The Dish on Bushes' Choice of Designer for Informal White House China

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

The hand-painted china of Arlington's Anna Weatherley made history last week when it was chosen as the first "informal" White House china.

First lady Laura Bush showed off the custom Magnolia Residence China Service to reporters on the table of the Family Dining Room. The dishes, made by Pickard China in Illinois and hand-painted by Weatherley's artisans in Budapest, are meant to be used in the private quarters of the White House. Weatherley says Bush had seen her work on several friends' dinner tables. Pointing out intricate details on the magnolia blossoms and leaves and the fanciful dragonflies and butterflies, the first lady commented, "Anna Weatherley is a true American success story."

The Hungarian-born designer, whose graceful patterns are sold in 400 stores including Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, had some interesting assignments even before the White House commission. She once created a pair of porcelain cachepots decorated with 18th-century-style pears, cherries and gooseberries for Vogue editor Anna Wintour to give to Princess Diana. ("That is a great memory," Weatherley says.) Last year she made a luncheon set painted with flowers and butterflies to donate to Blair House, the president's guesthouse.

"This was very meaningful to me. I am so happy to be in America and be part of Washington. It's a bit of a miracle, and I was honored that they accepted it," she says.

Weatherley has been a designer in the Washington area for 40 years. She left Hungary when her father, a silk importer, moved his family to Australia in the 1950s. She studied art and design and became enamored with the cultures of India, Afghanistan and the Far East. Weatherley started a business importing furniture and textiles from Kabul to Sydney and eventually met her future husband, George Weatherley, a doctor, on a trip to Afghanistan. They moved to the Washington area in the late 1960s.

Weatherley has spent her life using her artistic talents to reinvent herself. "Now I can look back and say I have had like four lives rolled into one," she says.

The dish on Weatherley hasn't always been about china. Until recently, she designed table linens that were hand-embroidered in France, but they became very expensive because of the falling value of the dollar against the euro. She has always enjoyed designing dramatic statement necklaces with semi-precious stones such as amethysts and crystals.

She was a well-known local fashion designer in the 1970s and 1980s. Her hand-painted chiffon dresses, worn by Lady Bird Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda, were sold at her atelier in Foggy Bottom and in New York at Henri Bendel and Bloomingdale's. But after the 1980s stock market meltdown, her $400 frocks didn't seem viable. "My little dresses were special one-of-a-kind pieces and so decadent and luxurious," she says. "I realized I would not be able to keep this up."

With the advent of glasnost, Weatherley was able to go back to her native country and start doing business there in porcelain. "I always liked hand-painting because my fabrics were painted and embroidered," she says. She also loves botanical art. She tracked down some painters and started a fine-china business in 1990: "I told them to forget everything they ever did and study the style of 17th-century Dutch paintings." She has about 40 painters now working for her in Budapest. "Some of my painters only do butterflies, and some do only fish or birds -- it's a very specialized art," she says. "That's why it takes so long."

Weatherley says that old European porcelain companies began painting little insects to cover tiny imperfections in their china, a practice she found charming. "But my bugs have to be nice and happy-looking. People don't mind eating on bugs if they are cute and pretty," she says.

Soon, another presidential family, the Obamas, will be drinking tea and eating salad on her dinnerware. "It's humbling," Weatherley says. "I just hope they really use it, because I put a lot of love into it."

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