Meeting Laurie Hickson Smith feels like meeting an old friend. She is open, honest, funny — totally disarming — so it’s easy to see why she was chosen to be on the original cast of TLC’s “Trading Spaces” in 1999 and why they’ve asked her back for the highly anticipated return of the beloved show. The TLC reality show broke ground as one of the first shows to combine the reality genre with interior design — and Laurie, with her signature curly red locks and charming personality, undeniably contributed to the show’s success. She lights up when talking about her creative passions, which range from design, architecture and visual art to writing, yoga and dance. Her impressive creative bent is rivaled only by her genuine spirit of kindness. During our interview, she told us about a whirlwind “Trading Spaces” wild goose chase of sorts, wherein, against all odds, everything kept miraculously falling into place. Her willingness and ability to take on the unknown (as evidenced in every episode of “Trading Spaces”), to roll with the inevitable challenges with aplomb and to see the little miracles and beauty along the journey is truly inspiring. We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of the South, Laurie Hickson Smith!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Atlanta, GA, and my family moved a lot with my father in banking, so we also lived in Miami, FL, and Houston and El Paso, TX. I was blessed to be raised in a loving household and have a younger brother. My mother has always claimed to be a “frustrated architect,” a career in which she would have been remarkable! As a result of moving so frequently, we experienced many renovations. My mom has an incredible eye, so I was fortunate to grow up in beautiful environments. Through example, my mom unconsciously taught me not only to see home as inspiring, but also a sanctuary — I know the lineage of her mother and grandmother from New Orleans did the same.
Would you say that you’ve always been a creative person? In what ways did you or your family first to see that creativity manifest?
Yes! I have always been a creative! Like most creative people I have pursued numerous expressions! This can make the road difficult, or you can accept all the various experiences as layering in your creative story. For instance I’d began dancing ballet in Houston at a very young age and continued through high school — seriously. Simultaneously stage theater was also a deep passion of mine. At Southern Methodist University, I discovered writing as my expression and pursued journalism. I actually wrote marketing materials for Turner Original Films, a division of TNT, in Atlanta and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I attended design school at the New York School of Interior Design. Many people looked at me as “unable to make up her mind” while also attending night classes at the New York School of Film and Television. I just pursued where I felt my gut was telling me to go. The miraculous ending of the story is that I ended up a designer on television and a design book author whose book was honored by the Library of Congress at the National Book Festival! Funny how things turn out when you follow your heart.
What prompted you to pursue interior design and why the film and television classes? What was your vision?
My passion for design was something I discovered through my best friend, Heather Dewberry, of Huff-Dewberry design firm in Atlanta. At the time I was working at TNT. I minored in art history and traveled extensively throughout Europe in my 20s, so the seeds were planted for my appreciation of architecture and design. I graduated from SMU in 1993, and there were still only three basic TV networks and one cable station, CNN! Truly, I had dreams of being able to blend my love for the arts with broadcasting, but in 1993 there was no such network nor programming! I believe it’s strange to say, I always dreamed of marrying the two — arts and television — making it accessible to everyone.
How has your design aesthetic changed since we last saw you?
I’m pretty consistent! I have classical training from New York School of Interior Design and have always sought art, especially post-impressionist and abstract art, along with nature for inspiration. I still describe myself as “modern classic” and have heard others describe me as traditional with an “edge.” I definitely nod to tradition but like to say I push boundaries with color and pattern. I have always said that I curate spaces by bringing in interesting objects and pieces of furniture and collections from various places and periods.
What have you been up to since “Trading Spaces” fans last saw you?
After “Trading Spaces” ended, I designed a lighting line for a company in Charleston, SC, called Quoizel. The collection was titled “Illuminations, classic design for modern life.” I really enjoyed designing that collection. I’ve also lectured numerous times throughout the years at design schools, home and garden shows, markets, etc. But my primary job in addition to design has been motherhood! When the show ended my son Gibson was four and my daughter India was one. Now Gibson is 15 and India is 11!
Instagram and Pinterest have changed so much, giving so many more people access to design inspiration. Do you fear homeowners being more vocal with their opinions?
The landscape of design is definitely influenced by social media. You have to remember when I was on “Trading Spaces” from 1999 through 2008 there was no social media really. Homeowners are definitely more educated, and with that comes a more open mind. Ultimately, homes should reflect the owners, so input is always welcome! My biggest challenge, personally, is doing something fresh that people aren’t seeing every day on their phones or other design series.
What advice are you offering to the new cast members?
Well, the new cast members are seasoned designers for sure! So my only real advice for them is have fun! Allow the confines of limited budget and restricted time to push you out of your comfort zone to new heights creatively.
Do you have any mentors or role models and if so what if they taught you or why do you admire them?
I have been blessed to have many people placed in my path that I admire and learn from. I’m especially inspired by people who have been dealt great personal challenges, yet they choose to get up and keep going despite the hardships and struggles. We are all going to fall, but I’m very inspired by those who rise up and love others with a new empathy because of their wounds. There is a young woman on Instagram that I’m following named Katherine Wolf and her mission is Hope Heals. Talk about beauty from ashes — pretty powerful story there!!
What brings you the most professional joy?
When someone sincerely appreciates beauty brought into their space and becomes empowered to continue layering with pieces that reflect their personal story.
If you could go back 10 years what advice would you give yourself?
Take a deep breath and trust that God has it all and He is good!
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I have my 200-hour designation as an RYT [Registered Yoga Teacher] yoga instructor!
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love being with family and friends. Travel, museums and new cities bring inspiration. I love being outdoors and hiking, and, of course, yoga! As a busy mother, alone time and reading brings me great joy as well.
What are you most proud of?
My two beautiful kids! My son, Gibson, is a hard worker and truly one of the bravest guys I know. My daughter India’s imagination and creativity never ceases to inspire me.
What is your best piece of advice?
There is a quote by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, that states, “The only real difference between anxiety and excitement is our willingness to let go of fear.” In my life, I find it is fear that has usually created the most unnecessary stumbles and heartaches. My best piece of advice to eliminate fear is to trust God, for each and everyone of us is created for great purpose!
With the exception of faith, family and friends, name the three things you cannot live without.
I’m going to have to name four! Travel, my sketchbook and watercolors, music and books — especially ones I can highlight and mark in the margins.
Thank you to Mary Kate Steele for today’s awesome photos of Laurie.
Meet more amazing Southern women in our FACES section — prepare to be inspired!