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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Martin Filler
The latest refurbishment of the White House Oval Office would be just another before-and-after decorating story were it not for the fact that stylistic aspects of the chief executive’s workplace are closely watched for possible insights into the personality of the occupant.
Oval Office.jpg

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The newly redecorated Oval Office, August 31, 2010

The latest refurbishment of the White House Oval Office would be just another before-and-after decorating story were it not for the fact that stylistic aspects of the chief executive’s workplace are closely watched for possible insights into the personality of the occupant. As revealed to the nation in the president’s televised address about Iraq on August 31, the new décor indicates that however much vision Barack Obama may possess, he doesn’t have much of an eye.

The Oval Office scheme was carried out during Obama’s Martha’s Vineyard vacation by the Los Angeles decorator Michael Smith, who in 2009 redid the Obamas’ private White House quarters (though the design has not yet been published, as were those of the Reagans and the George W. Bushes, in Architectural Digest, and the Clintons, in House Beautiful.) Here Smith seems to have been at pains to make things seem as unassuming and low-budget as possible, given today’s economic climate. Although it can’t have been an inexpensive proposition (the undisclosed cost was paid by private donors through the White House Historical Association) the results nonetheless look astonishingly cheap.

The character of the room as it was left by George W. Bush has been substantially transformed, but a number of his furnishings remain in place, no less than certain Bush policies and directives that linger on to the dismay of some Obama supporters.

Among the elements Smith retained are the dowdy mustard-brown curtains and scalloped valence that hang over the three bow windows behind the President’s antique desk (a White House heirloom given by Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880). Smith also kept the pair of Queen Anne-style armchairs in which the chief executive and other heads of state are photographed, and had them recovered in professorial brown leather.

What under Bush resembled a Texas CEO’s dream of K Street grandeur—silky Colonial Williamsburg-style fabrics, jingoistic objets d’art, and a Sun Belt palette of upbeat yellows and forceful blues—has now taken on the earnest but drab earth tones of 1970s middle-class interiors. The new feeling is at once superficially accessible yet oddly impersonal, as eager to welcome as not to offend.

Replacing the off-white painted walls that had prevailed there since the Kennedy administration is wallpaper hand-painted in alternating vertical stripes of muted yellow and gold ochre. The colors come across as muddy in photographs, and the stripes are sure to vex art directors who will struggle to align out-of-parallax pictures of the President and his visitors. Such a troublesome backdrop would never have gotten past Michael Deaver, who skillfully stage-managed the visuals for Ronald Reagan’s role of a lifetime.

Most of the paintings have been in the Oval Office for some time. To the left of the desk is the American Impressionist Childe Hassam’s Avenue in the Rain (1917), a Kennedy acquisition that depicts New York’s Fifth Avenue aflutter with red-white-and-blue flags. (Another version from that series was surreptitiously sold by Brooke Astor’s felonious son, Anthony Marshall.) To the desk’s right is the equally patriotic if less artistically satisfying Statue of Liberty (1946)—a diagonal close-up of the monument’s torch-bearing arm, painted by Norman Rockwell for a Saturday Evening Post Fourth of July cover.

Over the fireplace still hangs an oval portrait of George Washington (c. 1825–1860) by Rembrandt Peale. On the mantel below it persists a dated fixture introduced by Betty Ford: a sprawling Swedish ivy plant (Plectranthus australis) that is kept perennially lush through frequent replacements of hothouse specimens cultivated by the National Park Service.

In front of the hearth is a furniture grouping that has brought gasps of horror from design aficionados. A facing pair of slope-armed sofas—covered in a velour-like cocoa-colored cotton-and-rayon blend interspersed with red, white, and blue threads—is reminiscent of the defunct downmarket furniture chain Levitz. Between them stands a rectangular slab-ended coffee table surfaced in thin layers of mica and surmounted by a faux-rustic bowl of apples.

Gone are the traditional urn-shaped gilded china lamps that stood on Federal drop-leaf tables next to the sofas. Replacing that lighting are lamps with deep-blue cylindrical ceramic bases of the sort one might encounter in a Park Avenue dermatologist’s waiting room.

However, it’s not as though Obama is blind to his surroundings. During his predecessor’s tenure, the Oval Office bookshelves displayed decorative dishes propped up on stands, accessories more appropriate for a dining room than an office, but perhaps not out of keeping with the least well-read President in modern memory. Obama eyed those porcelain pieces with suspicion during his first week on the job, when he told one nonplussed military officer, “I’ve got to do something about these plates. I’m really not a plates kind of guy.” The dishes duly disappeared with the recent changes.


Banished almost immediately upon Obama’s arrival was a bronze bust of Winston Churchill by Jacob Epstein, lent by the British government in solidarity after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Analysts noted that during the Mau Mau rebellion of the early 1950s the President’s Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was jailed and allegedly tortured by British colonial authorities under Churchill’s last government. To supplant the offending sculpture, the President chose a similarly scaled portrait head of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Strangest of the new Oval Office furnishings is the custom-made carpet donated by its Michigan manufacturer. Starting with Harry Truman, the room has sported a series of elliptical rugs centered with a large Presidential seal. The two abstainers from that trend were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, whose patterned floor covering omitted the star-encircled eagle motif, which returned under Reagan.

Now the eagle has landed once again. It spreads its wings on Obama’s predominantly beige carpet, between the desk and the sitting area. The off-white black-banded border of the rug is woven in brown with hortatory quotations from Lincoln (“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”), Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), as well as Kennedy and King. Exponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement were wont to inscribe uplifting mottoes on friezes that ran around a room. But the floor is an odd place to honor such revered words, a placement that appears to challenge the Revolutionary War slogan lately co-opted by Obama’s nemesis, the Tea Party: “Don’t Tread on Me.”

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