What chaos. Chintz, silk, photos of Jimmy Carter's old bedroom, and here, on the work table in Ted Graber's Beverly Hills office, the reason reporters and eager shag carpet salesmen are calling from across America: the White House floor plans.
"See what happened to you?" says Graber's assistant, Jean Hayden Mathison. "After all these years, your balloon went up."
Sighs the new First Decorator: "It's such a hullabaloo."
But he smiles.
Once Ted Graber could move through the special world of premier designers in quiet glory, refurbishing the U.S ambassador's residence in London for $1 million, catering to Joan Crawford, decorating the walled Palm Springs estate of publisher Walter Annenberg -- all to the polite applause of the Los Angeles Old Guard.
No more. Now he's been brought to the White House, a decorator's Everest, by a first lady who knows her Karastan from her Kelim. She had him help with the flowers and table decorations for Ronald Reagan's 70th birthday party at the White House tonight, and in past weeks, the two have been busy with the more extensive upstairs decorating that has set off some of the liveliest sparks of the new administration.
First Nancy Reagan suggested at a Georgetown dinner party that she, for one, might move out of the White House early to ensure that the next administration would have plenty of time to settle in. This did not sit well with the Carters; many assumed she wanted them out so she could begin refurbishing before Jan. 20.
Then her husband, in one of the first acts of his administration, decreed that Cabinet members were not to redo their own offices. That day, Graber was staying at the White House redoing the family quarters.
"There's a difference between a place where you live and a place where you work," explained White House press secretary James Brady.
There was also a difference with the budget. The first family is allowed a congressional appropriation of $50,000 to redecorate their private quarters, but Graber, in earlier interviews, has said that the average cost of decorating one good room, not including art and antiques, is $50,000.
"I don't think what Mr. Graber said then could possibly apply," responds Sheila Patton, Nancy Reagan's press secretary.
The cost of the White House job? "I haven't a clue," says Graber.
Some news stories have reported that any cost overruns could be covered by a $3 million annual White House maintenance fund, although others said the extra money would come from private contributions. But now Patton is not referring to the redecoration as a redecoration.
"Mrs. Reagan is not calling it anything right now except moving in," she explains. "I can't get any cost for you. . . It's just too complicated."
Graber arrived in Washington on Air Force One, stayed at the Hay-Adams Hotel, attended only the choicest inaugural parties, and on Jan. 21, moved into the White House as a guest of the Reagans. Tonight, he's also to be a guest at the president's birthday party.
He is 61 and slightly gray, a natty dresser, gourmet cook and master of the witty comeback. "Beautiful sense of humor," says Mathison, his assistant. "He comes up with some goodies." Nancy Reagan thinks so, too. "They have fun together," adds Mathison. "She laughs with him."
Not all do. "The difficulty is when the client is insecure," he said in the book "Decorating for Celebrities." "You can smell it. But it's an attitude rather than anything they say. When clients are too demanding and difficult, I just stop everything. I'm too old, too tired and too rich to put up with that."
At the White House, he's been closeted away upstairs, measuring the rooms, shopping for fabric and studiously avoiding the new publicity.
"I just happen to be quite a private fellow," he says during an interview at his hushed Beverly Hills office, a place thick with plants and antiques. "I'm not kidding you. My profile is quite low." Graber has a dimpled chin, black brows, a sharp nose and bright blue eyes that suggest bemused exasperation with all these people who won't stop bothering him about the client on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"What you're creating," he says simply, "is a different nest away from home." At the White House, he'll adapt some of the Reagans' California furniture -- mostly English antiques and Chinese porcelain -- to the 19 rooms that comprise the upstairs family quarters.
The Carters' four-poster Chippendale double bed, formerly used by Pat Nixon, already has been moved for the twin beds preferred by the Reagans. Graber expects there will be new rugs, new wallpaper, new drapes and fresh paint. The Carters, who didn't use all of their allocated $50,000, did little decorating during their four years.
"Some of the rooms are in good condition," says Clement Conger, the White House curator, "but others really do need redecorating badly. Some have not been done in many, many years. The carpets are worn, and the draperies are faded. We were planning to do some rooms over completely had the Carters been reelected." Graber won't touch the ground floor or state rooms, which Conger says are in good shape.
Graber's style, described by one client as "classic," is expected to make the upstairs White House look as elegantly cozy as possible in a 132-room mansion with corridors that echo. "The best thing he does is give you that wonderful lived-in look," says Paige Rense, a close friend and editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest.
"Middle-of-the-road," assesses Jay Spectre, a top New York designer whose taste is more contemporary. "He represents a certain staid quality, and there's nothing wrong with that. Mediocrity is not a mortal sin. It's just not very interesting."
"He doesn't do anything theatrical," says Mario Buatta, another top New York designer. "It's not a Hollywood look." Antiques and Invitations
But Hollywood was where he got his start. He grew up in Los Angeles, spending Saturdays and summers at his father's antique shop. One customer was Cora Le Seur, Joan Crawford's aunt. Graber redid her home when he was 18, then studied at the Chouinard Art Institute. He spent World War II with the Army in the Aleutian Islands. ("All those long marches, dreaming of color schemes," he once said. "It was so dull.")
Afterward, he went to work for Bill Haines, the Hollywood actor turned decorator who had bought antiques from Graber's father. Haines was the flamboyant socializer in the partnership that came to include clients in the clique of rich Californians surrounding the Reagans: Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale, the Annenbergs, Earle and Marion Jorgensen, Henry and Grace Salvatori, and Armand and Harriet Deutsch.
Haines died in 1973. Graber was left with the business as well as the social responsibilities, and by all accounts, has done well at both. Friends say he is more the small dinner host and less the gregarious partygoer than Haines was, but during the inauguration, Graber did turn up at a Georgetown brunch for White House deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver, the Kennedy Center inaugural ball, and an exclusive party afterward at the Jockey Club.
"We're all very fond of him," says Betsy Bloomingdale, a friend of 30 years. "He's got a great sense of humor, but he is a shy man underneath that. He's not really a party boy at all."
Still, Graber seemed as much at home on the Jockey Club's red leather banquettes as did Henry Kissinger and William F. Buckley. And on his way out at 2 a.m., he stopped to chat with Bloomingdale as well as Mercedes Kellogg, a New York socialite.
"It's a fascinating, wonderful town," he'd said in the crush at the Georgetown brunch. Not far away, waiters found it easier to pass food through the windows. The noise level was reminiscent of the Republican convention.
Graber smiled with delight. "All this madness," he said. Sprucing Up History
Graber never actually decorated the Reagans' Pacific Palisades house, but he did spruce it up. He painted the living room walls a warm gray and re-upholstered the sofa with a vine and pomegranate print in off-blue, corn yellow and red. He's fond of simple, modern backgrounds that show off antiques. It always looks expensive.
Here's what he hates:
Wall-to-wall carpeting. Overstuffed furniture and gold fittings. Tablecloths. Mirrored ceilings. And fabric on walls puffed out three inches from the plaster. Says Graber: "It belongs in mental institutions so the inmates can't hurt themselves."
Here's what he likes: Wood floors. Simple lamps. Good chandeliers. And everywhere, fresh flowers.
Graber's Beverly Hills office, not far from Rodeo Drive, is hidden away on a quiet street. There are Mercedes parked in front, as always. A client can alight onto the curbside grass, lush green in mid-winter, and take a pleasant stroll past the thick ivy and strange subtropical foliage of Graber's cool, terraced entranceway.
The big bronze door opens to reveal a Waterford crystal chandelier, two carved wood lions and a marble bust of some long-dead personage. Around the corner is more: a Chinese Coromandel screen, 18th century Chinese vases, a mid-18th century carved wood mirror and Mathison, his assistant. She's been answering the phone a lot.
"The poor, dear souls," she sighs. "They've been calling from all over the country, saying they've got special deals on shag carpeting.
"I've gotten calls," she continues, then emphasizes for effect, "from Iowa!"
Another call. Mathison goes to answer. "I'm sorry," she says, "he's out of the office today." She brings coffee in a silver service to her boss, slouched comfortably in a red leather and mahogany custom-made chair.
Friends say Graber is as understated as one of his rooms. "I know it's hard to believe," says Rense of Architectural Digest, "but he's just sort of a nice guy who's been working along very quietly, in a very low-key way, for years. He doesn't push. He's one of the few designers who's never asked me to look at his work.
"His work," she continues, "is really his whole life. And it always has been."
Says Graber: "I'm never without it." He taps his head and adds, "It's up here."
He does needlework and cooks to relax. It was avocado salad and posoli, a New Mexican dish, the other night. At Christmas it was a whole, fresh ham and for presents, orangy "California Christmas cakes." Sometimes he exchanges recipes with Betsy Bloomingdale.
Never married, he lives in a West Los Angeles apartment that's off-white, beige and brown."When I go home after a day's work of coloring," he once said, "I want to wash my eyes, so to speak."
These days, he doesn't even try to act blase about the White House job. "Of course it's thrilling," he says. "It's nothing but history. Truthfully. When you think of who's been walking down those corridors. . ."
A messenger arrives at the office. "Hello there, young man," says Graber. The young man is returning a sample of Graber's wallpaper, loaned to Paramount Pictures for the set of "Mommie Dearest," the film about Joan Crawford's life. "They're trying to re-create as much as possible what her surroundings were," he explains.
He asks for more coffee. Twirls his glasses with a finger. And then leads the way into his back workshop, which has walls lined with shelves that hold bolt after bolt of silk, chintz, linen, plaids. Everything is arranged by fabric and hue so that Graber, when he sits in the middle of the room at his work table, simply casts his eyes outward to visualize any number of color schemes.
"You sit here with a blank piece of paper," he explains, "and that's the canvas. Hopefully, when you're done with that, you've got a pretty picture. But you have to think in all dimensions."
On the work table are the White House floor plans. They seem odd in a Beverly Hills office on a warm winter day, although not to Graber. They represent challenge. And fun.
"Why shouldn't it be?" he asks. "There better be some laughs in it, or it's not for me."
"As he's said himself," says Betsy Bloomingdale, "'There are many decorators -- but only one that comes in and does the White House.'"