By Political Design

by Dara Klatt

Michael S. Smith, author of “Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House,” offers five tips to add a touch of presidential bravura to your home.

Michael S. Smith (Photo by Michael Mundy).

No matter the political party or era, the First Family will not only leave its mark on American policy but on the house it was formed in. On the heels of the 2020 presidential conventions and the possibility that a new chief executive might occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW after the January inauguration, we spoke to interior designer Michael S. Smith, author of the newly released book “Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House” (Rizzoli New York, 2020), who divulged iconic design advice based on his experience updating the nation’s most symbolic residence during the Obama era to herald a new spirit in your own home.

TO BE INSPIRED: Explore the history
To more fully contextualize a home’s storied past, reflect on the former owners’ style over the years.The most notable inspiration for the Obama White House style, Smith says, came from looking at former first families first, especially the Kennedys, Monroes and Reagans. “It was interesting to look at the different ways families adapted to the house and how what they did in their time felt modern through the lens of history.”

The Center Hall in the White House (Photo by Michael Mundy).

TO ADD MODERN SOPHISTICATION: Incorporate contemporary art
The Obamas’ interest in culture, art and literature meant that “there were a lot of choices of contemporary art to bring the White House into the 21st century,” Smith says. Various foundations and artists’ estates donated 20th century works to the White House Collection, including pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Alma Thomas.

Because several White House residence rooms are windowless and lacking in natural light, Smith put in an up-to-date lighting system. “Adding proper lighting for the art and surfaces made the rooms much more usable for a contemporary family.”

TO CAPTURE YOUTH: Use bright colors
Smith insists they didn’t “kid proof ” the White House when Malia and Sasha Obama (who were 10 and 7 respectively) moved in but rather “made the rooms feel brighter and more cheerful … without losing the spirit of the fact that it’s the White House.”

The Yellow Oval Room in the White House (Photo by Michael Mundy).

The hand-painted stripes in the Oval Office and the woven, rich blue fabric stripes in the Dining Room “give a sense of their extensive height,” Smith says. “Vertical stripes, although traditional, live comfortably in modern environments. They give a sense of history, but sit easily and are not too elaborate or busy.”

Michael S. Smith (Photo by Michael Mundy).

Published in our September 2020 issue.

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