How Michelle Obama helped give the White House Dining Room a makeover

Update cements US first lady's design legacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 July, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 July, 2015, 10:11am

The White House's State Dining Room, a grand and historic space that has hosted kings and queens, Nobel Prize-winners, military families and A-list Hollywood stars, is not a room whose redecoration is taken lightly. Yet it gets a lot of wear and tear, with all those high heels digging into the rug and martinis accidentally spilling onto the curtains.

After three years of work by US first lady Michelle Obama and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, a new look has been unveiled that will be a design legacy of the Obama years.

The major new statement is at the windows: elegant, sumptuously swagged striped draperies in bold peacock blue and ecru, suspended from thick carved, gilded poles. These colours should go nicely, by the way, with the new Obama state china service in Kailua blue, unveiled in April.

The design of the 34 new stately mahogany chairs is based on chairs bought for the East Room by President James Monroe in 1818 from cabinetmaker William King Jnr. They are upholstered with period-appropriate horsehair fabric in a brown grid pattern, trimmed with brass nailheads. A blue-green rug, intricately woven with wreath motifs and oak leaves inspired by the stunning ceiling plasterwork, was installed in 2012 at the start of the project.

A subtle yet stately feature of the room: the walls and detailed mouldings, artfully repainted and glazed in several shades of white to highlight the architecture. In all, it looks like a room rocking an awesome new party dress.

"The room looks a little simpler and a little fresher," says Michael S. Smith, the Obamas' Los Angeles-based interior designer and a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, who worked on the project.

"Everything is streamlined, and there is a lot of historical gravitas here."

The cost of the project - US$590,000 - was covered by the White House Historical Association's White House Endowment Trust, a fund administered for the maintenance and refurbishment of the White House public rooms. The last time the State Dining Room was redecorated was in 1998, during the Clinton administration.

It was a collaborative effort by Hillary Clinton, working with Kaki Hockersmith, the Clintons' designer from Little Rock, Arkansas; New York interior designer Mark Hampton and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

In that redo, the curtains were ivory silk brocade with a design of flowers, baskets and ribbons, and the carpet had a motif of leaves and flowers. The US$341,000 bill was also paid for by the White House Historical Association's White House Endowment Trust.

But after 17 years the rug and curtains were showing signs of distress. "The drapery fabric seemed a little bit dated," says William Allman, the White House curator. "At night it faded out, because the walls were stone colour and the drapery ground was stone colour, too."

The official ceremonies, dinners and all the public tours take their toll.

"This room really takes a beating when people drop food or alcohol or who knows what on the floors," says Betty Monkman, a former White House curator.

The Obamas have unveiled a number of decorating initiatives this year, as the administration nears its end. They include the new Obama state china and the redo of the Old Family Dining Room, which highlighted modern art and design.

Like many American families, the Obamas were looking for ideas on how they could use their ultra-formal dining room more often.

Allman says they decided to replace the large-scale chairs dating from the Teddy Roosevelt administration because their size made them difficult to use for entertaining. They were usually removed when there was a meal. "The goal was to make the chairs a little more user-friendly. The new chairs can be used at the main table or a variety of smaller tables around the room," he says.

Smith says the committee liked the patriotic feel of the curtain fabric: "We loved the stripes, they are a bit bolder; they feel a bit more special."

"The first lady has a very good eye," Smith adds. "She is always very interested in two things: the practicality and functionality of something and, second: 'How will this work for the next family? Is this an addition that will make the house more usable and versatile for the short term and beyond?'"

Smith adds: "The first lady is very aware of her position as the custodian of America's house and its legacy. She inherited the house in very good shape from Mrs Bush. She perceives her job as being to add to it and to move the house forward to the next family."

The Washington Post