Well, I must say, DESIGNING HISTORY by Michael S. Smith on his work decorating the Obama White House is a real treat for design and history buffs. I’ve done several posts in the past about decorating of The White House such as this one comparing the Oval Office design to those of there British and French Prime Ministers. I’ve done others, but the photos have mostly gone missing so it’s not worth linking to them! (Note: this post contains affiliate links. A small commission is paid for purchases of this book made by clicking the book links at no additional cost to the buyer. Thank you!)
This isn’t just a photo book showcasing Smith’s work on The White House, DESIGNING HISTORY is also a history book of the evolution of the design through various Presidencies. Written by Margaret Russell, former EIC of Architectural Digest and Elle Decor – the book is filled with historical photos and information. Michelle Obama’s forward talks about their respect for the “People’s House” as well as her desire to create a comfortable home for their family so that their girls (who were 7 and 10 when they moved in) would feel the same warmth that she herself felt growing up in a small bungalow in Chicago.
A note before I really dive in: this is not a political post. Let me repeat for those who missed it the first time: THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL POST! There are those on both sides of the political spectrum who cannot separate their politics and prejudices (and I don’t mean that in a racial sense alone) from literally anything else. If that’s you, then this post is not for you and fair warning, any comment that is overtly or subtly political will be deleted. Because if there is one thing I cannot abide – it’s lack of objectivity and negativity. We have too much of that in our lives.
Another note: no First Lady or first family, or their decorators, have free reign to do what they want. Nor do they get it all for free or get to keep anything they didn’t personally pay for. The White House is overseen by The Committee for the Preservation of the White House, an advisory committee charged with the preservation of the White House, the official home and principal workplace of the President of the United States. The committee is largely made up of citizens appointed by the president for their experience with historic preservation, architecture, decorative arts, and for their scholarship in these areas.
The Committee for the Preservation of the White House was created by Executive Order in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson to replace a temporary White House Furnishings Committee established by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the Kennedy White House restoration (1961–1963). The committee is charged with establishing policies relating to the museum function of the White House, its state rooms and collections. It also works with the White House Historical Association in making recommendations on acquisitions for the permanent collection of the White House and provides advice on changes to principal rooms on the ground floor, state floor, and the historic guest suites on the residence floor of the White House Executive Residence.
The Executive Order states that the Curator of the White House, Chief Usher of the White House, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the Chair of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, and Director of the National Gallery of Art serve as Ex-Officio members of the committee. The Director of the National Park Service serves as Chair of the Committee, and the First Lady serves as the Honorary Chair of the committee. Michael S. Smith was appointed to the committee in 2010.
Funding is provided in part by Congress (aka taxpayer) which you can read about here and also largely provided by The White House Historical Association, “a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with a mission to protect, preserve, and provide public access to the rich history of America’s Executive Mansion”. Private funds and sales of merchandise – including the annual White House Ornament – support this effort.
Starting with the Yellow Oval Room – I think there’s a reason this room was chosen as the cover photo for the book. It really distills the entire Obama White House decor into a single space. It’s luxurious yet calm, filled with a mix of old and new yet fits in perfectly with how the room was done by previous occupants. The Yellow Oval Room is part of what’s considered the private quarters but is used for small receptions and greetings of heads of state before events like a State Dinner.
And a little look back in time:
I love the use of the 2nd Floor Center Hall to create seating areas and the mix of modern art with traditional furnishings.
The Obama’s bedroom is really lovely and serene. The 19th Century poster bed was from The White House collections.
A little look back:
The little known Solarium is at the top of the White House with a spectacular view of the Mall and the Washington Memorial.
But, before this was a built room – it was a sleeping porch!
Overall, I think Michael S. Smith did a beautiful job with the White House decor for the Obamas. It’s respectful of the history of the house but clearly speaks to their love of a fairly neutral palette and modern cleaner lines than we usually see there. I personally prefer a little more color in a space – but the whole point is that these temporary inhabitants are real people with their own preferences and it’s up to the designer to merge all the needs. Plus, working in the White House is filled with not only history and the needs of the family – but also oversight committees and budgets.
Speaking of color – I do wish we’d been given press photos of the girl’s bedrooms to share – they were really adorable, fun and colorful.
The beginning of DESIGNING HISTORY covers how the Obamas came to choose Michael Smith as their “decorator-in-chief” and then there’s lots of great historical information such as original drawings, archival photos, etc.
I’d love to hear your opinions about the decorating of the Obama White House – thumbs up or thumbs down?