Seat of power: A neutral tone is set for the Oval Office's new look

The president's office underwent a makeover while the Obamas were vacationing. The changes pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and four previous commanders in chief.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

While the Obamas were bicycling and book-buying last week in Martha's Vineyard, they were having some work done back home. A redecorated Oval Office -- with cushy sofas, striped wallpaper and a beige palette -- was revealed to the press Tuesday, just before its national debut as backdrop to the president's address to the nation on Iraq.

The design was the work of Michael S. Smith, the Los Angeles decorator who did the private quarters of the White House for the Obamas. Reached on a plane yesterday, Smith said, "I just can't talk about my clients."

Okay, fine. But although his name was not officially uttered by White House officials, lots of people were tweeting and blogging and buzzing about it all, including the Scott Group in Grand Rapids, Mich., maker of the new environmentally friendly Oval Office rug, whose design, ringed with weighty quotations, is credited to Smith. And Elizabeth Dow's Amagansett, N.Y., studio hand-painted the cafe-au-lait-and-buff wallpaper, complete with three-inch-wide stripes. Said Dow, "It was specified by Michael Smith, who is the interior design visionary on the project."

A spokeswoman for the Scott Group would not give out the rug's price, but she confirmed that the company donated it to the project. (The past four administrations' Oval Office rugs have cost between $28,550 and $61,000 apiece.) The White House explained that the rest of the makeover was paid for by a contribution from the Presidential Inaugural Committee to the nonprofit White House Historical Association.

The new look has less red, white and blue, and a decidedly more casual mojo. Still, many features salute the room's past. The 1880 Resolute Desk, a favorite of many recent presidents, remains the place where President Obama will ponder his briefing books. The mahogany armchairs from the previous administration were reupholstered in caramel-colored leather. But there is a strikingly modern walnut and mica coffee table and two new azure ceramic table lamps that add a welcome pop of color.

(Photos: Oval Offices throughout history)

And for those who like to compare the Obamas to the Clintons, designer Kaki Hockersmith said that she, too, installed the Oval Office decor for the Clintons while they were on vacation in the Vineyard. "I remember that day when they landed in the helicopter and immediately swung on over to see the room," Hockersmith said. "I would not be surprised if going over there was also one of the first things the Obamas did when they came back home."

Here's some rapid response from others in the design world, as online images of the new Oval Office became available Tuesday morning (with no advance warning):

Michael Boodro, newly minted editor in chief of Elle Decor: "It looks much more comfortable and less intimidating. The coffee table looks sturdy and seems like you could put your feet up on it. The rug is certainly impressive and as understated as it can be with that presidential seal on it."

Mario Buatta, New York interior designer and a designer of Blair House: "It's trying to be contemporary in a federal building. With the stained floors and modern coffee table, it's sort of an everything mix, but I guess that is what the president likes. The sofas are beautiful but they are casual and not the formal style for that room. If this is what our president is happy in, then that is what he should have. There is not much regard for the past in a country that is steeped in history and tradition."

Frank Babb Randolph, Washington interior designer and designer of the vice president's residence for the Cheneys: "It's beautiful. When you go in to see the world leader, you want not to be overwhelmed. This room puts you at ease. The sofas look comfortable. I am shocked at the neutrality. Your eyes go to the flags and the oval windows and outdoors. You don't walk in the room and salute red, white and blue."

William Seale, historian and author of "The President's House: A History": "I bet Betty Ford loves it. She hated the walls in that room because she said they looked like they were going to fall in on you or walk away with you. He solved it with the striation on the wallpaper. . . . It's a more modern approach to traditional. But I wouldn't go to town with that coffee table."

Margaret Russell, newly appointed editor in chief of Architectural Digest: "It feels very American and very appropriate. I look at him as a modern-day president with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. . . . It feels like a warm and welcoming space. Knowing Michael, I am sure that he gravitated toward very artisanal American firms."

Stiles Colwill, a Baltimore interior designer who has worked on the Maryland governor's mansion: "You are dealing with a room that can't have a lot of change. Each president seems to come and change the rug, which puts their stamp on it. You keep George Washington and the clock by the door. It's sort of a hard thing to change."

Miles Redd, a New York interior designer who also works on the Oscar de la Renta home collection: "The room is a big success. It's very difficult to decorate an oval room. This is not a private office -- it's a public space that reflects the taste of the country. The stripe is handsome, the modern mica table has a bit of Jean-Michel Frank style, the rug for me is a little bit official. . . . Just like our country, I think the room is stylish, modern and a bit conservative."

Sheila Bridges, New York interior designer and designer of Bill Clinton's Harlem office: "It doesn't look like any type of extreme makeover. It looks tasteful and not over the top. It's appropriate for where we are in the country right now. I can't imagine spending a tremendous amount of money on it when we have been in a recession and two wars. If you are going to confer with dignitaries and heads of state, I would want for that room to be represented in a way that is not ostentatious or over the top."

Celerie Kemble, New York and Palm Beach interior designer: "The new design strikes me as tasteful and played very safe. I wonder if the treacherous political climate has caused the Obamas to become more aesthetically conservative. It seems cable commentators and bloggers will grasp at the most innocuous 'symbol' to score points, so maybe the president's staff and Michael Smith decided it is best not to give anyone any material to misinterpret. As a designer, I'd rather see a little more personality, but then I don't have to get an immigration bill through Congress next session!"

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