At Tuesday’s state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the “good china” being used is finally the Obamas’ own.
The Obama state china service, 320 11-piece place settings made by Pickard China of Antioch, Ill., was introduced Monday at a packed media preview in the State Dining Room. So packed, in fact, there was concern in the crowd that some clumsy soul in the gaggle of TV cameras and pushy reporters might bump into the tables laden with dishes, delicate gold-rimmed stemware, and massive centerpieces of cherry blossoms and orchids.
The Obama china has been in the works for about a year. The $367,258 cost of the china, all 3,520 pieces, was paid for with private funds donated by the White House Historical Association’s White House Endowment Trust.
It joins a long line of gorgeous sets of china the first family has on hand, whether the glam Reagan red service made by Lenox or Lady Bird Johnson’s beloved state service depicting American flowers, designed by Tiffany & Co. and manufactured by Castleton China.
“The idea was to do a service that was representative of them and this moment in history, but it also needed to bridge between the other services so they could blend beautifully together,” said Michael S. Smith, the Obamas’ designer for the White House, who worked with Michelle Obama on the china. “We looked at the design collectively, rather than creating something that would only stand alone.”
According to William Allman, White House curator, the design gives a modern aesthetic to the china “while continuing to draw on historic and traditional elements.”
Smith said that he and the first lady spoke to the White House chefs and other staff about what shapes and sizes of plates and bowls would be welcome additions to the presidential china closet.
Meaningful references can be found throughout the settings. “Kailua Blue” appears on a number of the pieces, inspired by the bluish-green waters off Hawaii, the president’s home state. “We think it’s a color that food looks good on,” Smith said. There is also a bas-relief motif taken from an 1806 French dinner service used by James and Dolley Madison. The Obama china, Smith said, was designed to be flexible and coordinate well with the other state services for large gatherings.
The china won’t be collecting any dust. It will serve as the backdrop for some toro tartare, Caesar sashimi salad and American Wagyu beef tenderloin at Tuesday’s state dinner, at which the 200 guests will have the choice of digging in with a silver fork or red chopsticks.
Pickard China has produced custom china for Blair House, Air Force One and Camp David. It also makes the official State Department china used in American embassies worldwide. The family company, founded in 1893, has 40 employees.
“It’s a special honor to be selected,” says Andrew Pickard Morgan, who heads the company founded by his great-grandfather. He mentioned two pieces in the Obama service that are unique shapes made for the White House. One is the bas-relief element in the white dinner plate. The other is the individual miniature tureen that can be used to serve various courses.
According to Betty Monkman, former White House curator, the first president credited with having porcelain decorated specifically for the president’s house was James Monroe, who ordered it from Paris in 1817. Not every president orders a state service, but it has become more popular in the past 50 years. “I think it’s a way to leave a legacy for the future and have it reflect the period in history and the interests of the first family,” Monkman said. Another reason is that some older services are incomplete, having chipped or broken over time.
Up to the Truman years, government appropriations were used to pay for the china. Afterward, nongovernment sources have picked up the tab.
For comparison, the Reagans ordered 220 19-piece place settings in scarlet and gold for $210,399. They were raked over the coals by the news media for the high cost, even though it was paid for by a private foundation. Monkman said that Nancy Reagan brought a lot of glamour and glitz to Washington but didn’t strategize the announcement. “Her timing was really off when they unveiled the china. President Reagan was cutting a lot of funds for school nutrition programs,” Monkman recalled.
The Bill Clinton and George W. Bush china services were paid for by the White House Historical Association. The Clintons’ 300 12-piece Lenox gold and white place settings honor the White House bicentennial and cost $239,425. Laura and George W. Bush chose 320 14-piece place settings that are green and white with motifs from White House history. Their china cost $492,798.
Smith says the selection was made to give more flexibility in entertaining. “The Obamas are always trying to do things thoughtfully and think of the next family who will be in the White House.”
The next president is going to have a whole lot of china to mix and match.
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