Michelle Obama Shares How She Made the White House Feel Like Home

Hadley Keller
·4 mins read
Photo credit: Photo owned by the White House Historical Assocation, WHHA
Photo credit: Photo owned by the White House Historical Assocation, WHHA

From House Beautiful

"Growing up, home was the second floor of a tidy brick bungalow on Euclid Avenue in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago," says former first lady Michelle Obama in the foreword to Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House, a new book showcasing the Obamas' home life in the People's House.

"Home," Obama continues, "was a specific place, with specific people and specific memories. But more than that, it was a specific feeling." To conjure this particular feeling in the country's most famous house, the Obamas turned to noted designer Michael S. Smith, who helped the young family strike a balance between comfort and formality in a home that both effused history and provided the canvas to continue it.

Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli
Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli

The book, out today from Rizzoli, is written by Smith and Margaret Russell, the former editor of Architectural Digest, which published the first ever photographs of the Obama White House after Smith completed its interiors. Through its chapters, Smith tells his story of meeting, working with, and getting to know the Obamas—and, in creating a design that was a reflection of the family, that would serve as a backdrop to living history.

Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli
Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli

"The White House is so multilayered—it was like examining the rings in a cross section of an ancient tree as I strove to understand the history of the building, as well as the intent and impact of each president and first family over the decades," Smith recalls. Indeed, while parts of the building have remained untouched throughout history, each resident has left their mark on it in different ways—and often tapped the country's best designers to do so. There were Sister Parish's (and later Stéphane Boudin) famous designs for the Kennedys; Mark Hampton redesigned the Oval Office and executive residence for George H.W. Bush and his family, and Ted Graber, a Billy Haines protégé, oversaw the famously red private quarters for Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

The book also reveals Smith's thorough research into the house's history—and his subsequent dedication for creating designs that would fit the Obama family and hold up to this illustrious past.

Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli
Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli

Despite months of prep, Smith wasn't allowed to access the White House until 11 a.m. on Inauguration day, when a "carefully-choreographed chaos" began to transition the new First Family to the home.

Then, as Barack, Michelle, and young Sasha and Malia experienced an exhilarating adjustment, the designer's priority was there comfort: "I was intent on creating, as quickly as possible, a place that was warm and friendly, a place where they could retreat in privacy during the accelerated schedule that greets any new administration," he recalls.

Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli
Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli

That concept holds throughout Smith's designs for the entire house: Despite the undoubtedly daunting setting, the interiors come off as welcoming and, though formal, decidedly comfortable. Art on loan from the best institutions in the country and historic furniture bought and used by presidents past is softened by plush fabrics and muted tones—and humanized by personal touches throughout. In the Obamas' bedroom, Smith took this one step further, endeavoring to create "a refuge" where the First Couple could escape at the end of long days or exhausting travel. Malia and Sasha's bedrooms, meanwhile, were colorful, fun, and full of personality—spaces that felt truly theirs, despite their location in the People's House.

Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli
Photo credit: Michael Mundy, courtesy Rizzoli

"Michael brought in the tools of modernity," Michelle Obama recalls. "A little recessed lighting here, a dimmer there. And, like that, the Monet painting hanging outside my bedroom door and the Degas sculpture in our dining room became newly vibrant, newly alive."

But most important, she recalls, as the best design does, Smith's work made the space feel like home. "We may have been a long way from a little bungalow on Euclid Avenue, but we weren’t far from home at all," says the former First Lady in the closing line of her foreword. "What I know now is that home isn’t somewhere you go—it’s something you create."

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