Designing History: a privileged access to the Obama White House

It’s rather difficult to have a privilege glimpse into the most private parts of the White House: the presidencial sitting room, the solarium, the children bedrooms. However, they are the rooms that best epitomize the first family —not just their aesthetic tastes, but their life philosophy. Hence the interest in them: because for all their reverential silence, they reveal more than thousand speeches and interviews. 

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.

Perhaps —or precisely— because of that, the Obamas drew a clear line when it came to their private space. While the Kennedys allowed photographers into the Residence and several presidential couples afterwards had no qualms about showing what they had done to the Yellow Oval Room or the West Sitting Hall, Barack or Michelle were adamant: that was their solace and refuge, and therefore no prying eyes were allowed. 

Until now. Renowned interior designer Michael S. Smith, the one chosen by the Obamas to decorate the White House Residence, describes this once-in-a-lifetime project in the book Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, published by Rizzoli and written in collaboration with Margaret Russell.

And what a feast for the senses! What a historic trove! The book is magnificent for several reasons besides its exclusive access to the most-guarded rooms in the country. For starters, Michael Smith —in a very Jackie Kennedy-esque fashion— was not just interested in showcasing the decorating motifs and color schemes, but in highlighting the historical resonances of every room. Fascinating details pop up in every page about previous Presidents and their families, with all their idiosyncrasies and oddities. Did you know that Jacqueline Kennedy may have fired her initial decorator for the White House, Sister Parish, because of an incident with the Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The fird floor corridor. Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli

Actually, the book begins —after a heartfelt foreword by Michelle Obama— with a richly detailed description of the White House from its inception at the end of the 18th century. Smith explains the minutiae with scholarly precision spruced up with funny trivia: here’s the room where president Roosevelt addressed the nation and here is where Betty Ford once discoed with Tony Orlando. 

Another interesting aspect is how Michael Smith coped with the trailblazing symbolism of the Obama administration —its inspiring vision for the future, the hope it unlashed, the dreams it ignited in millions of Americans. How did Michael Smith translate such a momentous narrative —the “Yes We Can” electrifying movement— into aesthetics terms? How did he combine the lofty ideals and grandiose rhetoric with a down-to-earth design? 

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The family sitting room. The painting is ONEONEZERONINE RED by Sean Scully. Photo: Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli.

Personally, I think this is the most fascinating part of the book: how Smith perfectly captured the transcendence of the moment, the desire for a more inclusive, more open and diverse White House. There’s no doubt that the Obamas were making history since the beginning as the first black Presidential family living in a house built by slaves. “We were the Obamas: the first black residents of the White House”, writes Michelle Obama in the foreword. “The pressure on any First Family is enormous. The pressure on the first black one would be even greater”. And she was right —for the scrutiny they had to endure was insanely severe; so painstakingly excruciating that resulted most of the times in utterly madness. There was vitriolic hate and fawning admiration, both extremes expressed with an insane ferocity. That they were able to survive mentally unscathed talks volumes about their strength and resilience. 

“The Obamas were my constant inspiration”, writes Michael Smith, “and their mission to celebrate the White House as the People’s House, a place that was welcoming and accessible to all Americans, led to our focus on highlighting the best of America in every possible way —through not just the diversity of creative talents, but the diversity and richness of culture —from painting and sculpture to the craft of furniture, textiles, ceramics, and more”. 

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
For the Center Hall, Michael Smith created some seating areas while maintaining traditional pieces of furniture and the iconic bookshelves. As for the paintings, Hans Hofmann’s Staccato in Blue is hung on the far wall, while Sam Francis’ White Line is displayed in the foreground (both are on loan from the National Gallery). Courtesy of Rizzoli.

Smith’s legacy will be precisely that —the exquisite equilibrium between refreshing modernity and a dignified respect for the past; the updating of the White House, not just its restoration. That, and transforming the space into a human scale. If one looks at the work of previous White House interior designers, their work feels grand yet somewhat conceited, while here everything seems humanized, welcoming and even comfortable. Michael Smith was adroitly able to preserve the essence and magnificence of the place, but to get rid of its drab dauntingness. 

Quite wisely, Smith chose to focus on American traditional craftsmen, while introducing a more modern approach to color and light, and to introduce as much modern American art as possible —he encouraged the then First Lady to collect an impeccable assemble of contemporary oeuvres, and at the end of the administration, the White House hosted paintings from Norman Rockwell to Glenn Lignon.

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
Interior designer Michael S. Smith in the Yellow Oval Room. Photo: Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli.

Yet, he also displayed more money-conscious pieces: when the Obamas first arrived at the White House, the country was in a serious financial crisis and nobody wanted to look too Marie Antoinette. Mr. Smith donated his services to the White House, many objects were lent and some paintings were borrowed from museums. Along with works of art and antiques, more modest items were used, such as Pottery Barns candle holders, Crate & Barrel cushions and even Walmart drawers. Congress typically allocates $100.000 to the renovation, but the Obama decided to spend their money on the redecoration, which ended up being $1.2 million.

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.

The Family Dining Room.

The result was marvelous. Looking for example at the Yellow Oval Room —the President’s main sitting room, not to be confounded with the West Wing Oval Office—, one can not stop feeling the warmth and coziness, the air of tranquility and inviting relax, the perfect rhythm of all the elements as if they were a carefully orchestrated symphony, with the vanilla walls, the soft green and and beige brown hues, the sofas (by Jonas) covered in Claremont damask. All of it perfectly paired with Paul Cézanne paintings, a magnificent landscape by Daniel Garber, and a display on the shelves of antique toys from the Smithsonian. But there is more: Michelle’s elegant salmon-hued office, the exquisite blue dining room where the family gathered most afternoons at 6:30 for dinner.

For all their refreshing approachability, the Obamas had refined tastes —not elitist, but certainly sophisticated. That was part of their appeal: they were humble and highly cultivated, always perfectly poised, utterly dignified. Perhaps the room which best captures this zest is the Old Family Dining Room, which Michelle transformed into a celebration of American Art and Design. There’s a historic canvas —George P. A. Healy’s The Peacemakers, painted in 1868 to depict Civil War peace negotiations— next to Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves autographed “To Barack”, and framed notes from a speech by President Kennedy. In the Obama White House, technology and science was widely displayed: there were patent models of Samuel Morse’s telegraph and Henry William’s steamboat paddle wheel. 

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.

The West Sitting Hall is one of the most iconic spaces in the White House with its half-moon window. It is located between the Family Dining Room and the Master Bedroom suite. The painting is Morning on the Seine, Good Weather by Claude Monet (it was a gift to the White House from the Kennedy family in memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy). Michael Smith used existing sofas but with different covers. Artisan Stephen Antonson crafted to plaster Queen-Anne style side tables.

Photo: Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli.

Nearby there is the family sitting room, with walls clad in a rush-cloth paper by Crezana —a very helpful tip to add snugness and personality to the space—, a sofa by Roman Thomas, tables by Jasper, and a beautiful rug by Mansour. The touch of colour is put by is Sean Scully’s painting Oneonezeronine Red (on loan from the National Gallery of Art). 

Michael Smith’s passion for Art is quite clear. And it was since he was a child: his mother was a watercolor artist and his father was in the import-export business. As a child, he was surrounded by Art and developed an aesthetic passion for all things cultural: he read about foreign countries and traditions and then decorated his room accordingly (he even put his mattress on the floor “like a futon” after reading about Japan). 

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The Private Dining Room. Photo: Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli.
Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The Treaty Room. Photo: Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli.
Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The Treaty Room.

When Michael Smith grew up, he quickly became a sought-after decorator: he worked for Steven Spielberg, Cindy Crawford, and Rupert Murdoch. His work can be seen in Palm Beach and Las Vegas. Yet, decorating the White House was another matter altogether: it was “making history”, as the books title sums up. Katherine Chez Malkin, a friend of Desirée Rogers, the Obama’s White House social secretary, recommended him (“he is a genius”, the letter of recommendation said), and Smith received a call while he was on a Caribbean vacation. He travelled to Chicago, met the Obamas, and as soon as he was chosen, he read voraciously about past restorations and devoted months to preparation, peering into dozens of biographies of former First Ladies (and even telephoned one, Nancy Reagan).

Yet, he couldn’t actually get to the White House until 11 a.m. on Inauguration day, so he had to work using only floor plans and photos. “I was intent on creating, as quickly as possible, a place that was warm and friendly, a place were they could retreat in privacy during the accelerated schedule that greets any new administration”, said Smith.

Being int he White House for the first time was a truly enjoyable but surreal experience. “It was exciting and a bit terrifying”, Smith says. “I was scared I’d screw up. I was scared I’d embarrass the first African American first family. I was constantly in a state of trying to make sure that everything I was doing was the right thing in every way”.

But not only he succeeded, but soon he was promoted to Decorator-in-Chief, responsible for the 2010 makeover of the Oval Office. Not since Jacqueline Kennedy hired Stéphane Boudin and Sister Parish to restore the interior of the Presidential Mansion, has a designer garnered the public attention that Michael Smith has achieved. 

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The Oval Office after Michael Smith’s redecoration. Photo: Michael Mundy. Courtesy Rizzoli.

The New York Times said that “Mr. Smith’s Oval Office evoked his West Coast aesthetic” and Penelope Green heralded the “cappuccino-colored redo” as “The Audacity of Taupe”. Choosing the curtains, though, was a nightmare. Smith insisted on “barn red”; the President hated the idea. Many suggested white or blue, but Smith was adamant: red had a “heroic aspect”, conveys power and command, and provides the perfect “classical backdrop”. Finally, his vision won. Then it was the apples: Smith insisted on having a bowl of apples on the coffee table (Honey-crisp and Golden Delicious were the president’s favorite), as “the gesture was welcoming”. Not everybody was convinced, but he won again.

One aspect which is highly emphasized was the Obama’s desire —obsession is the word— for the White House to really become a house for Malia and Sacha. Since the Carter administration not such young children had resided in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and therefore Michael Smith worked hard to devote enough space to host sleepovers and slumber parties and family visits.

“Immediately, he [Michael Smith] understood that we were a young family with two little girls who preferred Crate & Barrel over antique credenzas and a grandmother who bristled a bit at any whiff of pomp”, writes Michelle Obama in the foreword. The girls specifically requested colors and fun, and Smith was more than happy to oblige: Malia‘s bedroom was in dusty blue wallpaper, and Sasha‘s in bubblegum pink. Their rooms ended up mixing Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers posters with chandeliers from South Africa‘s Magpie At Collective

Designing History. The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, by Michael S. Smith (Foreword by Michelle Obama). Rizzoli.
The White House solarium.

For all its historic symbolism, the Obamas wanted the White House to feel like a home —hence the total lack of pretense, the exclusion of hefty furniture and overwhelming décor. The Main Bedroom is elegant yet unpretentious, with wallpaper by Gracie and a custom-made rug by Mitchell Denburg, quite far apart from the French chambre that Boudoin designed for Jackie Kennedy. There’s a high-post bed may be from the early 19th century —Barack Obama originally didn’t want it—, but it doesn’t look outdated: the canopy, curtains, and bed skirt —all by Larsen raw silk— add the perfect douceur. The linens were made in cotton sateen with a light sheen. “The feel so cool when you slide into bed”, writes Smith. 

The Obamas bedroom in the White House. Book by Rizzoli.

“The White House is reflective of the moment and the residents more than it’s a building. It’s a river of history. It’s constantly moving and adapting and changing. It can become an optimistic, uplifting place in the blink of an eye”, Smith says.

Article written by Ana Polo-Alonso.

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