Sometime last summer, David Solsbery began parsing the presidential campaigns for clues. What color banners did they use on the campaign trail? What did their Web sites look like? What images were they trying to project?
Solsbery, the executive design director for Hargrove, is the man behind this year’s inauguration festivities. He and his team of 25 have spent the past year vetting fabrics, selecting lights and creating parade floats for the inaugural parade and official balls.
The process began long before the election results were in.
“We watch both candidates on their campaign trails,” Solsbery said. “We even take into account the mood of the country. Is there a recession or not? Is it their first inauguration or second?”
Ultimately, Solsbery came up with two sets of inaugural plans. One, for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, featured textured fabrics, American flags and Old-World charm. The other, for President Obama, called for sparse decor and modern lines, eschewing a traditional curved stage for a more angular one.
Hargrove, a family-run company founded in Lanham, has worked on every presidential inauguration since 1949, when Harry S. Truman was sworn in. That first year, employees designed a mule-drawn float for the inaugural parade.
In the years since, the firm has become a hidden force behind many of the area’s big events, ranging from the National Christmas Tree Lighting to the Washington Auto Show. Since 1993, Hargrove has served as the general contractor for the presidential inauguration, overseeing official balls and parades, sound and lighting. In addition to designing the main stage and fixtures for the inaugural balls, the company also maps out the logistics behind the high-profile event.
“Where will the president be arriving from? Where will the green room go? How are the entertainers getting on and off stage?,” Solsbery said. “Then we add in lighting and sound and video.”
This year, the mood will be decidedly less showy than in previous years, said Tim McGill, Hargrove’s chief executive. In 2009, the country was in the midst of a recession, but the election of the country’s first black president lent a certain historical importance. More than 1.8 million people attended Obama’s inauguration that year, making it the largest event to ever take place in Washington.
Fewer than half that amount are expected at this year’s festivities, and the number of official inaugural balls has been cut to two from 10.
“There’s a kind of ebb and flow,” McGill said. “It really depends on the mood and tone of the administration, the mood and tone of the country. Sometimes it’s more celebratory, sometimes it’s less. This year, it’s about simple elegance — clean lines, patriotic colors, nothing ostentatious.”
Eight years ago, for George W. Bush’s second inauguration, Solsbery stuck to more traditional elements. There were containers full of flowers on set, and large graphics of the American flag on the walls. The inauguration’s tagline, “Celebrating freedom, honoring service,” was printed in cursive on the main stage.
“When it’s a Republican candidate, we tend to be a little more traditional,” said Solsbery, who has been in the events business since the early 1980s. “We use more fabrics, tons of flowers, a lot of red-white-and-blue bunting.”
Solsbery, who never finished high school, landed at Hargrove 15 years ago. He started as a scenic painter in the graphic shop, creating murals for theme parties.
“It was very popular to decorate your parties with paintings back then,” he said. “I did a lot of faux-Warhol pieces.”
Today, Solsbery said, his favorite projects are big, international events — G20 summits, NATO gatherings and, of course, presidential inaugurations.
“With those types of events, there’s a lot of thought that goes into beyond just whether to use blue or purple,” he said. “You’re thinking in terms of, what is the world going to see? What’s being seen behind the first lady’s head? Behind the president’s head? How tall is he? Where is that logo going to go? It’s much more than just making things pretty.”
Hargrove was awarded the inauguration contract Dec. 17, with hardly a month to iron out details. The first step, Solsbery said, was to put together the main stage. After that, the company’s 250 employees began sewing drapes, building floats and printing thousands of presidential seals, ranging from 2 inches in diameter to 16 feet. The president and first lady will dance on the largest one, which is emblazoned on carpet and set to grace the floor of the inaugural ball.
“It’s an inauguration, so of course there’s a lot of red, white and blue,” Solsbery said. “But we’re also using a lot of muted tones that work well on camera: Blues, creams, whites, golds, darker reds.”
Somewhere along the way, the first lady sent written feedback. There were revisions and more plans. Bookman Antiqua was selected as the year’s official font. The company’s printers — the largest in the country, a spokeswoman says — began spouting out 70,000 square feet of signs: “First aid,” “Media entrance,” “Elevator access to Commander in Chief’s Ball.”
The company brought in 70 part-time employees to help with inauguration preparations, and another 400 people to help on-site during inauguration weekend.
“Everyone gets involved,” said Lana Ostrander, the company’s marketing director. “You sort of count your time here in how many inaugurations you’ve done.”
(This is Ostrander’s first.)
Although the presidential inauguration is by no means the company’s largest project, it is among its most high-profile, McGill said. He would not disclose the company’s annual revenue nor the size of the inaugural contract. The presidential inaugural committee has remained tight-lipped too, saying only that costs for the inaugural parade and balls are expected to be lower than the $55 million it spent four years ago. The swearing-in ceremony — which is not overseen by Hargrove — is expected to cost $1.24 million, roughly the same amount as in 2009.
The location of this year’s inaugural parties presents an extra challenge, Solsbery said. Both official balls as well as a Saturday concert will take place in the Washington Convention Center, a departure from years past when they’ve been held throughout the city, in venues such as the National Building Museum and the Ritz-Carlton.
“There are certain venues that are beautiful on their own,” Solsbery said. “With the convention center, it’s a big concrete space that we need to decorate. We’ll have to bring down the ceiling, break up the space and add color to make it feel more intimate.”
Buffet tables and bars will be scattered throughout the rooms. Large sheets of fabric will hang down from the ceiling, and concrete columns will be covered with cloth and lights.
“There’s a lot of theatrical lighting — we can change the colors, change the feel,” he said. “When the president comes out, it’s very stately and elegant. But then when the entertainment begins, we can turn it into a concert space very quickly.”
By last Wednesday, the company’s employees were putting the finishing touches on inaugural props. Hundreds of bales of fabric, ranging in color from dark red to lime green, had been wrapped and readied for display. Parade floats, 10 in all, lined a back room.
One, representing the president’s home state of Hawaii, was covered in palm trees and a volcano. Others held replicas of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Liberty Bell and Tuskegee Airmen’s plane.
“It’s a very bold set,” Solsbery said. “This will be one of the most colorful inaugural balls you’ve ever seen.”
At 1 a.m. Tuesday, when the last inaugural ball ends, Hargrove employees will begin tearing down their work. Some of the parade floats will be donated to presidential libraries, while the rest will be broken apart and repurposed for other projects.
There’s no time to rest, Solsbery said. Within 11 days, Hargrove will have to transform the convention center again, this time for the Washington Auto Show.
“We’ll wrap up the inauguration, pack everything up and start all over again,” he said.