’s kind of the same business. Especially restaurants. Restaurants in almost every way, shape and form are theater. … A restaurateur is in every way, shape and form a director. I never did any movie sets, I did some advertising sets. Both Cindie [his wife, an attorney] I are very involved in the local theater, mostly just sitting on boards and asking people for money.
Q: What is the secret to the individuality of the restaurants you design?
A: I try not to be trendy in how I appear, and how we design a restaurant. You really want the atmosphere to be vital for five to 10 years.
Q: Why a handlebar mustache?
A: This started out when Cindie and I first got married. We were a couple of hippies and were at the Minnesota State Fair. This would have been about ’72. I had a big shaggy mustache. There was this giant St. Paul cop who had this wonderful handlebar mustache. I went up to him and I said, “Do you mind if I ask, how you do that?” He looked at me and he looked around a little bit to see if anybody was looking at him. In a big deep voice he said, Dippity Do. What? Dippity Do styling gel, with this gruff voice and he walked away. So my mother had given me an antique mustache curling iron. I knew I wasn’t going to heat up a curling iron so I tried it with Dippity Do and have been doing it every since. I don’t use a curling iron anymore.
Q: They still make Dippity Do?
A: I have to order it from Canada. Honest to God. For a while they sold it at Duane Reade in New York.