Art & Design Interiors & Design

Designer in Chief: Meet the Man Who Reworked the White House Interiors

Having reimagined the White House for the Obamas, celebrated designer Michael S. Smith reveals all about creating a home fit for a president

Many designers will tell you of commissions that have come via word of mouth, but it’s a very serendipitous recommendation that leads to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. Here, Michael S. Smith explains exactly how working on the White House interiors came about, and shares other fascinating details from his recently published book: Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House (Rizzoli).

Designing History cover and Michael S. Smith with Barack Obama
Designing History, which features a foreword by Michelle Obama and Michael S. Smith, pictured with Barack Obama. “The commission opened up a new world for me; an understanding of politics, and of diplomacy,” says Smith. Image: Pete Souza

How did the White House commission come to you?
The [then] new White House Social Secretary, Desirée Rogers, lived in a beautiful building in Chicago, where a client of mine also lived. My client and I had this great blue-sky conversation about what an Obama White House should look like, about how the White House should be, and also about how the values of the Obamas and their campaign should be reflected in the design of the interiors—the sense of inclusiveness and diversity. And she said, “Oh, I’m going to get you the job.”

It’s a weird thing but I really wasn’t nervous. I was more overwhelmed by the amount of work and by a desire not to make a mistake

I just thought it was a joke. I had no idea what the ripple effect of that conversation would be: a few weeks later, in November, we were in Jamaica and I got a call while I was on the beach saying that they were interested in talking to me. The rest is history.

The White House's Yellow Oval Room
The Yellow Oval Room, with its soaring ceilings, featured paintings by Paul Cézanne (left) and Daniel Garber from the White House collection, and antique toys from the Smithsonian. Image: Michael Mundy

How did you begin the commission?
On Inauguration Day, when the new president takes over, there’s a tradition where the outgoing president and the incoming president have coffee in a room at the White House. They both then go to the inauguration and the outgoing president leaves afterwards, taking Air Force One for the last time. Interestingly, it’s not called that for the flight, because only serving presidents fly on Air Force One. For this journey it’s called Presidential Flight.

So, as a designer, you have from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. to get to know the space you’re going to work on. We were lucky as we had a little extra time, but I had never been upstairs at the White House. I’d never been in the private residence. They give you lots of papers with facts and figures, information, plans, and photos and you’re supposed to work from these.

White House family sitting room and private dining room
Sean Scully’s ONEONEZERONINE RED was displayed in the family's personal sitting room (left), while George P. A. Healy’s The Peacemakers took pride of place on the far wall of the Private Dining Room. Images: Michael Mundy

Tell us more about reflecting the values of the Obama campaign in the design of the White House’s private residence.
The Bushes left the house in great order, very together. The one thing I thought that I could do was to borrow contemporary paintings for the rooms. I knew the ceilings were super high and that it was going to be impactful. And I knew that bringing in these artworks [from the likes of Sean Scully and Hans Hofmann, borrowed from famous museums and galleries] would just give the White House a different feeling. Bringing abstract paintings, for example, into a pretty traditional interior and architecture would make it feel a bit younger and fresher and more diverse.

Were you nervous about the commission?
It’s a weird thing but I really wasn’t nervous. I was more overwhelmed by the amount of work and by a desire not to make a mistake. I think I’ve been in interior design long enough to know that it was going to be a Herculean effort to get it done in a very limited amount of time. The access is very limited, so with a job like this you have to plan way in advance, you have to have security clearance, everything has to be very organized. It’s kind of like building a ship in a bottle. You have to be very planning oriented. I knew enough to be scared of the effort but not really of the job itself.

White House Main Bedroom
The Main Bedroom, which looks out over the wide South Lawn, had an early-19th-century American four-poster bed, with a raw silk canopy, curtains, and valance. Image: Michael Mundy

But there’s an extra level, because it’s the Obamas?
Part of their capacity and charm is their ability to negate your fear, to make you feel not frightened and not overwhelmed by the process. The first thing they do is to dismantle that reaction, and allow you to focus on the work. It’s very much the Obama thing: they have a warmth and authentic kind of empathy.

Bringing abstract paintings into the White House’s traditional interiors made it feel a bit younger, fresher, and more diverse

What was the time frame?
I made it short because I wanted them to be comfortable. We really pretty much did everything in the first six to seven months. From being at zero at the end of January when the inauguration is, we tried to get up and running as quickly as possible.

White House Center Hall
In the transformed Center Hall, Hans Hofmann’s Staccato in Blue was displayed on the far wall and White Line, by Sam Francis, hung in the foreground, both on loan from the National Gallery of Art. Image: Michael Mundy

Was there anything that surprised you about the White House?
Yes, you see all these images of the White House, but the big thing for me is how tall the rooms are upstairs. It sounds kind of silly, but it really informed and changed some of the designs because you don’t realize that, even though the rooms are relatively normal in scale, they’re very tall. It’s something I couldn’t tell from photographs and it was something I never expected when I went up for the first time.

The other surprise was that was very much a part of Michelle Obama’s vision of how she wanted her life to be. From day one, Mrs. Obama made it a private house for her family and her children. This would be a place where they could have as normal a life as possible. And I think that has proven to be a brilliant move, because it allowed her and her children to have some degree of privacy and normality.

Banner image: The White House Solarium, with its spectacular view of the Washington Monument, as designed by Michael S. Smith. Michael Mundy