The Rayburn House Office Building is a labyrinth of beige offices.
And then, there’s . . . Rep. Aaron Schock’s new digs.
Bright red walls. A gold-colored wall sconce with black candles. A Federal-style bull’s-eye mirror with an eagle perched on top. And this is just the Illinois Republican’s outer office.
“It’s actually based off of the red room in ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” said the woman behind the front desk, comparing it to the luxurious set piece at the heart of the British period drama.
This was a bold room. But the confidence was a mirage. For on Capitol Hill, caution is king when it comes to the micromanagement of one’s image, even in the case of how a congressman decides to decorate his office.
And sometimes, a friendly outsider can inadvertently ruin a communications director’s day.
A blond woman popped out of an inner office. “Want to see the rest?” she asked.
She introduced herself as Annie Brahler, the interior decorator whose company is called Euro Trash. She guided me to Schock’s private office, revealing another dramatic red room. This one with a drippy crystal chandelier, a table propped up by two eagles, a bust of Abraham Lincoln and massive arrangements of pheasant feathers.
Then, my phone rang.
It was Schock’s communications director, Benjamin Cole.
“Are you taking pictures of the office?” he asked. “Who told you you could do that? . . . Okay, stay where you are. You’ve created a bit of a crisis in the office.”
A staff member then came and asked me to please delete the photos from my phone. So started a day of back-and-forths with a congressman’s office about interior design.
Schock, 33, is one of the rising stars of the Republican Party. He’s young, has six-pack abs that landed him on the cover of Men’s Health and is a prodigious fundraiser. He’s also one of the most media-savvy members of Congress, with an Instagram feed that features him surfing, hiking across glaciers, tangoing on the streets of Buenos Aires and smiling next to duck-faced pop star Ariana Grande.
An office decorated in a unique way would hardly be surprising; it would just be another interesting fact about a congressman who has built a brand as not just another politician. So why was this a crisis?
“You’ve got a member [of Congress] willing to talk to you about other things,” Cole said on the phone. “Why sour it by rushing to write some gossipy piece?”
The magnitude of this manufactured PR catastrophe seemed to elude Brahler, who lives and operates her business in Illinois. She was happy to discuss her work, saying she didn’t get why the staff acted so “prickly.”
Brahler met the congressman in his district years ago, and he was impressed with her work, which he had seen in magazines. She likes to say that she can turn things ready for the trash heap into something beautiful.
When a member of Congress moves into an office, the bare essentials are provided by the House of Representatives. Furniture and computers are often handed down by other offices. New members are also entitled to a new paint job, although there are only a limited number of available colors — beige, eggshell, light blue, light gray or light yellow — that the House will provide. Additional decorations must come out of the lawmaker’s pocket.
Brahler offered her services for free, according to Schock’s office, although he had to pay for the objects. She had decorated his old office on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building, one of the least desirable pieces of congressional real estate. While his new office takes a bit of inspiration from “Downton Abbey,” it’s not a replica of what’s seen on the PBS hit.
“I guess because he’s fresh-minded and forward-thinking, he’s not hung up on doing things the same way as everyone else,” Brahler said. “It’s gotten to where he’s comfortable with everything I do.”
Except, perhaps, when she gives a tour of his office to a journalist.
“You see, the congressman hasn’t even seen the office yet,” Cole told me later. “Surely, it wouldn’t be fair for you to write about his office until he has the chance to see it.”
I told him if I could be there when Schock first saw the office, I would hold off till then. Cole agreed, and we reached the Red Walls Accord of 2015.
That is, until Schock decided he wasn’t interested in doing a whole story about how his office is decorated.
“He’s happy to talk to you, just not about the office,” Cole said, sounding very tired of the ordeal. “I’m really sorry and want you to know this is not fun for me.”
Cole was back in touch later to add one more piece of information relating to Schock and “Downton Abbey”: “I don’t even know if he watches it; I don’t know what shows he watches. But I don’t think he watches much TV.”