THE WASHINGTON POST – “Please call me Barack,” the United States (US) president-elect said to designer Michael S Smith when they met in the Obamas’ Chicago home in 2008, right after Barack Obama was voted into office.
“This was the first and last time I did for nearly the next decade,” Smith wrote in his new book, Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, which he wrote with Margaret Russell, former editor in chief of Architectural Digest.
Using the president’s first name, Smith said, just didn’t seem to show enough respect.
The book – Smith’s sixth – explores his work creating a home for the Obamas at the mansion. Smith, 56, shares how he planned and executed this once-in-a-lifetime design job, which included the private quarters, Oval Office and many other parts of the White House.
White House decorator is an unofficial position that focusses on preserving national antiques and art and designing rooms that are a backdrop for history. But it goes beyond that. “White House decorators are tasked with creating a comfortable home for the first family, practically overnight,” Russell said. They should be design problem-solvers and troubleshooters, she said, and they work with “intense logistical restraints within what is essentially an iconic yet timeworn museum”.
For Smith, creating personal spaces for the Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, was the most important aspect of the job.
“Immediately, he understood that we were a young family with two little girls who preferred Crate & Barrel over antique credenzas,” wrote Michelle Obama in the introduction of the book. “The residence became a true refuge where our family could simply be a family, where our girls could grow into young women with voices of their own.”
Shortly after the election, the newly named White House social secretary, Desirée Rogers, brought Smith to the Obamas’ attention. Rogers was a neighbour of one of Smith’s Chicago clients. A native of California, Smith launched his own design firm in 1990 and built a reputation for mixing modern with antiques and making even the most formal rooms comfortable. His list of clients includes Cindy Crawford, Rupert Murdoch and Michelle Pfeiffer.
His job lasted all eight years of Obama’s presidency and included a range of projects. Smith helped the Obamas select art by noted contemporary artists such as Alma Thomas, Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg. Those pieces were mixed with antiques in a redo of the Old Family Dining Room. He also made thoughtful changes to bring the house graciously into the modern age. In Sasha’s and Malia’s rooms, for example, he added cool Anthropologie rugs and replaced formal Georgian-style crystal chandeliers with rainbow-coloured dangling fixtures made by Magpie Art Collective, a South African craft studio.
Smith gracefully upgraded ancient lighting systems throughout the house, adding recessed lighting and dimmers and making sure the museum masterpieces hanging on the walls were properly illuminated. He advised Michelle Obama on the particular Pantone blue colour that best represented the bluish-green waters of Hawaii, to be used on the official Obama state china service. And he helped her select Bennington Potters stoneware made in Vermont to add to the family kitchen. He took a hint from Michelle Obama’s penchant for mixing high and low. She was known for acts such as tossing a J Crew cardigan over a dress by one of her favourite designers. Similarly, Smith would take a fancy room and add elements and fabrics to make it feel less formal. In the first lady’s dressing room and private office, he arranged cozy throws and club chairs. In the Obamas’ bedroom, done in soft blues and neutrals, a 19th Century mahogany bed from the White House collection provided, he writes, “a real sanctuary in a room, a retreat within a retreat”. He added contemporary swing-arm lamps within the bed curtains to provide light for late-night reading.
In the Oval Office, Smith wrote, he designed “a no-drama room for a no-drama president”, going with a neutral palette that warmly accented the 19th Century Resolute desk. He installed a custom rug ringed with favourite Obama quotes from John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and others, and he added an American Shaker bowl – always filled with apples – atop a table made of walnut and mica. The result artfully mixes the past with modern details.
The book includes photos of a number of rooms in the private quarters that were never shared with the public, such as Sasha’s and Malia’s bedrooms. Smith said keeping all of his White House projects under wraps “was a little like playing Twister”. He was ordering fabrics and wallpapers from vendors using a secret code: BOB. “We have a code for every client. You can’t just say they are for the White House,” Smith said.
Smith made dozens of trips to Washington from Los Angeles at his own expense as he, like most presidential decorators, donated his services. (The Obamas paid for the decoration of their family quarters themselves.) He stayed at the Hay-Adams hotel in a room overlooking the White House. “I wanted to be able to see it from the window,” he said. “I never got over the excitement of working there.”
Smith recalls that, on the days he had meetings at the White House, he would avoid putting on his suit until the last minute. “I’m from California, and the idea of wearing a suit was like, ‘Oh no’,” Smith said. “I would then walk across Lafayette Square and wait to get cleared in. For some reason, there was always some delay and it was always raining, and I would show up with my suit soaking wet.”
He sometimes ran over to Georgetown to shop for furnishings at John Rosselli or Pottery Barn. Regrets? Smith doesn’t have many, except maybe that he didn’t have time to design for Camp David, the Maryland presidential mountain retreat where foreign dignitaries are often hosted. Near the end of Obama’s second term, Smith was asked to refresh Aspen Lodge, the president’s cabin at Camp David, and he and his partner, James Costos, a former HBO executive who was then the United States ambassador to Spain, were invited to visit.
It didn’t look exactly as he imagined. “I had this fantasy movie vision of Camp David in my head that it looked like an Adirondack camp. It really isn’t like that,” Smith said. “It’s just a bunch of really clean and comfortable bungalows.” He shared a few suggestions for paint colours and furniture arrangements. He spoke to a friend at Ralph Lauren about ideas for a new all-American look.
Then he ran out of time.
“We wanted to do so much,” Smith said.
“But then you see the end is coming and – this happens in every administration – you do what you can to finish strong.”