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What the changing interior decor at the White House says about its occupants

·5 min read
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden - Reuters
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden - Reuters

All eyes were on Joe and Jill Biden as they moved into the White House on Wednesday, for many reasons. But for anyone interested in interiors, this moment brings a chance to reflect on how their arrival might impact not only America’s position in the world, but also the decor of their new home.

Hot on the heels of the executive orders signed yesterday, Biden wasted no time in sweeping away the signs of Donald Trump from the Oval Office, moving a Roosevelt portrait and Clinton’s gold drapes in, and ushering the military flags and Churchill bust out.

Trump versus Biden's Oval Office
Trump versus Biden's Oval Office

And while the Trump departure is complete, it wasn't without commotion. A picture that seemingly depicted someone leaving the building carrying a bust of Abraham Lincoln started rumours swirling on social media that he was helping himself to souvenirs - but there is no evidence to suggest this. Incoming presidents, with the help of the White House curator, can fill the building with art, sculpture and artefacts, often on loan from museums and galleries. These are all returned at the end of a presidency.

As convention dictates that pictures of the Residence, the First Family’s private quarters, are not published until the President has left office, we know little about the Trumps’ private rooms (although gold and crystal are, surely, a safe bet): and it’s hard to glean any clues from their choice of decorator, Tham Kannalikham, whose Instagram account and website are both, frustratingly, private.

The Red Room at the White House - AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
The Red Room at the White House - AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The redecorating work Melania Trump has overseen elsewhere in the building, however, includes replacing the faded wallcovering in the Red Room (above) with a rich red fabric, and sprucing up the curtains in the Green Room (below) by simply turning the fabric back to front and popping on a new fringe - a neat (and surprisingly frugal) trick.

Other rooms given a facelift included the Roosevelt room and the Oval Office (top), for which Donald Trump chose a new damask-print wallpaper to replace the striped design that covered the walls during Barack Obama’s tenure (which, according to an anonymous adviser, “had a lot of stains”), along with the rug designed for the room by Nancy Reagan and some ornate lamp bases.

The Green Room - AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
The Green Room - AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The Obamas’ redecoration of their private quarters in the Residence, however, is detailed in a recently published book by their decorator, Michael S Smith, and shows a respect for history and continuity, and a family-friendly focus on comfort. As Smith told the Telegraph, the Obama family had moved from "a charming, very warm house in Chicago with a lot of detail, so I thought it was important to keep that spirit in some of the rooms, so that they would feel comfortable."

oval office - AP Files
oval office - AP Files

Their sitting room was furnished with textured rush wallpaper, contemporary artworks and furniture, alongside more historic pieces such as a chest of drawers that had stood there when it was President Kennedy’s bedroom, while the Treaty Room, Barack Obama’s private office (below), was similarly cosily decked out, with a squashy velvet sofa so that his daughters could join him there to chat or watch TV. The Obamas weren’t afraid of bold patterns however - the dining room, covered in a bold blue striped wallcovering, is a case in point.

Barack Obama with his daughters in the Treaty Room  - Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Barack Obama with his daughters in the Treaty Room - Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It has become a tradition for the First Lady to oversee changes to the White House garden - Michelle Obama (who planted a vegetable garden) has said that she was reminded she was part of a ‘humble continuum’ when Laura Bush pointed out the view of the Rose Garden and Oval Office through the window in the First Lady’s office, saying that it gave her comfort to know that President Bush was working not far away. Hillary Clinton had shown her the view, as Barbara Bush had also pointed it out to Clinton on her first visit. Melania Trump’s redesign of the Rose Garden, unveiled last summer, drew criticism for its timing, in the midst of a pandemic, and its somewhat spare appearance, with the addition of paving slabs and the apparent removal of all bright colour.

The new White House tennis pavilion
The new White House tennis pavilion

There was also a big old hoo hah about the new tennis pavilion Melania Trump had constructed on the south grounds. As a final flourish, only weeks before her family was due to turn the White House over to President-elect Joe Biden, it was announced the pavilion was finally ready for action. Some Twitter users promptly dubbed her Melania Antoinette, calling it a ‘let them eat cake’ moment in the middle of a pandemic.

As for the changes the Bidens might make, we can only take cues from their current homes, including the bang-on-trend outdoor kitchen, fireplace and entertaining area at their Delaware beach house, and the interiors of their former home at the Vice President’s Residence, as seen in Architectural Digest in 2016 (all striped wallpaper and curtains, puffy leather sofas, patterned cottagecore-style upholstery and colourful art). We can’t wait to see more.

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