Michael Smith, Decorator of the Obamas’ White House, Has New Book


I was reading Michael Smith’s chronicle of designing the Obama White House, feeling serene, marinating in a luxurious world of wine-colored swatches and embossed mohair velvet and carpet border details desperately in need of tweaking.

Suddenly, I was confronted with violence.

Beneath a black-and-white picture of Jacqueline Kennedy looking at the blueprints for her White House plan, Mr. Smith reveals that Mrs. Kennedy may have fired her decorator, Sister Parish, because of an incident with Caroline.

“Mrs. Parish later admitted to learning that the first lady had been told that she had kicked young Caroline — a rumor the decorator didn’t exactly confirm or deny,” Mr. Smith writes in “Designing History,” which traces White House style from its first residents, John and Abigail Adams, to the Obamas.

I emailed Caroline Kennedy to see if that story could possibly be true.

“I would believe everything Michael Smith says,” she wrote back mischievously, adding, “That early trauma has clearly affected me deeply.”

I Zoomed with Mr. Smith, on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, who noted that he happened to be “very Kennedy attired,” sporting a nautical look of shorts and a Hermès navy blue sweater over a J. Crew shirt.

When Mr. Smith came to Washington, wanting to conjure the glamour of the Kennedys as another young family moved into the White House, what struck him?

“It’s like a white-water river rafting trip of history,” he said about his eight-year makeover of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “You walk into every room and you know, this is the room that Eartha Kitt challenged Lady Bird Johnson about Vietnam or this is the room that President Roosevelt addressed the nation in wartime or this is the room where Betty Ford discoed with Tony Orlando. The history of the White House is so extraordinarily dense, that to be conscious of it all the time was kind of amazing.”

And the Obamas were making history every day, as the first Black occupants of a house built with the labor of enslaved people.

In her foreword to the book, Michelle Obama says that Mr. Smith understood the stakes. “The pressure on any first family is enormous,” she writes. “The pressure on the first Black one would be even greater.”

The first time he was at the White House and saw President Barack Obama landing in Marine One, Mr. Smith said, it was “the most surreal, because you’re in this essentially, 18th-century-esque building, looking out the window and it was like ‘Mars Attacks.’ Only later, did I realize that all my newly made cushions for the Truman Balcony were littered all over the lawn.”

Did he see any ghosts?

“I would call Nancy Reagan and I would have all these long, long conversations,” Mr. Smith said. “I remember asking her about the ghosts and she thought I was insane.” He said that there were so many residents of the White House through the ages with grudges and unfinished business, that if all those poltergeists lingered, it would get very crowded.

“You’d have to have a four-year term,” he said, “or maybe if you’re a good ghost, you’d get to come back for eight.”

The “history obsessive,” as he calls himself, read anything he could find about past restorations, including letters from first ladies ranging from Mary Todd Lincoln to his favorite inspiration, Mrs. Kennedy.

Mr. Smith, 56, grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., with a mother who was a watercolor artist and a father who was in the import-export business. As a child he would read about various countries and periods — modern Japan or the Russian Revolution — and then eat food and style his room to match.

“When I got immersed in Japanese architecture, I asked my parents if I could put my mattress on the floor like a futon,” he said.

He looks like a California native, with a mop of beachy blond hair and a sun-kissed complexion. He is inspired by movies and says he started his White House job thinking of “Dave” and “The American President.”

The decorator, who lives and works primarily in Los Angeles, is a favorite of celebrities and moguls, with clients including Cindy Crawford, Steven Spielberg, Shonda Rhimes and Rupert Murdoch, and in places ranging from Chicago and Palm Beach to Las Vegas.

Tailoring the White House to a new family is more hazardous work. Furniture can fall apart if you move it or you can discover that the carpet you’re planning on using in the West Wing was made in China.

And since it is such a cherished landmark, the criticism will flow. “You do know you’re going to get trashed,” Mr. Smith said. “You get people who say you ruined it or other people would say it’s too fancy or people who said it wasn’t grand enough.”

His scheme for the Obama White House was to make the aura younger and fresher with “more inclusive art.”

Mr. Smith’s Oval Office evoked his West Coast aesthetic. A New York Times story by Penelope Green about the 2010 unveiling of the cappuccino-colored Oval Office redo — replacing the Belle Watling brightness of the Clinton Oval — was headlined “The Audacity of Taupe.” I teased in a column at the time that the most powerful place on earth was so swathed in earth tones, you would have thought Al Gore got elected. (Then again, he did.)

Sally Quinn, the Washington writer, described the transformation of the Oval this way: “Bush’s room says, ‘Let’s have a glass of sherry while we sign the treaty.’ Obama’s room says, ‘This is serious. We don’t have time to waste. Double espresso, anyone?’”

That line appeals to Mr. Smith, who says, “That was very much the idea, right? He was in the office all the time. And I think that I wanted it to be as peaceful and comfortable as it could be,” given the lofty proportions of the room and the intense “camera ready” lighting.

Mr. Obama did not care for the Chinese export plates with the presidential seal that had long been displayed on the bookshelves of the Oval Office. “I’m not really a plate kind of guy,” he once explained it to a rear admiral. (I am with him there.)

Aware of Mr. Obama’s fascination with technology — he particularly loved Science Day, when kids brought their projects to the White House — Mr. Smith replaced the plates with patent models from the Smithsonian: Samuel Morse’s telegraph, John A. Peer’s gear-cutting machine and Henry Williams’s steamboat paddle wheel.

Mr. Smith grew close to the Obamas as he feathered their temporary nest. His spectacular pad in Rancho Mirage — a Mayan glass and stucco palazzo in the desert with a Thunderbird-shaped pool, channeling the smells and spirit of Joan Didion’s “The White Album” — is a favorite R & R spot of the Obamas.

He notes that, felicitously, the Obamas’ view from that house is the same one that John F. Kennedy had when he stayed at the home of Bing Crosby, which was a couple streets away.

Mr. Smith’s partner is James Costos, a former H.B.O. executive who got to know the Obamas and raised money for the re-election campaign. Mr. Obama made Mr. Costos his ambassador to Spain in 2013 and Mr. Smith immediately redesigned the residence in Madrid, primarily with his own money. The decorator wanted American guests to be in “hyper-European rooms,” not unlike the fun sets for Lucille Ball’s European travels in “I Love Lucy.”

Mr. Smith and Mr. Costos were on board with Joe Biden early and eagerly, while others in Hollywood shopped around, and are raising money for him. “We’ve known Joe for a long time and we like him,” Mr. Smith said.

“Not many years before, if a president was hosted by an openly gay couple, it would have been a huge press story,” he said about the Obamas crashing at his house in California. “And by the time the Obamas stayed with us, it never occurred to anyone that it was news.”

He said the secret to not being too nervous when the president stays with you is not to look down.

“You consciously look out,” he said. “Because if you look down, you realize they’ve closed the street and towed all the cars away and there’s a 50-car motorcade with ambulances.”

And, of course, you can’t be upset when Secret Service agents rearrange the furniture. “They’d come and do this sweep of the house, and they would move every pillow and open every curtain and do the search. And I would have to be like, you know, ‘Could you just put the pillow back where it was?’”

In redoing the White House, Mr. Smith echoed the spirit of Mrs. Obama’s high-low fashion sense, mixing priceless antiques with Pottery Barn candle holders, Crate & Barrel decorative cushions and a couple Walmart chests of drawers.

He added comfy couches that their dogs could jump on and decorated the daughters’ bedrooms festively, mixing their Hannah Montana posters with Rauschenberg lithographs.

Mrs. Obama requested alarm clocks when she realized the girls had cleverly figured out how to ask for wake-up calls from the White House operator.

Far from wanting to kick the little ones Sister Parish-style, Mr. Smith writes, “I will always have a soft spot for Sasha and her incredibly savvy, pragmatic view — she slept in just half of her bed after realizing it would then take half as long to make it in the morning. And she was only 7 years old.”

His choice of a Shaker wooden bowl filled with apples for the coffee table in the Oval showed that he understood what he calls “the Obama mind-set”: distilled utility with an appreciation of the classical.

“He’s incredibly, infinitely more poised than almost anyone I know,” Mr. Smith says.

He only tangled twice with Mr. Obama on White House design. He “wasn’t keen” on a canopy bed, but Mr. Smith loves canopy beds — “a retreat within a retreat” — so the president deferred, saying, “If Michelle wants it, then we can have it.”

A tiger-maple four-poster was adapted to king size, covered in a down mattress cover and fitted with cotton sateen sheets. “I prefer linens with a satin finish and a light sheen to them; they feel so cool when you slide into bed,” writes Mr. Smith, who admits to being “enormously focused” on his clients’ beds. He told me, “I felt an almost patriotic duty to make sure we had a president who’s slept, right?”

At Mr. Obama’s request, they moved the Whistler, “Nocturne,” from his side of the bed to the mantel where he had a better view of it.

“It was integral to my entire narrative of them moving into this historic building that we create a romantic, private space for them to be alone as a couple,” Mr. Smith writes.

And, he told me, he’s always mindful how his clients move through space. “If you get up at 3 in the morning to eat chocolate ice cream” — or answer the red phone — “I want to make sure that the path from your bed to where you’re going is clear, that you’re not going to fall down a flight of stairs.”

(The house Mr. Smith is renting in Los Angeles, once owned by Tyrone Power, was famously the scene of such an accident, when David Niven’s wife fell down the stairs and died, after they played a party game, Sardines, in the dark.)

The other moment that left Mr. Obama exasperated was the debate about the “barn red” drapes that Mr. Smith wanted for the Oval.

“I think he described me as strident about it, which is just funny,” the decorator said. “He’s a convener, right? I think Valerie Jarrett thought they should be white. And somebody else thought they should be blue. Committee is always a sand trap. And I was really determined that they should be red because there was this heroic aspect. The Washington portrait, the Lincoln portrait, both have a piece of red fabric in the background. I just think it’s a very impassioned backdrop, and very classical. The iconography of his background should not be dulled down. He should be portrayed as a person who had deep conviction.”

Mr. Smith, who can be relentless in creating what he calls flattering “portraiture” to frame people’s lives, won the day.

Donald Trump, of course, wanted his backdrop to be gold, so he pulled Bill Clinton’s gold curtains out of storage and replaced the red ones. Mr. Trump also had no interest in Mr. Obama’s embroidered rug with the Teddy Roosevelt quote “The Welfare of Each of Us is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us.” He again went for the gold, recycling Ronald Reagan’s gold sunburst rug.

The Trumps made other changes, including switching to separate bedrooms and having two additional TVs installed in the president’s bedroom.

Clinton and Bush were relegated to the old family dining room, which is now sometimes used to store tablecloths and furniture, CNN said.

Until 2015, the old family dining room was not a room seen by the public. With funding from the nonpartisan White House Historical Association, Mrs. Obama and Mr. Smith chose colorful art and stately furniture from all eras, and added the room to the public tour of the State floor.

When Mrs. Obama unveiled it for Jenna Bush on “Today” the former first daughter seemed delighted with the room, reconceived in the Obamas’ eclectic, more modern, un-fuddy-duddy style, featuring an optimistic painting called “Resurrection” by Alma Thomas, a renowned African-American abstract artist who worked out of her home in D.C., blocks from the White House. She was the first Black woman whose work was in the permanent collection.

Now, CNN said, the Trump Administration has returned the room to its lesser status off the public tour, as almost a utility flex space.

I ask Mr. Smith how our time languishing in quarantine has changed design sensibilities. It has made people more hyper-aware of their homes, he said, more focused on comfortable beds and outdoor spaces.

When he talks to millennials, he finds that their tastes are simpler. “They’re interested in things that don’t have too much stimuli,” he said.

Maureen Dowd: You own Frank Sinatra’s golf cart at the Thunderbird country club in Rancho Mirage.

Michael Smith: I own one of many Frank Sinatra golf carts. Isn’t it more interesting than an orthodontist’s golf cart?

You don’t play golf.

Yes, I just drive it fast through my neighborhood and pretend I’ve gone for a jog.

You watched “Air Force One” on Air Force One.

Confirm. Harrison Ford is a client.

You’re single-handedly responsible for the Suzani trend.

Deny.

You love bunches of books sold by color.

Please, deny. Please.

Ceilings are a missed opportunity.

Oh my God, I thought you said feelings. I liked it better when I thought you said feelings. Ceilings have to be very subtle, but they can say volumes.

A rug tells you everything you need to know about a person.

You mean like a toupee? Or a real rug? Deny. It’s like vintage clothing. A rug might be evocative of somebody else’s traits, not your own.

At a White House party, you watched President Obama and Usher have a Gangnam-style dance-off.

Yes, absolutely.

Vanessa Williams sang “Happy Birthday” to you on an important night.

Yes, my 50th birthday in Madrid. She came to Madrid to sing “Happy Birthday” and she sang “Save the Best for Last,” which is kind of epic at the end of a party.

You serve ginger tea after every meal.

That’s a confirmation. Ginger-lemon-turmeric tea.

Tom Ford used your dining room in L.A. in a movie.

Yes, he shot the party scene from “Nocturnal Animals” there.

You threw Jane Fonda’s 80th birthday party.

Yes, true. Her son, Troy Garity, brought a D.J. who was so great, everyone, including the waiters, were dancing.

Celebrities love to take selfies in the leopard-upholstered bar of the house you’re renting in L.A.

Yes, the house was built by Paul Williams, an amazing African-American architect, for Tyrone Power. And I temporarily covered the walls with leopard.

You wanted to use leopard wallpaper in the White House.

I don’t think Obama’s an animal-print fan. It doesn’t seem like a fit for him.

You went to Swifty Lazar’s last, legendary Oscar party at the old Spago.

He invited me but only for two hours. He hunted me down and told me I had to leave. I did talk to Angie Dickinson in the line to the bathroom.

Your New York apartment was the apartment where the real “Six Degrees of Separation” happened.

Confirm. It was Oz and Inger Elliott’s apartment.

On vacation, you’re never happy with the lighting of houses where you stay. So you travel with a roadie case of nine D.J. LED color-changing lights that are rechargeable, so you can relight the spaces.

Confirm.

You’re redoing Bob Evans’s house, which was bought by David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications.

Confirm.

You wanted to put one of those all-glass showers, like Kevin Kline had in “Dave,” in the president’s bathroom.

I could have but no.

As Diana Vreeland said, it’s not bad taste you object to, it’s no taste you object to.

Confirm.



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