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Christopher Spitzmiller's lamps give redecorated Oval Office a pop of color

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010

When New York ceramicist Christopher Spitzmiller learned that a pair of his blue lamps had been chosen to light up the Oval Office in its recent makeover, he thought back to his stint as a White House intern in 1995.

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"I worked in the social office during the Clinton administration, when the White House was bringing in pieces of American craft from the Renwick and other places," says Spitzmiller. "I remember thinking at the time, 'Wow, how amazing to be able to make something like that,' never imagining it could be me."

Spitzmiller's handmade Patricia lamp in Prussian blue is part of his line of 50 shapes in 45 vibrant glazes priced at $550 to $2,700. The Patricia was chosen by Obama decorator Michael S. Smith to flank two sofas in his Oval Office redo. The bluish-green table lamps with their gilded turned maple bases, solid brass fittings and off-white vellum shades add one of the few notes of color in the subdued beige-on-beige room.

The redecoration was unveiled last week before the president's address to the nation on Iraq. No taxpayer funds were used to pay for the new sofas, modern coffee table or the Spitzmiller lamps, which sell for $2,295 apiece. It was financed through the nonprofit White House Historical Association through a contribution from the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Patricia's columnar shape is not Spitzmiller's best-known design. That would be the gourd-shaped lamps he has been designing since the 1990s, which continue to inspire a host of knockoffs. "People identify with them because they are body-shaped and visually very interesting," he says. "It's actually a very old Chinese shape and represents fertility and good luck."

Spitzmiller's first foray into presidential decor began before the present administration. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush bought his lamps from Deborah Gore Dean, whose Georgetown shop used to carry them. "Unless you see the workmanship and the handmade quality of the designs in person, it is hard to understand why they are so good," says Dean, explaining the lamps' luxury prices. "He takes classic forms and glazes them over and over again and hand-gilds each base. This is a very, very good lamp." Spitzmiller's line is available locally through And Beige in Adams Morgan.

Spitzmiller, 39, comes from a region known for craftsmanship: East Aurora, N.Y., the home of Elbert Hubbard, a founder of the early-20th-century Arts and Crafts movement. After Spitzmiller graduated from St. Lawrence University, he studied ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design and in London. In 1995 he moved to Washington for his White House gig. He started making plates and lamps at a studio in the Jackson Art Center near Dumbarton Oaks and taught ceramics at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. One of his big breaks came, he says, when Georgetown designer Thomas Pheasant ordered three pairs of lamps. In 1999, Spitzmiller moved his workshop to New York.

Other Spitzmiller lamps are found in the Obama private quarters, the ceramicist confirmed. His status lamps also shine in other high-profile spaces. Both Oprah and Margaret Russell, the new editor of Architectural Digest, illuminate their offices with his work.

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