September 7, 2020
By Steven Louis Brawley
Michael S. Smith's new book - Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House provides an important addition to the academic study of the White House. Through his role as personal decorator to the Obamas, Smith gained rare access to our nation's most significant architectural symbol.
The book not only gives intimate details on how Smith partnered with the Obamas to create a personal space that balanced raising a family and governing a nation, it reinforces the strategic role of interior design.
Smith provides an overview of the history of the White House and delves deep into the detail of how the Obama state and personal spaces were designed, styled, and decorated.
During their tenure, the Obamas completed new designs for both the State Dining Room and the Old Family Dining Room on the state floor.
On the second and third floors, very modern and intimate spaces were created for the Obama family that included the President, Mrs. Obama, their two daughters, and Mrs. Obama's mother.
The book devotes a great deal of attention to the 1961-63 Kennedy restoration and Jackie's efforts. Smith notes he took inspiration for his work, especially in the Yellow Oval Room, from Jackie. He felt a symbolic kinship between the Kennedys and Obamas, with both raising young families in the White House. The Kennedy family (Ted and Caroline) were early supporters of Obama.
Smith gets a few details wrong in his Kennedy overview, most notably that Sister Parish was dismissed and didn't continue work through the assassination. This is not true. She worked for Jackie through the end of the administration and did some early work at the 1040 apartment in New York. But yes, she was politically sidelined through battles with Jackie's other consultants - Boudin and Dupont.
Smith's Obama work includes the continued use and refurbishment of many Kennedy era pieces. Here is an inventory of the Kennedy presence in the Obama White House:
- Treaty Room: 1869 walnut conference table (returned to room in 1962 by Jackie)
- Yellow Oval Room: Pair of Bergère chairs reupholstered in chestnut velvet (acquired for room in 1961); new curtains inspired by Boudin; Frederick P. Victoria hurricane lamps (favored by Jackie); Retained items that were previously in the room include: 2 bureau plats; 4 LeLarge armchairs and settee; 2 Louis XVI mahogany commodes; 1 Louis XVI bench; pair marble pedestals with Louis XVI candelabra; and chandelier from Kennedy era Blue Room
- Living Room: 18th century Pennsylvania high chest (used when this room was President Kennedy's bedroom)
- Center Hall: Partners desk acquired during Kennedy administration
- West Sitting Hall: Claude Monet's."Morning on the Seine, Good Weather," painting given as a gift to the White House by the Kennedy family in honor of President Kennedy
- Master Bedroom: James Whister's Nocturne painting (donated to White House during Kennedy administration)
- Billiard Room: Pair of Regency side chairs from Kennedy era Library; bouillotte lamp from Kennedy era Green Room
- Queen's Sitting Room: Jackie's decor has principally remained intact since 1963
- Old Family Dining Room and President's Dining Room: Majority of furniture has been retained from the Kennedy era
Image courtesy Rizzoli Publishing.