The secrets behind designing the Obama White House

The White House has always been the people’s house – even if those living there forget that.

A beautifully photographed coffee table book, “Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House,” by Michael S. Smith captures the experience of decorating it.

“Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House,” by Michael S. Smith with foreword by Michelle Obama (© Designing History by Michael S. Smith, Rizzoli New York, 2020)

Smith explains there are protocols to observe and history to honor, and approaches this assignment with deep respect.

“Every time you walk into the White House, you can’t help but feel the intense power of more than two centuries of storied American history; the very experience of being in those fabled rooms is exhilarating,” Smith writes. “But while the building itself is important – its silhouette firmly etched into the American psyche – the White House is essentially static without the soul and spirit of the people within.”

While the book’s focus is on the Obamas, Smith also devotes pages to Republican and Democratic presidents. It’s not intended as a full history of this building. But Smith touches on a lot of the background of this house, on a site George Washington picked in 1791.

President Barack Obama walks on the Colonnade of the White House with interior designer Michael Smith on Sept. 15, 2015.
President Barack Obama walks on the Colonnade of the White House with interior designer Michael Smith on Sept. 15, 2015.
President Barack Obama walks on the Colonnade of the White House with interior designer Michael Smith on Sept. 15, 2015. (Pete Souza/)

Initially, there was worry the White House was too grand for the leader of the new republic.

“Envisioned as something of a country villa, it was essentially an oversize version of what any member of the landed gentry might own,” Smith writes. “Built by laborers who were primarily African-American – both enslaved and free – as well as local white artisans and workers from those who emigrated from Ireland, Scotland and other European countries, at the time and for decades to come. It was considered to be the largest private residence in the United States.”

This tome works for those who don’t flip through shelter magazines or believe DIY shows encouraging people to demolish and rebuild walls. It’s a history with glimpses into the magic that happens when artisans craft and museums loan pieces.

Retained to decorate the White House, Smith needed to maintain the dignity of public spaces, while creating a welcoming private home for a young family.

“Growing up, home was the second floor of a tidy brick bungalow on Euclid Avenue in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago,” Michelle Obama writes in the foreword. It was nightly dinners with my mother, my father, and my brother. It was the sound of John Coltrane or Ella Fitzgerald from my dad’s record player, the sight of a tray of toothpicked pigs in a blanket on New Year’s Eve. It was lunch hours spent playing jacks with my friends, birthdays with all my cousins, crowded around the kitchen table, cracking jokes.”

The West Sitting Hall, with its distinctive half-moon window, is between the Family Dining Room and the Master Bedroom suite. The existing sofas and chairs were re-covered and artisan Stephen Antonson was commissioned to craft a pair of plaster Queen Anne-style side tables based on an antique Smith once spotted at auction. The Claude Monet landscape, Morning on the Seine, Good Weather, was a gift to the White House from the Kennedy family in memory of President John F. Kennedy.
The West Sitting Hall, with its distinctive half-moon window, is between the Family Dining Room and the Master Bedroom suite. The existing sofas and chairs were re-covered and artisan Stephen Antonson was commissioned to craft a pair of plaster Queen Anne-style side tables based on an antique Smith once spotted at auction. The Claude Monet landscape, Morning on the Seine, Good Weather, was a gift to the White House from the Kennedy family in memory of President John F. Kennedy.
The West Sitting Hall, with its distinctive half-moon window, is between the Family Dining Room and the Master Bedroom suite. The existing sofas and chairs were re-covered and artisan Stephen Antonson was commissioned to craft a pair of plaster Queen Anne-style side tables based on an antique Smith once spotted at auction. The Claude Monet landscape, Morning on the Seine, Good Weather, was a gift to the White House from the Kennedy family in memory of President John F. Kennedy. (“MICHAEL MUNDY michaelmundy.com”/)

Previous residents also understood the importance of carving out living spaces within the White House. A sweet photo captures Jenna, Barbara Bush, and former FLOTUS Laura Bush showing Sasha and Malia Obama the best place to slide down a hallway ramp. Both Bush daughters left notes for the Obama daughters.

Given each administration’s tastes, furnishings from one president are regularly put in storage then reused later. The building and grounds are in constant flux, witnessed just last week, when First Lady Melania Trump unveiled changes to the Rose Garden.

Though this massive building – 55,000-square-feet holding 132 rooms – is steeped in history, it is always changing.

“It’s shocking to realize that up until the turn of the century, White House furniture, decorative objects, and tableware were often sold if they were deemed to have fallen out of style or when a new president took office and redecorated to reflect a new administration’s mindset – essentially throwing history to the wind, time after time,” Smith writes.

Some administrations spent flagrantly, and most were aware of the perception. Smith notes that the Obamas paid for personal items with their own money. He shares details about the many rooms, such as the Green Room. President Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who died in 1862 – reportedly from the polluted water in the White House – was embalmed there. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is said to have never returned to that room.

So many White House projects now forgotten were necessary. President Harry Truman had infrastructure updates done to the building. In the summer of 1948, a piano leg broke through the second floor and the ceiling below, triggering the renovations. While so much has been done to the White House, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is most associated with restoring its patina.

Her televised tour of the White House ran on the three major networks (which is what 1962 offered).

“It was also important to her to represent the first families who had lived in the mansion during its 161 years and she hoped to entice collectors of Americana to donate historic furnishings that had previously been sold or given away,” Smith writes of Kennedy.

Each president and his family has made it their own, which was the Obamas’ initial main goal with the private residence. Yet it’s not like moving into a new house, where you can joke about the plaid carpet and get to work.

The Master Bedroom offers a sunny view of leafy trees and the wide South Lawn below. The high-post bed is early 19th-century American, and its canopy, curtains, and bed skirt are of a Larsen raw silk. The embroidered pillow in the foreground is by Jed Johnson Home, and the wallpaper is by Gracie; the rug was custom made by Mitchell Denburg. (Credit: Michael Mundy)
The Master Bedroom offers a sunny view of leafy trees and the wide South Lawn below. The high-post bed is early 19th-century American, and its canopy, curtains, and bed skirt are of a Larsen raw silk. The embroidered pillow in the foreground is by Jed Johnson Home, and the wallpaper is by Gracie; the rug was custom made by Mitchell Denburg. (Credit: Michael Mundy)
The Master Bedroom offers a sunny view of leafy trees and the wide South Lawn below. The high-post bed is early 19th-century American, and its canopy, curtains, and bed skirt are of a Larsen raw silk. The embroidered pillow in the foreground is by Jed Johnson Home, and the wallpaper is by Gracie; the rug was custom made by Mitchell Denburg. (Credit: Michael Mundy)

Smith was under a tight deadline and was only allowed to move in the new first family during the inauguration ceremony. The living quarters were done first, and President Barack Obama allowed the Oval Office to be redecorated one year into his administration.

Perhaps it’s because we mainly see the Rose Garden, the Oval Office and glimpses of State Dinners, that so much of this magnificent building is unknown to many people. Smith approached the ongoing work relying on his style and taste, but this was extra – all choices had to bow to history. Both that which happened and that which would.

It never escapes the Obamas or Smith that every choice they make will be dissected. Every painting and how it is displayed garners attention. Obama was pleased to find a James McNeill Whistler painting in his bedroom and admitted to Smith that he never did get the appeal of decorative plates. Those were removed and replaced with models of items that received patents.

Smith shares that after the family had settled into their new quarters, FLOTUS asked for alarm clocks for their daughters. They were expected to wake themselves up and make their beds before school.

After living at a hotel before moving in, the girls discovered wake-up calls and requested the same from the White House operator. FLOTUS was not having it, considering that an imposition on the staff and wanting her girls to know how to function when they wouldn’t have staff. That very real outlook was evidenced in the Obama White House décor.

The Solarium is wrapped by windows and faces south, offering a spectacular view of the Washington Monument. (Credit: Michael Mundy)
The Solarium is wrapped by windows and faces south, offering a spectacular view of the Washington Monument. (Credit: Michael Mundy)
The Solarium is wrapped by windows and faces south, offering a spectacular view of the Washington Monument. (Credit: Michael Mundy)

“And while my mom’s trays of pigs in a blanket were sometimes replaced by tuxedoed professionals passing canapés, we celebrated many holidays together,” Michelle Obama writes. “Those same cousins who crowded around our kitchen table during childhood came to the White House each Thanksgiving, crowding around a television in the East Room, with priceless portraits of George and Martha Washington keeping us company there, too.”

Smith worked with the Obamas on their new house and planned presidential center. Yet those years working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue resonate.

“Every decision, every change had meaning and exemplified their mission to celebrate the best of America, to make the White House more open and accessible to all,” Smith writes.