In his new book, Designing History — The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, Smith recounts this extraordinary chapter in his professional and personal life. Working on a building as culturally and historically significant as the White House is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project. Smith gave Tory Daily his own verbal history of his time at 1600 Pennsylvania. Read on to learn why President Obama was often photographed with an apple in his hand as well as Smith’s own tips on how to make any house a home.
What was your reaction when you were asked to work on the White House with Michelle Obama?
At the time, I was in a little bit of shock. And then the intensity and problem-solving came into play, so I switched into overdrive. I got into it so quickly there wasn’t a moment to be tense or nervous.
What were your impressions of the White House and its private residences?
I’d been on a tour years before, but a tour doesn’t give you clarity on what it is. The rooms are a blank slate. The Bushes left it in really great shape. They spent a lot of energy making sure the house was maintained. The Bushes are super gracious — and the house reflected that.
Any truth to the stories about the White House being haunted?
Hah! There’s so much good energy about the White House that I’m sure if there were ghosts, they are benevolent and want the best for the country.
Where does one start on a project like that?
When I first met the family, I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and plan elaborate things without their input. I just brought a few things for the girls’ rooms — I knew Mrs. Obama wanted to focus on the girls. She wanted to make sure the rooms were colorful, inviting and fun for young kids.
But before the First Family Elect moved in on Inauguration Day in January, I couldn’t do more than small things. No one is allowed into the building to measure windows or anything.
What was your process working with Mrs. Obama?
There was never a moment in any decision where Mrs. Obama didn’t ask if this would be good for the next family. She knew she was a short-term custodian of history. She was always aware of the weight and responsibility — kids, family, State Dinners. All of these moments of big and small were incredible and touched peoples’ lives in a profound way.
I was super conscious being there and realizing, “Wow. This is happening.” I tried to hold on to all my notes, knowing that this is today’s notes. Tomorrow it’s history.
How did you and Mrs. Obama balance the new with historic elements?
We examined what it is we wanted to bring in. If it was a chair, towel or a piece of fabric — who made it, what was the intent? Was it made by a weaver in Massachusetts or is it a copy of something else and made in a factory overseas? The intent was our #1 filter.
The rug in the Oval Office was made in Michigan. There’s silk in the State Dining Room that is based on an original French design but this was made in Pennsylvania.
And then, ‘How does it fit into the White House and history?’ There were so many moments where this kind of thoughtfulness was a seed out of which something amazing grew.
I get asked all the time what President Obama’s favorite flower is. He’s not a flower guy — he loves flowers, but they weren’t right for his office every day. When I put apples in the Oval Office… I had no idea that he would eat apples every day. People would end up taking an apple as a souvenir. That would never occur to me. It was one of those things: Thinking about what was appropriate to this President’s thoughtfulness, and something he would respond to. It grew into something else. It’s the greatest part of what I do.
What is President Obama’s favorite kind of apple?
Do you have a favorite room in the White House?
No. But the room I was always captivated by is the Yellow Room. The most Jackie Kennedy historic room. It has traditionally been at the crossroads of the private quarters and their personal living room that is used 100% not privately. It’s where they have cocktails and private dinners with heads of state. This room is right off of the Truman Balcony, and I love it because it is part of both the Kennedy and Reagan eras.
Did Mrs. Obama give you any advice? Life, career…
Not directly, but I was inspired by her actions. Her sense of warmth and the way she approaches people she’s never met before. Her desire to connect with strangers. She inspires kindness as the first response.
For anyone thinking about updating or redoing their home, what’s your advice?
Don’t be confined by convention… Do you really need a dining room or is better used as a library-dining room? What’s the function of the piece or room and how are you going to use it? Sit down and figure that out.
Best design advice you received?
Build in the potential to change. You want to have space and room for your style to grow. You need room to walk around — literally and figuratively.
What are a few items or elements that every great room should have or incorporate?
It depends on function, again. If you’re going to watch television in this room, you should have a comfortable sofa and a place to put down a drink. I’d rather have a simple room with an incredible bed than a room full of beautiful things and the bed is terrible.
Describe your personal style.
It’s a bit schizophrenic. I’m a classicist. If it’s a house by Frank Gehry or an 18th Century home, I’m interested in the house being as undiluted as possible…but then I want an element of contrast. I would put a Frank Gehry piece in the 18th Century space and vice versa.
The best rooms are when you walk in and see that the person collects duck decoys and Japanese cartoons. You realize someone has put together a layered, personal combination of elements that reflects who lives there.
Anything you don’t like?
I’m paraphrasing: Diana Vreeland said that she didn’t object to bad taste. She objected to no taste. The rooms I don’t like are when someone buys a look and it’s not reflective of themselves. Or something they think they should have. The home becomes just a set that they move through.
Our rapid-fire questions: Book you’re reading now…
“Call Your Mother,” by Barry Sonnenfeld. And also “The Last of the Duchesses” by Lady Caroline Blackwood. It’s about her visit with the Duchess of Windsor.
Room you love to read it in…
Wherever I’m seated.
Favorite color or print…
Always evolving and changing. Right now it’s flowers. Where I wanted subtle flowers for a while, now I’m into big cabbage roses. I fint it soothing in a time that feels very uneasy.
More or less?
Thoughtful more. Not more to have more. More tactile, more color, more softness. More of the humanist stuff.
What do you collect?
I have crushes on ideas. I have a crush on flowers right now. I collect in short bursts, a flirtation. But then I move on to something else.
Soundtrack of your life…
It’s what I’m listening to right now, which is ever-evolving. Music from a moment in time. This weekend, it was Joe Jackson and Dolly Parton. Whatever I’m listening to is seemingly eccentric but it is evocative of a time in my life.
Favorite painter or artist…
There are a lot a lot a lot of painters. I really love Joan Mitchell, the painter. Her work had such a narrative depending on time of life.
That’s hard. I live in LA Palm Springs, New York and Madrid. In every place I live, I have a restaurant that I love. I’m a very on-location person.