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Presidents come and go, but these curtains are forever

President Biden and Vice President Harris speak with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, right, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, left, in the Oval Office on Jan. 25. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Do those gold silk curtains in President Biden’s Oval Office look familiar?

They should. They were designed for Bill Clinton’s Oval Office in 1993 by Little Rock decorator Kaki Hockersmith. But they have turned out to be one of the constants in our democracy, gracing the most powerful windows in the land during the administrations of four of the past five presidents.

Talk about a backdrop to history.

“The curtains in the Oval Office are so important,” Hockersmith says. “This design in the yellow damask has a sort of timelessness about it. The most photographed or filmed view of that room is the president sitting at his desk working. People have that as the image of the seat of power.”

The White House is a place of history that reflects every presidential family that has lived there. It’s constantly undergoing preservation and redecoration. And arguably, the Oval Office is the most important and iconic room, where presidents address the nation after terrorist attacks or talk on the phone with world leaders. Each president makes their own design statement there.

“Everyone now personalizes it,” the late historian William Seale once told me. “They usually don’t change much right away. But then they might change the curtains, and everyone eventually gets a new rug.”

“The curtains are important because they become synonymous with the president and quickly identifiable,” says Michael S. Smith, the Obamas’ decorator, who used a traditional barn-red wool for President Barack Obama’s Oval Office windows, harking back to a red curtain color he saw in portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Smith, who recently published “Designing History: The Extraordinary Art and Style in the Obama White House,” says Hockersmith’s curtains “feel sunny and light.” He added, “I like seeing President Biden with what looks like warm sun coming through the windows.”

For the past 28 years, these floor-to-ceiling curtains with blue banding and six curved Empire valances, installed on Clinton’s Inauguration Day, have garnered bipartisan support. Hockersmith watched as her curtains remained in place during the first year of the George W. Bush presidency, until his decorator Ken Blasingame replaced them with a bronze set that he and Laura Bush decided would complement a new lighter Oval Office rug they commissioned. The gold curtains were put into storage and stayed there during the Obama years. Hockersmith watched the coverage of President Donald Trump the day he arrived at his Oval Office in 2017. She hadn’t expected to see the curtains she designed, but after counting the swags and zooming in on the custom banding, she knew they were hers. They have hung there ever since.

Hockersmith’s curtains also have become presidential pop-culture props: They were copied in the Oval Office of fictional president Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen on the NBC series “The West Wing.”

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But how do newly elected presidents decide on their look? Betty Monkman, former White House curator, says every president is given the option of choosing from curtains already in the White House collection or having their own designed. “The curator’s office would have given the Bidens notebooks of the Oval Office draperies and carpets and desks that are in storage, says Monkman, who is the author of “The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families.” There are curtains in an off-site storage facility going back to at least the 1960s, she says, carefully preserved and wrapped in muslin. A little-known fact, she says, is that the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his Oval Office was already undergoing a redecoration, including changing the grayish-green curtains he inherited from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to a simpler white. These then became the curtains in Lyndon B. Johnson’s office.

President-elects have traditionally used a decorator of their choice to put together the Oval Office for Inauguration Day, usually relying on what is available in storage. Later, if they chose to, they could install new curtains, rugs and upholstery as soon as they could be custom made, things usually paid for by private donors or the White House Historical Association. (President Biden and first lady Jill Biden have not yet officially named a decorator. The White House curator’s office and other staffers would have assisted them with their selection of the Clinton draperies and Clinton’s blue rug with the presidential seal.) “This Oval is an Oval for Day 1,” Ashley Williams, the deputy director of Oval Office operations, told The Washington Post on an Inauguration Day tour. “It was important for President Biden to walk into an Oval that looked like America and started to show the landscape of who he is going to be as president.”

Hockersmith is the first decorator in modern times who was able to install new custom-made curtains on a new president’s Inauguration Day. This was because she was able to measure in advance, due to the access George and Barbara Bush gave to the Clintons after Bill Clinton was elected.

Hockersmith recalls her first visit to the White House, not long after the 1992 election. “I was invited to come with Hillary to the White House. We were escorted up and introduced to [Barbara Bush], and I remember the Bushes’ dog running around my feet,” she says. After the tour, Hockersmith was invited to come back whenever she needed for planning and measuring. “I made two or three more trips during the transition,” she says. “We had a lot of access that the Bidens weren’t afforded. They didn’t have a chance to think about those kinds of things.”

She recalls spreading out her fabric swatches and paint chips for consideration for the Oval Office on the big kitchen island in the Arkansas governor’s mansion. Bill Clinton liked her pick for the curtains: Scalamandre’s Newport Damask, a historic fabric design Hockersmith had researched. She had discovered that a fragment of a red damask in the same pattern was found in the Philadelphia house occupied by George Washington when he was president. The fabric would go perfectly with her color scheme of red, blue and gold. “He wanted a change in look in his office that would envision his personality,” she recalls. “He loved the energy of the patriotic colors.”

Hockersmith worked quickly so she could have the curtains made in time to be installed on Inauguration Day, immediately signifying a change in power. Her yellow curtains replaced the neoclassical pale blue draperies designed by Mark Hampton for George and Barbara Bush. Late Washington upholsterer Nelson Wurz, whose firm Nelson Beck had made the curtains for Hockersmith, waited at the West Gate of the White House for Clinton to be sworn in. Then he rushed to the Oval Office, as he had only a few hours to complete his job.

Wurz recalled the frenzy for me in a 2001 interview for The Post. “You could hardly move around the room. There were about 28 people in there,” he said. “There were telephone people, Secret Service, window washers, picture hangers and movers.” The curtains were installed just before the Clintons arrived. And the rest is history.

Former White House decorators, an exclusive club, are intrigued to see what new presidents choose from the growing stacks of presidential rugs and curtains in storage.

Blasingame calls Biden’s look of yellow curtains and blue rug “bright and refreshing.” He is always amused when he sees his designs pop up in other administrations. “You go into this job knowing that your work isn’t going to last forever,” Blasingame says. “So it’s fun to see something that you designed that has been repurposed.” The two beige linen damask sofas he designed for George W. Bush’s office later served Obama for almost two years and Trump for four years. Now they are in Biden’s Oval Office.

“We tested the sofas with different seat cushions to be sure that the seats were conducive to office comfort, not home comfort, and that guest or staff could rise up without struggling from a soft cushion,” Blasingame says. “I guess that’s working.”

Meanwhile, Hockersmith had the chance to remake the gold curtains a second time: an exact copy hangs in the full-size replica of the Oval Office at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

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