Get a Glimpse Inside the Obama-Era White House

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You mention bringing in some contemporary art. What artists specifically?

Upon move-in, we borrowed works from the permanent collection. Like an Edward Ruscha, a Sam Francis.

Over time, we added a lot of paintings. We ultimately purchased an Alma Thomas, and she became the first African-American female artist to be part of the permanent collection. We acquired works from Robert Rauschenberg and Josef and Anni Albers. Dorothy Lichenstein gave a piece by her husband. So like I said: short term it was about how do we make the White House feel invigorated and fresh for the young family, but later, it was: How do we bring the history of the building up to date with what’s happening in America, in terms of art and culture?

Any favorite archival furniture pieces from the White House Permanent collection in particular?

There were some chairs that had been in the Yellow Oval Room during the Kennedy administration that hadn’t been used in a very long time. It was exciting to restore those and cover them in a rusty velvet.

Image may contain Furniture Rug Table and Couch
The Family Sitting Room, with Sean Scully’s painting ONEONEZERONINE RED, on loan from the National Gallery of Art.Photo: By Michael Mundy

How would you describe the Obamas’ personal style when it came to decor?

The had a very classical taste—they liked things that were tailored and a little bit crisper.

At the time, the Obamas were also the first family in a while that had young kids in the White House. How do you make those historic rooms feel, well, kid-friendly?

We wanted to make their bedrooms really cheerful and cozy within the confines of this grand space. They each got to pick colors for their bedrooms: Malia took to a pretty bright blue and her sister picked pink as a wall color. As they got older, their rooms changed—like any kid in their childhood room. They went from Hannah Montana posters to pictures of their friends.

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