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The Woman Behind The Room Behind Hillary Clinton

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By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

Rosemarie Howe has been quietly decorating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's house on Embassy Row in Washington since 2004.

So when the designer heard speculation on National Public Radio that the video Clinton posted on her Web site announcing her candidacy for president had been filmed in her Chappaqua, N.Y., home, Howe knew that wasn't so. Then, when TV pundits and bloggers started buzzing that the cozy room with its soft colors, homey furnishings and floral needlepoint pillow was a staged Madison Avenue backdrop, the Georgetown designer decided it was time to break her silence.

"It's not a stage set," Howe says. "It's the real thing."

The video was filmed in a new sunroom that runs along the back of the Clintons' brick Georgian house on Whitehaven Street NW, which they bought in 2001 for $2.85 million. Howe coordinated the recently completed addition, designed by Washington architect Donald Lococo. The airy space, just off the kitchen, has lots of windows and is for reading, relaxing and entertaining, Howe says. She designed the room to be comfortable yet elegant, using camel and coral, colors that are repeated throughout the first floor. Wood floors set off an Oriental rug, walls are painted cream and the furniture is arranged for conversation. Shelves hold books, a glass collection, presidential mementos and photographs.

The video, posted on http://www.hillaryclinton.com/, shows only a corner of the sunroom where the Democratic candidate nestled into a sofa, a large pillow on one side and a lineup of framed family photos on the other. The velvet sofa that has been referred to as "shabby chic" or "chintz" is neither. It is upholstered in a soft caramel Rose Tarlow velvet with a washed floral print. Howe ordered it from the Washington Design Center's Holly Hunt showroom.

The small lamp with a bronze deer at the base, seen over Clinton's shoulder, is something she already owned. (Howe raised the lamp with a stack of coffee table books.) The designer worked with a number of furnishings and accessories already in the Whitehaven Street home, some of which were obtained for the family by previous decorators Robert Brown and Todd Davis or Kaki Hockersmith. A carved armchair in the sunroom belongs to Hillary Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, who also lives in the house.

Howe, a Washington area designer for 20 years, was referred to the Clintons by longtime clients Susan and Sandy Berger (he served as national security adviser in the Clinton White House). She has decorated estates in Middleburg and 19th-century townhouses in Kalorama. She and her husband, neurosurgeon James Howe, live in a Georgetown loft that is also her office.

She says the senator from New York has been very involved in updating the Whitehaven Street property, which they're swatching through room by room. Howe has finished the living room, dining room and kitchen, yet is always searching for special pieces and fabrics to update the look. Upstairs, she has redecorated the bedrooms, including Chelsea's digs when she's in town. Downstairs, she has added storage to the basement.

"You would think she is too busy to think about this, but she really cares about these things," Howe says. "She makes decisions quickly but does it with enjoyment."

Howe says she worked with Bill Clinton to accommodate his memorabilia. The former president recently weighed in on the decision to replace the sisal stair runner with a camel-and-beige wool print (he was in favor of it).

As for the lush vegetation glimpsed through the French doors, framed by cream-colored sheer wool draperies, some bloggers questioned whether it was a "carefully staged artificial background." Sources familiar with the landscaping have identified those plants as small azaleas and nandina shrubs, still vibrant because of last month's unusually mild temperatures.


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