Few interior design jobs are as coveted as the plum mission to decorate the White House with a new administration. The Kennedys had Sister Parish, the Reagans had Ted Graber – he became assistant to Billy Haines, the revered Hollywood decorator – and the Obamas had Michael S. Smith.
All have made their mark on the Maison du Peuple, and all have understood its unique power as a tool of political diplomacy. The same is true of Joseph R. Biden Jr., an institutionalist who has spent more than half his life amid the nation’s capital, but like his former boss, former President Barack H. Obama, the 46th President takes office with more emphasis on the items on the agenda than looking at samples.
So he and First Lady Jill Biden are taking their time – an administrative source confirms that the Bidens have yet to select an interior designer. Optics are of utmost importance at this point and the White House wants all eyes to be on Covid relief and other vital initiatives like infrastructure.
“These things tend not to be very important, especially at the beginning,” says Smith, the blonde-haired Californian designer who put the West in the West Wing.. “It’s just a matter of getting them in and making sure they get a good night’s sleep,” he says.
For now, the new president is settling in, which doesn’t mean he hasn’t maximized the home’s optics. Biden Deputy Director of Oval Office Operations Ashley Williams said to washington To post that the president wanted his new office to present “the landscape of who he’s going to be as president.” For this purpose, he installed the busts of two civil rights heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Emphasizing his embrace of science, Biden commissioned a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and called on NASA for a hermetically sealed moon rock. The centrist president denied portrayal of populist champion Andrew Jackson and pulled it out of storage the deep blue carpet belonging to that other centrist, Bill Clinton.
Biden might have been inclined to do without the little red button on the Resolute Desk belonging to his predecessor Donald J. Trump, who, when in a hurry, summoned Diet Coke. But the button remains, although the usher on the other end is more likely to carry a peanut butter and jam sandwich.
Speaking to a CNN town hall this month, Biden said he asked for a little help with his new digs: “I asked my brother, who is good at it, to set up the oval office for me because it all happens within two hours, you know, literally they move everything. He said he also consulted historians, including Jon Meacham.
Bigger changes will have to wait. The First Lady, with the help of her East Wing staff, traditionally oversees the selection of the interior designer who will lead the redesign effort. In Jill Biden’s case, she will likely partner up with social secretary Carlos Elizondo, who worked with the Bidens during their years in the Second Residence. The lucky designer chosen for the work will inherit a canvas that is part of history. (If the past is any indication, this person will also inherit a lot of post-White House jobs from people who want to brag about home decor at the presidential level.)
Decorating the Oval is a signal of an administration’s values and even its adherence to American industry and design, but it is also fraught with risk. At a time reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Biden will have to watch out for appearances.
When Obama’s moving truck pulled up into the crescent-shaped driveway of Pennsylvania Avenue, Smith’s marching orders did not include any ostensible display of consumerism that could be misinterpreted and politicized, such as a decadence to the Marie-Antoinette.
“There was a mandate to do everything inexpensively,” says Smith CGV of those early days, which he chronicled in his recent book Design the story. But tight budgets haven’t hampered his style, and he predicts that won’t be a problem for this administration either. “President Obama is no different from President Biden,” says Smith. “These are not people with huge means, a large part of their life has been devoted to public service. So it would have been very strange to come and start doing a lot of things. “
This was the case even in the august Oval Office. At first, Smith furnished the residence using “stuff from Anthropology and Crate & Barrel.” We were really lucky because we had so much collaboration and help from the Bushes and they left the house in such good shape and we knew what we were walking in. Which, I don’t know if the Bidens did.
Indeed, the Trumps weren’t that graceful. The word #classless was in vogue on Twitter two days before the inauguration, as news broke that former president and former first lady Melania Trump refused to invite their incoming counterparts before handing over the keys. The front doors of the White House were literally closed in Bidens on their arrival because the chief bailiff had been dismissed a few hours earlier. (Compare that with the Carter’s, who were so accommodating that they offered to move early just to give the Reagan a helping hand.)
Instead, because the White House had become something of a Covid cantina, the Bidens’ first order of business was a serious cleanup, a cleanse so deep it cost taxpayers almost half a million dollars.
Fortunately, this is not Biden’s first rodeo. “They had been in the vice president’s residence for eight years and also made changes and decorations there,” said Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff when the Obamas were handed over. “They are at least to this extent familiar with entering public housing of this type.”
When the Bidens lived in the Vice President’s residence, two miles from the White House on the grounds of the Northwestern DC Naval Observatory, they chose New York designer Victoria Hagan to spruce up the house. , a Victorian house built in 1893. At the time, the Second Lady Biden noted that she wanted this house “to be warm and comfortable.” I didn’t want people to walk through the front door and feel like they can’t sit on the sofa.
“They were very beautiful colors, very understated, very elegant but very calming,” McBride recalls of a party she attended there. “That’s why I have to say I was surprised when I saw the Oval Office and chose the bolder colored rug in the collection, as opposed to some of the more subdued others. (Here’s a free protip from McBride: “Anyone with a dark carpet will know you see everything, every piece of plush.”)
Kaki Hockersmith, the then Arkansas-based Clintons designer, recalls President Clinton “very happy to personally approve the samples,” which had been produced by a Michigan carpet factory. “It’s gratifying to see President Biden enjoying it now. Looking back, I am struck by the time and access to the White House that the Bushes graciously granted us during the transition period. She adds, “President Biden has done a magnificent job establishing his Oval Office without this luxury.”
Trump also used an old rug (Reagan’s golden sunburst rug), but presidents often order theirs. Obama’s was beige and embroidered with a poignant quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “The well-being of each of us fundamentally depends on the well-being of all.
And Dubya, for example, entrusted the selection of the rugs to the First Lady.
“He said, ‘Here’s my only thing, I want it to look like an upbeat person who works here,” McBride said. “And so the rug she designed with the designer had the large presidential seal in the center and it looked like very subtle rays of sunlight were coming out of the center all over the rug.”
Eventually, President Biden might have his own carpet. A little sunny optimism would be welcome in Washington right now.
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