Michelle Obama's White House Legacy

By Steven L. Brawley

November 21, 2016: As Michelle Obama's era as First Lady comes to an end, many champions and foes alike are acknowledging her important legacy and impact.

First and foremost she has been a wife and mother in the style of Jackie Kennedy and Bess Truman. She has been fiercely protective of her family's privacy and created a comfortable home setting for her husband, children, and mother.

But this hominess came with a dramatic sense of modern style. Her fashion, home decor, and entertaining have been beyond forward thinking - she has been a trailblazer.

Her White House garden has spawned a renewed interest in home and school-based gardening that has not seen since the likes of World War II victory gardens. Her White House state dinner menus were healthy, fresh, and tasty. Her White House china featured a color known as Kailua Blue," a bright blue color inspired by the hue of the sea in President Barack Obama's home state of Hawaii.

She partnered with interior designer Michael Smith to personalize the private quarters and for significant updates to the Oval Office in the West Wing, and to the Old Family Dining Room and State Dining Room on the State Floor. The Obamas choice in art was modernArchitectural Digest gave a rare glimpse into the Obama White House in their December 2016 issue.

She opened the White House to Google to create virtual tours and formally allowed visitors to take their own pictures. Her impact on staffing was also historic. Angella Reid was named the Director of the President’s Executive Residence and “Chief Usher.” Reid was the ninth person and first woman to serve in the role. Jeremy Bernard served as the White House Social Secretary. He was the first male, as well as the first openly gay individual, to serve in that role.

She has championed support for military families with Dr. Jill Biden and healthier lifestyles for children through "Let's Move." She has advocated for girl's education across the globe. She was an effective campaigner, often on the stump for her husband and other Democratic candidates.

As a Jackie Kennedy historian, I can say that I believe Jackie would have admired and supported Michelle. I am certain that Michelle will rank with Jackie as one of our most admired First Ladies. For the past eight years, I have supported Michelle, and will continue to do so on my PPB media platforms. My advice for Melania Trump will follow.

Story continues below images.

Obama White House China (image courtesy White House) 

Obama White House Garden (image courtesy White House)

 Michelle Obama Book (image courtesy Crown Publishing)

Obama Yellow Oval Room - Family Quarters (image courtesy Architectural Digest)

Obama Old Family Dining Room - State Floor (image courtesy White House)

Obama State Dining Room - State Floor (image courtesy Washington Post)

Obama State Dinner - East Room (image courtesy White House)

Obama State Dinner - Red Room (image courtesy Reuters)

Obama Oval Office (image courtesy White House)

I reached out to several noted interior designers and historians to discuss Michelle Obama's legacy and influence. Here are their thoughts and observations:

James Archer Abbott, Director and Curator, Evergreen Museum & Library at Johns Hopkins University, and Author of Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration, Jansen, and Jansen Furniture

"I believe Michelle Obama's impact on the White House is largely intertwined with the building's heightened security in this current age of terrorism. The admirable Kennedy and Nixon efforts to define and engage the house as a most popular museum of American history in the 1960s and 1970s had largely been put to rest in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The building was returned to serving mainly as a private residence. This is what Michelle and her husband inherited - and it is the direction of stewardship that they have expanded upon.  Of the Obama contributions, there are many things to note. First, the palette of white WASPs has given way to a stylish and very sophisticated counterpoint complimentary of the house's first non-caucasian first family.

This is no small change - and it is seen in the West Wing and state floor as much as in the family quarters. Second, the Obamas have generally dismissed the Franco-American tradition of formal entertaining initiated by the Kennedys in favor of many different modern trends - including theatrical 'mood' lighting, very contemporary seating selections (Lucite, sheet metal, etc., as opposed to Camelot's favored Napoleon III gilt ballroom chairs), 'installation' floral arrangements, and of course innovative and healthy cuisine.

Third, the Obamas have broken fully with the Kennedy-defined mandate of artists being dead for fifty years before their works could be acquired for the mansion's permanent collection. The President and First Lady have led an ambitious and most important expansion of the White House collection that welcomed Abstractionism and other important modern and contemporary art movements to the Presidential stage...fabulous...energizing...IMPORTANT...and all of the above references the White House as a 'home" first and foremost."

John Tackett, Author, The Devoted Classicist

"Disregarding one's political convictions or personal preferences, anyone knowledgeable in interior design must recognize that Michael S. Smith's schemes for the Obamas rank among the best work ever done in the private quarters of the White House. The decoration for the Obamas rightfully expressed the new order that came to the Executive Mansion.  

The architectural formality of the spaces is respected but softened and made usable with comfortable seating, all the while keeping in mind the refinement required of the residence.  Too often in the past, the decoration of the upper floors of the White House was closer to that of a hotel than a stately home.

The introduction of contemporary fine art and 'fresh' color schemes is very successful and will undoubtedly influence a decorating movement for residences across the country, not unlike the influence of the Kennedy redecoration by Stephane Boudin and Sister Parish."

Leon Pascucci, Interior Designer

"The 21st century came roaring into the White House with the arrival of the Obamas. A highly  educated and accomplished professional woman in her own right, Michele brought taste and intelligence to her role as First Lady.  

She engaged a renowned interior designer, Michael Smith, who refreshed a number of White House rooms, combining antiques with contemporary art to a degree not before seen. Her focus on good food led to the creation of a White House garden. State Dinners were often held in festively decorated pavilions on the South Lawn.

Welcoming many visitors, Michele allowed tourists for the first time to take photos inside the mansion. She advanced life in the White House in new and progressive ways."

Michelle Obama (image courtesy White House)

Copyright Steven L. Brawley, 2002-2015. All Rights Reserved.