“Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there,” Jackie Kennedy once told American Journalist Hugh Sidney in 1961. “It would be sacrilege merely to redecorate it —a word I hate.”
Kennedy, 31 when she became the first lady of the United States of America, detested the fact that the White House she inherited lacked historical nods to those who came before her and got to work: Kennedy hired the first-ever White House Curator, created what, in 1964, became the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and founded the private non-profit White House Historical Association whose mission is to acquire, preserved, and shared with the American people. Kennedy brought life into the White House, following the previous Truman term when the White House was so unlivable that the family had to live outside of the White House while repairs took place. In the first-ever book by the White House Curators, Furnishing the White House: Decorative Arts Collection, her legacy of doing so is credited as the genesis of the significance of White House interior decor.
Written by Betty C. Monkman, William G. Allman, Lydia S. Tederick, and Melissa C. Naulin with photography by Bruce M. White, the book chronicles the White House’s stylistic periods over time. One will see moments from the late Federal Period, eras when the White House was outfitted in French and British taste (echoes of the Gilded Age), to the emergence of true American identity and Colonial revival. Alongside the images of furniture, china, lighting, textiles, silver, and glass are stories of how presidents and first ladies lived and entertained while in the White House. There are even modern interpretations of the private quarters, including Obama’s cozy and subtle interiors and Trump’s return to French baroque styles (think of Donald Trump’s gilded Manhattan apartment.) But, the book also addresses the fact that furnishing the White House is more than just an aesthetic project; it explores the meaning of objects used for diplomat purposes and vehicles of national pride.
So, how does a first family balance history and tradition between the private and public quarters of the house? The public quarters, such as the ground floor rooms, the China Room, and the Library, are furnished with important historic objects in the White House Collection and styled to reflect periods in White House history which are delegated by the curators, ushers, and Committee for the Preservation of the White House. According to the curators, the first lady, who is the honorary chair of the Committee, “can influence deliberations about refreshing or changing the public rooms,” and can most “often be seen in the textiles, such as the draperies, upholsteries, and rugs.” In recent years, first families have placed modern art in public quarters.
There is more liberation when it comes to furnishing private rooms. Michael Smith, the decorator who served during the Obama presidency, explains in his foreword, that the first family usually has a “reverence for the tradition and history of this extraordinary place that was also their home. In designing the interiors of the Private Quarters, my challenge was to balance that respect for the past with the realities of modern life for a young family.”
According to Smith, it was paramount that the White House felt like a welcoming and comfortable home. Tham Kannalikham, the decorator during the Trump presidency, explains, “As I worked through the design process it was an abiding principle that any interiors reflect that unique privilege. Therefore, our approach was to use the historic collections as the foundation around which modern additions were to be based.” For interior designers, Kannalikham writes that the job is to “reimagine” rather than “reshape” and that there is a delicate balance with performing between past and present.
Under the Biden administration, the White House’s East Wing underwent a $1.2 million renovation following the Trumps with the help of Los Angeles-based interior designer, Mark D. Sikes, who is well known for his traditional style and blue and white color palette. While the private quarters have yet to be fully revealed (aside from quick glimpses and holiday decor), it can safely be assumed that Biden and Sikes are working to add a fresh take on traditional American styles.
To purchase Furnishing the White House: Decorative Arts Collection, please visit shop.whitehousehistory.org.