Book Shelf: Designing History by Michael S. Smith

Designing History Cover Michael S Smith Michael Mundy Photographer
DESIGNING HISTORY: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House. Designed by Michael S. Smith. Written by Michael S. Smith and Margaret Russell with forward by Michelle Obama. Cover photo by Michael Mundy. © 2020 Rizzoli.

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.

Designing History Yellow Oval Room Michael Mundy Photographer
The Yellow Oval Room, designed by Michael S. Smith. Michael Mundy Photography.

And a little look back in time:

The Yellow Oval Room – Taft Administration. Courtesy: White House Historical Association


The Yellow Oval Room – Kennedy Administration. Courtesy: White House Historical Association


The Yellow Oval Room – Ford Administration. Courtesy: White House Historical Association


The Yellow Oval Room – Ford Administration. Courtesy: White House Historical Association


The Yellow Oval Room – Carter Administration. Courtesy: White House Historical Association


The Yellow Oval Room – Bush 41 Administration. Courtesy: White House Historical Association

I love the use of the 2nd Floor Center Hall to create seating areas and the mix of modern art with traditional furnishings.

Designing History Michael S Smith Center Hall MIchael Mundy photographer
Smith created a few seating areas in the Second Floor Center Hall, using classic 1960s-style upholstery, antiques, and a midcentury coffee table; Hans Hofmann’s Staccato in Blue is displayed on the far wall and White Line, by Sam Francis, hangs in the foreground, both on loan from the National Gallery. Photo by Michael Mundy.

The Obama’s bedroom is really lovely and serene. The 19th Century poster bed was from The White House collections.

Designing History Michael S Smith Master Bedroom Michael Mundy Photographer
The Master Bedroom offers a sunny view of leafy trees and the wide South Lawn below. The high-post bed is early 19th-century American, and its canopy, curtains, and bed skirt are of a Larsen raw silk. The embroidered pillow in the foreground is by Jed Johnson Home, and the wallpaper is by Gracie; the rug was custom made by Mitchell Denburg. Photo by Michael Mundy.

A little look back:

The Kennedy Administration Date: May 9, 1962 Creator: Robert L. Knudsen Credit line: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NAR


The Nixon Administration. Date: November 1971 Creator: Victor Boswell Robert S. Oakes Nelson Brown Credit line: White House Historical Association Copyright Notice: © 1971 White House Historical Association


The Reagan Administration, courtesy Architectural Digest.


The Clinton Administration. ca. 1999 Creator:Erik Kvalsvik  © 2001 White House Historical Association

The little known Solarium is at the top of the White House with a spectacular view of the Mall and the Washington Memorial.

Designing History Michael S. Smith in Yellow Oval Room Michael Mundy photographer
The Solarium is wrapped by windows and faces south, offering a spectacular view of the Washington Monument. Photo by Michael Mundy.


First Lady Grace Coolidge dubbed this space her “Sky Parlor” in 1927. Courtesy: White House Historical Association

But, before this was a built room – it was a sleeping porch!

The Sleeping Porch.The sleeping porch prior to construction of the Solarium and the full Third Floor, 1920. It was built by President Taft in 1910.
Courtesy: Library of Congress


Designing History Michael S. Smith in Yellow Oval Room Michael Mundy photographer
Designer Michael S. Smith in the Yellow Oval Room, a favorite room he considered to be one of the most beautiful and romantic spaces in the White House. Photo by Michael Mundy

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?

You will also enjoy:

The Modern White House Dining Room

15 thoughts on “Book Shelf: Designing History by Michael S. Smith”

  1. Hi Linda. What an interesting post. I really enjoyed seeing how the different inhabitants imprinted their personal style on the same spaces. It
    s fascinating how design reveals personality.

    Thanks fora sneak peek, and what a major piece of historical design work by Margaret Russell.

  2. Wow, the Yellow Oval Room is just beautiful, especially during the Obama White House. Very cool to see how these rooms were decorated over time during different administrations. I am so curious about that door you see open to the right of the fireplace in the Taft administration that appears closed up like a secret door in the other pictures.

  3. What a fabulous look at the rooms in the White House! I especially love that you’ve shown the same room done for different occupants, that is so interesting to see the choices that were made and the different eras they represent. I love Michael Smith’s work and how he so seamlessly melded the Obama’s aesthetic with the historic context of the White House. This book is on my {admittedly very long} wish list of design books!

  4. What a beautiful look at the White House decor. I enjoyed seeing the evolution of the decor under different administrations. Somehow the Reagan bedroom looks very California but still appropriate. Thanks for sharing the historic photos too!

  5. Thank you for these lovely photos of our White House. While these rooms are not my taste, I appreciate how they speak of beauty and comfort. The yellow oval room is a joy to behold! The master bedroom under various presidents show how different a room can look depending on the decorations. The Reagan bedroom appears to be so open and airy that it’s hard to believe it’s the same room as in the other photos.

    • Hi Anne – The Reagan bedroom is definitely the outlier in it’s bold style with the wall decorations, which isn’t surprising given that Nancy was very chic herself and their Hollywood backgrounds. I love all of them for different reasons – the Clinton pink bedroom is really beautiful as well (I think designed by Kaki Hockersmith) – though I love pink. Apparently the Clinton and Nixon bedrooms shown are actually not the same as the Master bedroom I was told – these were the Queen’s bedroom, though they do appear identical I decided to keep them.

  6. Hello Linda, At the present moment, I am sure that many people are uneasy thinking about the inhabitants of the White House–present or future. I would need to read the book or see more photos of Smith’s White House, but the stand-out photos here (to me) are those of the Kennedy era. The problem with Smith is that his work is so perfect, so rich, and so expensive-looking that it kind of begins to cloy after a bit–they eye starts to seek some relief from drowning in opulence.

    • Hi Jim – Drowning in opulence – not a bad critique! I know what you mean by it though. Interestingly, the matelasse coverlet on the master bed was from RH so I do think there was a mix of things. In general, our American design is much more “filled in” and larger than our mid-century design style – particularly in bedrooms where the beds look so tiny compared to beds today. That said, I think it was the Fords who were the first First Couple to actually share a bedroom. And honestly, if my spouse was the leader of the free world I’d probably want my separate space as they are probably woken up at all hours on the regular!


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