Smith's unique designs for the Research Studio drew heavily upon the "Mayan Revival," a term popularized by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920s and influenced by the travel journals of nineteenth-century explorers in Latin America. For his serene, meandering campus, Smith skillfully blended Meso-American, Christian, Polynesian and Asian iconography with contemporary Art Deco scale and style. Smith etched this unique variety of decorative elements into freshly poured concrete before it dried. Then he installed the finished work on the walls, over fireplaces, around windows and as pavers in the courtyards.
These experiments in “carved cement” propelled a burst of creativity as Smith explored this new medium. Smith described the basic ingredients in a 1940 article published in American Artist. He wrote “It is as simple as this: Take two parts of clear white sand and one of cement, mix well, add a little water and…serve.”
To create the reliefs seen throughout the Research Studio and chapel, André created his own distinct method. The wet cement was poured into a flat frame and a preliminary sketch was created on the surface with a small bristle brush; mistakes could be rubbed out again and again with a trowel while the surface was wet. Smith used everyday objects such as pins, paintbrushes, teaspoons, and grapefruit spoons—his own favorite instrument. Smith devised a “teeter-table,” a wood frame worktable with a balancing pipe underneath that permitted a shallow box to swing from a horizontal to an upright position. Once the design was completed, the artist brushed the surface with a whisk broom to give the cement a final stone-like texture.
The 14-foot-high bell tower archway is constructed of simple unpainted concrete blocks, and served as the primary entrance to the private areas along the western side of the complex, including Smith’s personal studio space and library to the left, and his home along the path to the right. The cast-iron bell is decorated with script letters in Smith’s hand: “AS” for André Smith, “MB” for Mary Curtis Bok, and “AR” for Annie Russell, an actress and friend of both Bok and Smith. This bell was rung to dedicate the opening of the Research Studio on New Year’s Eve, 1937. The structure is decorated profusely with repeating sunflowers. Look for André’s flowers throughout the Research Studio in the pavers, reliefs, and sculpture, a traditional symbol representing longevity and Smith’s own aspirations of renewal during his time in Maitland.