A few days before Vincent C. Gray was sworn in as D.C.’s mayor Jan. 2, Trystin Francis, an events planner with a gift for arranging interiors, got a call for help.
Gray needed a volunteer to move him into the traditional sixth-floor mayor’s office suite in the John A. Wilson Building and make it look, well, mayoral. Existing furniture left at the 2007 departure of Anthony A. Williams would have to be used because the redecoration budget was zero. Francis, 28, would need to start tomorrow and finish in two days. Did he want the unpaid use-what-you-have decorating gig?
Yes, he did. “It was an amazing opportunity,” says Francis, who had volunteered on Gray’s campaign. “My mission was to create a story using all of the mayor’s memorabilia and make the space welcoming. I wanted to make sure people could feel his sense of warmth.”
Last week, Gray seemed at home in his new digs. He had settled on a favorite meeting chair, next to a basketball autographed by former Washington Wizard Gilbert Arenas. He’d figured out how to adjust the shades to keep the sun from blasting through the floor-to-ceiling windows. And he was already giving tours of his mayoral library, which Francis had arranged as a sort of museum of Gray’s life: a wooden table made for him by Covenant House; a license plate that says CHRMN; a 1951 Nat King Cole album; a map of Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington; awards for his work with citizens with disabilities; and lots of Redskins and Nationals tchotchkes.
“We wanted to bring this office back to life and bring people up here again,” says Gray, 68. “It really feels like me.” He looks at a stack of papers on his memento-laden desk. “I like a place that looks lived in.”
Translation: He has a lot of stuff.
A change of leadership usually brings a change in style. And in Gray’s case, he decided to relocate the mayor’s office to the traditional suite on the sixth floor. Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty had moved his command center to a more open-plan, third-floor bullpen. Williams’s modern suite — reception area, long hallway, wood-paneled library, conference room and private office, all decorated with lots of wood, glass and beige — had been virtually unused during the Fenty years.
When Francis, a Sodexo employee who plans events at the Venable law firm’s Washington office, showed up to decorate, he first wiped down shelves, dusted off upholstery and dumped dead plants. Then he began unpacking boxes piled with more than 500 pieces of Gray memorabilia: crystal baseballs, framed photos, family mementos, signed footballs, award plaques and logo water bottles that are part of the look of most Washington politicians’ offices.
“When I got here, someone told me that this was everything I had to work with, and that the mayor likes things in chronological order,” says Francis. He says he took a deep breath and started organizing.
Fortunately, Francis, who lives in Congress Heights, got to know Gray during his campaign time as a volunteer in Gray’s advance operations team. Originally from New York, Francis studied art but ended up in marketing and event planning. He holds a master’s degree in communications and media studies from Howard University. He has always had a way with arranging rooms, and his friends come to him for decorating help, he says.
The suite’s hallways are lined with awards and commendations. In the conference room, Francis spaced the mayor’s mug collection in neat rows. “I could not believe how everything was arranged,” Gray says. “I need Trystin to come to my house. How about tomorrow?”
The mayor’s inner sanctum has a large desk and a sitting area with seating for eight arranged around a coffee table. “I tried to create a small living room in there,” Francis says. Hanging over the cream sofa is a focal point: “Voice,” a colorful acrylic collage depicting three boys in front of microphones testifying at one of the monthly youth hearings Gray held as D.C. Council chairman. The artwork is the collaboration of 12 boys from Life Pieces to Masterpieces, a nonprofit group serving Wards 7 and 8. The work was presented to Gray at December’s hearing.
When Francis discovered it among the mayor’s belongings, he was struck by it. “This was a very unique piece, and it really spoke to me,” Francis says. “I didn’t really know anything about it, but I knew it would look great over the sofa. We needed something dramatic and beautiful that people could look at when they were talking to the mayor.” Gray agreed.
Mary Brown, executive director of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, had no idea what had become of the collage. Reached on the phone last week, she was a bit teary. “This blows me away. I was hoping he would put it in a good place,” she says. “On this side of the river, you just hope that somebody notices.”