COTE DE TEXAS

THIS MIGHT BE MY FAVORITE DESIGN BOOK- EVER

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OK, OK, I know I’ve said that before (probably a million times, too.)  I’ve even written about my list of my - “ALL TIME FAVORITE DESIGN BOOKS” Here.  A quick perusal of that list from 2012, tells me I really can’t edit that list too much, the books on my list are great ones, ones that have passed the test of time.    I mean – John Stefanidis’ “Living By Design”  - is a classic.  I could never take THAT book off the All-Time Favorite List.   Or, what about John Saladino’s “Villa?”  Never!  Even if the meany Ellen DeGeneres lives there now!!!    Or, how about Bunny’s “An Affair With a House” – such a great one. 

Is there room for a new book on my favorites list?

This new book I just read is a real contender.

And, if truth be told, I’m not ashamed to admit it right here and now.  This new book is now OFFICIALLY my “All Time Favorite Design Book – Ever.”

You might have read it already.  It came out just last week and I truthfully can’t think of another design book in recent history that I’ve enjoyed more.  For starters, I read it cover to cover and THAT is a rarity, in and of itself.  I was hanging on every written word, every photograph, every story, each detail that the author shared.

Wait, did I even tell you the name of the book??????


First, a caveat.  

I know this book will probably be divisive to that part of the population who vote Republican.  But, if we could put politics aside for just a few hours – the book is about so much more than politics.   It’s about friendship, interesting design, American history and what binds us as a nation rather than divides us.  I think if we can all put away politics for just a while,  there is much in this book that every one of us can enjoy.

So, Enjoy!!!

My new “All Time Favorite Design Book – Ever?”  is the newly released book about the White House by Michael S. Smith and Margaret Russell.  Such an absolutely gorgeous cover!!!


Do you love the White House?  Did you grow up being obsessed with it, thinking of it as a magical place?   I know when I was very young, I was already totally enthralled with the White House.  All those rooms - the Red, Green and Blue ones were glorious.  But there were also the others, the smaller, hidden rooms such as the beauty salon, the bowling alley, the movie theatre, the third floor, the basement, all the places that were rarely photographed totally intrigued me too.

When I was in elementary school, I signed up for the Book of the Month Club without my parents permission, just so I could get that one book for free, a large coffee table design book about the White House.   For decades, I used it as both to dream about and as a research guide with its endless photos and floorplans!

In his new book about the White House, author and design extraordinaire Michael S. Smith admits he too was that kind of a kid.  Images of the cavernous empty White House during the Truman restoration fascinated him, as me, and as probably countless others.  Reading this book you can still see that once obsessed child that Michael was and still is.  This project was probably one of his favorites and a dream come true.


The empty White House during the Truman restoration – the photo that mesmerized a young Michael.  Tractors driving inside the walls of the White House!???!

Reading this book was a joy.  I spent the better part of a day and a half reading its 300+ pages and hated that it came to an end.  I was hungry for even more.

Opening the book took me back to when the design world exploded with the news that Michael Smith had just won the coveted job of designing the White House for the newly elected Obama and his family.  Michael is so uber professional, we all knew it would be years before we would get to see photos of his work.  And it was a very long wait.


The book is filled with hundreds of wonderful photographs of the rooms that Smith designed for the family.  But one of my favorite photos is not even of Smith’s work, but of the newly elected President in his own house in Chicago.  And what a beauty it is, especially this room!  The molding, the marble fireplace, the modern lines of the velvet sofa, the celadon vase, the beams - it all shows a couple who lived with good design – no wonder they clicked so perfectly with Michael Smith!

News of the Smith/Obama connection started when a blogger tipped the world of the commission and then, a magazine, domino, confirmed.  Early on we did hear about a four poster antique bed that Smith bought for the couple – and sure enough, in this book Michael discusses this bed that the Obamas used before their actual bedroom was installed.  Today, he shares that that original antique bed (which had been in storage all these years) is now being used again by the couple in their private home.

Smith starts at the beginning, telling us how he got the job (through mutual friends) and how he managed to get the large house ready for the family in just two months time.  On Inauguration Day, he takes us through the entire process of how the Bushes were packed up and the Obamas were unpacked – in the space of just a few hours.  Eight years later, he takes us through the reverse process – packing up the Obamas and moving them out to their nearby rental house, while the Trumps were moving in.

Oh, I could write a 1,000 words and more and it wouldn’t begin to capture what is shared in this fabulous book. 

Through his writing, he describes his approach to the job, not realizing as he is doing so, Smith illustrates his formidable genius.  He explains his thought process, his research, the effort he put into each and every room.  Nothing was left to chance.  Every object he chose had meaning.  For instance, when Smith discovered the only plates in the family dining room were formal White House China, he ordered the classic Bennington Potters stoneware from Vermont, showing the family that wonderful design is found right here, in America.  No detail was ever too small for Smith who was quickly immersed in the task of updating the private rooms for the first family, yet he soon became involved with every aspect that involved design,   In the end, the job lasted for the full eight years and plus.

I especially loved how Smith talked about discovering the web site of the White House Museum with its endless floorplans and vintage photographs of each room – private and public.   How many times have bloggers studied that web site when writing a story about the White House?


The White House Museum web site – invaluable to Smith during his research phase.

Smith talks of how important the First Lady took her responsibility in making changes to White House that would benefit subsequent families who lived there.

He writes about the mandate Michelle Obama gave him: “How would this work for the next family?” “She had a deep concern for the care and comfort of not only her family, but also for the first families that would follow, as well as a keen sense that she and her husband were custodians of this house for just a short period of time. Any potential changes should be respectful of both its past and its future.”

The Third Floor where Michelle’s mother Mrs. Robinson lived in a guest room off this corridor.  

Rooms that had just been updated by the Bushes were both appreciated and left mostly unchanged, save for a set of fresh sheets, for instance, for Michelle’s mother’s third floor suite.  The one room on the public floor that Smith completely updated was the Old Family Dining Room, which was no longer in use.

The Old Family Dining Room

While designing this dining room, the First Couple and Smith decided to combine antiques with modern art and a wonderful custom contemporary rug.  The first piece of art by a female African American, Alma Thomas, was purchased by the White House for its collection and was hung in the dining room in a place of honor.   The finished dining room was revealed by the Obamas to great fanfare and later, the room was added to the White House tour for the first time in its history.

                      …..                     

Today, this has all changed.  Breaking from tradition, the Clinton and George W. Bush official portraits were recently moved from their prominent place in the great hall to this Old Family Dining Room.   The room was taken OFF the tour route and today it is said that it is used as a storage room, making sure that no visitors will ever see the Clinton & Bush portraits in the near future.

I can’t imagine what a disappointment this all is to Smith and the Obamas.  I wonder where the Thomas is now hanging?  Is it also now out of view? What happened to the priceless custom rug?


Above is the beautiful Obama china, seen in the Old Family Dining Room, a room where the couple held Passover dinner.

In time, Smith was involved in almost every design choice the First Family made, down to their scented candles (spiced orange.)  When it came time to design the Obama China, Smith was in charge of this, too. 

He was also instrumental in helping to choose the artists who painted the First Couple for the National Portrait Gallery.

The portraits proved widely popular – the Smithsonian had 2.3 million visitors in 2018, the year the portraits were unveiled, compared to 1.3 million the year before.

I suppose if you admire the couple, you loved the paintings and if not, well, you probably didn’t care for them.  Myself, I initially liked them, but I’ve found that I have grown to absolutely love Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle.

Another reveal:   Smith says that at the time the National Portraits artists were chosen, so were the artists for the White House Official portraits.  Those portraits have not yet been hung.  Typically the next president has an event at the White House to unveil the new portraits.  This has not happened – yet. 

….

After reading this book, it’s hard to imagine any other human being on the planet that would have been more perfect for the job than Michael Smith.  He became more than a designer, he became a close friend and confidant and I daresay that is a huge compliment to the man.


Smith’s took special care when designing the Yellow Oval Room keeping Jacqueline Kennedy foremost in his mind while doing so.  His reverence for that First Lady and this room is probably shared by most true White House aficionados.   Smith did not want to copy Mrs. Kennedy’s design, but use it as an inspiration.




Smith placed the famous desk donated to Mrs. Kennedy front and center in the room and covered two bergeres in a brown velvet that was chosen by Kennedy herself and had been stored since President Ford’s time.  Mrs. Kennedy had been the first to choose yellow for the room and it has remained that shade since.  Michael obsessed over the proper covering for the walls and with the help of the color master Donald Kaufman, he finally settled on a richer yellow paint with a hint of apricot. 

Gorgeous.

I like the modern gold coffee tables that add the edge the Obamas brought to the White House.  I can’t help but wonder, are they still there?   There are so very very few photos of the Trump White House interiors as they  are today, one can’t help but wonder?

Another Michael Smith touch in the Yellow Oval Room are the antique toys on the shelves which had always held collections of antique plates.  The President stated he didn’t understand using plates as decoration and Smith agreed! 

Sacre bleu!!

Instead of using the plates Smith again starts to obsess – this time over what to put on the shelves in the Yellow Oval Room before the state visit of the Prime Minister of India.

An idea strikes when Michael remembers that Sears, Roebuck & Co. had donated a collection of antique children’s cast-iron toys to the Smithsonian.   Included are a cache of toy trains which sparked the remembrance of an English novel that had described India as a country of trains.  There weren’t enough toy trains to fill the shelves so police cars and fire trucks, merchants carts, and more were requested from the Smithsonian, all shining examples of America’s ingenuity.

Smith writes that everyone loved the collection of toys and they remained on the shelves for the rest of the Obama presidency.

Well…heck.  I do prefer a beautiful set of Staffordshire.  Kill me.

Similarly for the Oval Office, Smith chose 19th century patent models from the Smithsonian – Samuel Morse’s telegraph, John Peer’s gear cutting machine and Henry Williams’s steamboat paddle wheel.  Of course the President loved the old patent models.  Smith explains that the President is obsessed with technology and innovation and he appreciated the American ingenuity these three models represented.

Need I say more?  Who else but Michael Smith’s would go there?  Smith anticipated Obama’s decorative desires even when Obama didn’t even know what they were!!!

“You don’t like plates?  Here, you will love this instead.”  And he always did.

 

The book is wonderfully written by Smith and Margaret Russell.  I can’t remember reading another design book about a single project that takes you right there into the designer’s mind.  It’s fascinating and awe inspiring. And then there is the collaboration between Obama and Smith.   Sometimes it’s as if you are watching a debate between the two, tops in their disparate fields, sparring with each other and inspiring over and over again.


The book is filled with images of rooms you have only dreamed of:  the beauty shop!, the Obama girls bedrooms (Sasha’s is to die for!), the private offices in the various wings.  Above is the President’s dining room in the West Wing with all his memorabilia.


This photo from Obama’s private dining room in the West Wing speaks volumes.   After a meeting, Speaker Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell break bread together. 

Speechless.


One of the more emotional photos in the book is this one – when the President invited activist Ruby Bridges to view herself in the famous Rockwell painting.  Notice their eye contact.

Tears.


What was surprising to me was how much the Obamas, and especially Barack, were involved in the design process.  Smith says at one point the President wanted to be an architect which isn’t surprising after reading this book.  His tastes leaned to the more modern but he definitely had an affinity for traditional Americana.   Barack Obama can only be described as a Renaissance man.


The President admired text based art, such as these by Glenn Ligon.  Another of the artist’s work was hung in the Family Sitting Room.


One tidbit about Obama had me smiling in an ear to ear grin.  Smith had amazing renderings done of each room so that the couple could approve the design.  Later, they were kept together in red leather portfolios for the First Couple to keep.  The renderings are so life like, it is hard sometimes to distinguish them from a photograph:


The illustration of the earlier proposed master bedroom by the incredibly talented Mark Matuszak.


After each room was installed, the master bedroom for instance, Smith would often find the illustration left out on a table, as if the President had pulled it out of its red leather portfolio to compare the drawing from reality.  This proved especially nerve-wracking to Smith, he wrote.  But, it gave me the giggles,  I could just visualize the elegant President sitting there in a chair with his long legs crossed, examining each element – his head bobbing up and down between the drawing and the actual room!!

One big difference here between the drawing and reality is the placement of the large desk between the windows.  I love that particular change!!

A mutual love of contemporary art was another connection the three shared.  Smith, with help from the Obamas,  filled the upstairs White House with cutting-edge modern art.   This process was obviously much loved by Smith and he explains the process in detail of locating art for the White House and all that entails.  He found that it is simpler and cheaper to use the Smithsonian where thousands on shipping and insurance costs could be avoided.

Yet, for all their love of contemporary art, the President noted on his first day that “there’s a Whistler by my bed.”  Later when the master bedroom was formally installed, Obama put in a special request that the Whistler be moved to above the fireplace mantel so he could see it better:


 

Nocturne, the Whistler above the mantel, just as the President had requested.  What must he thought, looking at the Whistler, remembering growing up in Hawaii, the son of a single mother, where a Whistler hanging in his bedrooms seemed such a far off dream?

Smith writes that the Family Sitting Room is the room most representative of the Obama’s personal aesthetic.   He found it important to blend iconic American furniture with that created by influential modern artists who meant something to the First Couple.   The design of this room served as a template for the Obama’s Oval Office which was designed a year after this room.


The Family Sitting Room – Sean Scully’s art, Michael S. Smith designed rug.


Another aspect of the job and one that Smith felt was his most important was the placement of the art work.  The biggest impact Smith and the Obamas made in the upstairs spaces was undoubtably the introduction of modern works of art.  Unfortunately, in the end, it all went back, some even before the eight years were up.


One large task Michael took on was overhead lighting which was sorely lacking in the upstairs rooms:

Before the lighting was installed, the hall was dark and none of the art work was highlighted.


And after, what a dramatic change.  One friend asked the First Lady, “has that painting always been there?”  Yes, she told her.  You just couldn’t see it before Michael.

And something I noticed, as only a designer would, why does Michael hang the paintings a tad too high?

It must be something that bothered him a bit too because he addressed it in his ever gracious way.  Hanging the paintings was sometimes out of his control.  These priceless pieces of art were on loan and had to be protected from all danger including visitors’ elbows or shedding flower arrangements. 


I loved all the stories Smith shares.  One in particular was his first visit to the off-site warehouse where the White House furniture not being used is kept.   Smith describes his anticipation in being driven to the secret address “Mythically magical—it had been described to me as a treasure trove, a King Tut’s tomb of wonderful stuff—in reality, it was somewhat disappointing, basically a repository for furnishings that the White House owns but that are not in use. I had visions of 18th-century French bergères, Monroe-era vermeil bibelots, and stacks of Gilbert Stuart portraits, but I soon realized that nearly everything of great quality or historic value is actually already inside the White House.”

I was laughing reading this!   I have always imagined the storerooms and attics of the White House exactly this way!!!!   Oh, Michael, to be a fly on the wall.


But, my favorite aspect of his book was all the personal detail that Smith shared of the First Couple, things that only a close personal friend would know.  Nothing gossipy, but rather he hints at their true character, their humble nature, their courteous ways.  He provides such a full view of the First Couple, that you learn so much about them that you really hadn’t known before.


Over the eight years, Michael Smith and the Obamas became very close friends.  That was another aspect of the book that was a surprise to me.  I suppose I know how close a designer becomes to his clients, but the fact that these two couples (Michael and his partner, James Costos,  then Ambassador to Spain) became such good friends is a testament to Michael S. Smith’s personality, abilities and genius.  On the last plane ride after Trump’s inauguration, Smith and Costos were on that flight, closest of friends, lending support.   The Obamas spent the next few nights at the Smith/Costos Palm Springs house.

….

As it always does, everything that begins must end.  Michael writes of his first day during Inauguration watching a woman from the Bush administration crying as she leaves, just as he arrives.  Eight years later he was now the one leaving.

I read the book against the backdrop of a moody Pandora music channel that made me more emotional than I might have been without the music.  Still, it’s hard to keep a dry eye when it’s all done, packed up, and moved out.  All that hard work, all the obsessions over fabric, art, accessories, antiques – what remains of his toil? Anything at all besides the light installation and the Old Family Dining Room’s curtains?   At best, this book documents it all, from the beauty of the Yellow Oval Room to the meaningful modern art, these photographs of Michael S. Smith’s work can never to be erased.

Amazon sold out of the book a few days after it went on sale.   And this was with some other heavy-hitting design book competition.  But, when I checked the next day, it was available again.  To order the book just click on the image below:

This is the perfect book for anyone who loves the White House, its history, its décor, and it’s perfect for those who either love politics or the Obamas or both.

A special thank you to Margaret Russell who recently reached out to me and provided a few of the photographs from the book.  As always, she is class and grace personified.  Thank you, Margaret.

I can’t begin to list all the times I’ve written about Michael S. Smith on Cote de Texas.  I’ve been obsessed with his work for years  - maybe it was those blue & white dishes from OKA that sealed the deal for me?  Nah, it was the house with the room where the walls were covered in Indian bedspreads.  You know that house, the one with the wainscot of blue & white tiles!  THAT house!!

My last big story about Michael S. Smith was HERE about the real estate drama of Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli.  Oy, what a tale.  But this story HERE is my most favorite about Michael.  It pulled a lot of strings together for lovers of his aesthetic and portfolio.  It’s a fun story but still overwhelmingly beautiful.

I guess I’m through here.  I HATE this!  I don’t want this story to end.  But, all good things must end even after eight years.  They certainly did fly by.