Listen to this article
When Americans go to the polls on November 8 they will not just be choosing the 45th US president and leader of the free world. They’ll also be voting for the next redecorator-in-chief of the White House.
The choice couldn’t be more stark; the leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, do not see eye to eye on interior design. Trump favours gold, marble and mirrors; Clinton loves classic styles and a general comfortable elegance. Trump lives in a gaudy triplex on the top of Trump Tower, which opened in 1983; Clinton in an 1889 Dutch colonial house in Chappaqua, 35 miles north of New York.
In 2015, Trump told People magazine: “If I were elected I would probably look at the White House, and maybe touch it up a little bit. But the White House is a special place you don’t want to do too much touching.” Yet given The Donald’s predilection for gold — and unsolicited “touching” — how much is too much? The developer in him must be eyeing the unused acres around (and above) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and dreaming big.
The White House has been the official residence of the President of the United States since 1800, when John Adams moved in. Theodore Roosevelt created the West Wing in 1902 and his successor William Howard Taft added the Oval Office. Harry S Truman then had the place rebuilt some 40 years later when it became structurally unsound. Presidents also played fast and loose with the contents — flogging them as they saw fit. It wasn’t until Jacqueline Kennedy founded the Fine Arts Committee in 1961 that the building and its treasures were protected.
Today, the house is divided into two parts, explains Kaki Hockersmith, interior designer to Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. “The ground and the first floor are called the State floors and fall under the supervision of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. The second- and third-floor private residence is secured — you don’t go there unless you have permission. There are really no rules per se about the decor of those floors.”
So, will the next four years be marked by a seamless transition of understated taste or the kind of rip-it-all-out renovation project that makes for great reality TV, but horrendous interiors?
While Trump’s triplex speaks of his 1980s phase (throne chairs, golden candy bowls), one need only look to Trump Turnberry, the recently reopened golf hotel in Scotland, for a glimpse of his current tastes. Trump threw $200m at remodelling the hotel. The rooms boast French-style gilded beds, and the marble bathrooms have gold fittings. The exclusive suite in the Turnberry Lighthouse is just as plush (“tastefully decorated in rich mahogany, gold leaf”) and the building itself is painted white with gold details. A hint of things to come at the White House?
Clinton has more modest tastes. As First Lady she undertook a fairly extensive redecoration of the White House, even writing a book about its history. She also updated the private quarters, which hadn’t been touched for a decade or more, adding a breakfast nook where the family would eat together, daughter Chelsea could do her homework — and Bill could often be found watching basketball games on TV with the butlers.
“It’s probably not widely known,” says Hockersmith, “but the Clintons really like Modern art so I arranged loans of a Kandinsky, a de Kooning, and a Rothko. They all hung on the second and third floors.” Hillary also established a series of sculpture exhibitions in the grounds with work by Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alexander Calder. “I think that if we had Hillary in the White House that’s one of the things that would be very much reflected in her choices, an emphasis on fine art.”
What Trump will do in the garden is as yet unclear; perhaps he could follow Sir Winston Churchill’s example at his residence Chartwell and take up bricklaying (he loves building walls, after all).
Traditionally, the redecoration has been overseen by the First Lady as honorary chair of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Trump’s wife Melania, a Slovenian ex-model, has in the past been photographed wheeling a golden pram about the Trump apartment, so art works could go a bit Jeff Koons. However, she often plays second fiddle to Trump’s daughter Ivanka — the executive vice-president of development and acquisitions at The Trump Organization, who recently completed the transformation of the Old Post Office in Washington, DC into a hotel. Again there are gold accents and large chandeliers (Trumps love chandeliers).
Whether Bill would take on the role is unclear. It’s hard to imagine that as First Dude he’d be picking out colour schemes. Especially given that he once revealed to Oprah that it was Hillary who had chosen the floral upholstery at their Chappaqua house and that his man-cave featured Amazonian rainsticks.
Whoever gets the gig will have access to the White House’s extensive furniture collection stored in a climate-controlled facility in Riverdale, Maryland. “It’s amazing,” says Hockersmith. “All the chairs are in one area, all the beds in another area, tables in another. All the rugs were up in a loft and you had to climb a ladderlike stairway to look at them.” Think Ikea, only with priceless antiques.
Other nicknacks are kept around the White House. “There are all these hidey-holes,” says Hockersmith. “There are panels in the Vermeil Room and behind those walls there are pop-open doors with shelves full of silver pieces and candlesticks.” The art collection is stored in a subterranean basement.
Perhaps the most visible signs of a new administration’s style can be found in the Oval Office. “It is an extraordinary visual symbol of the identity of every administration and so it tends to be etched in everyone’s sensibilities,” says interior designer Michael S Smith, who updated the private residence and the Oval Office for President Barack Obama. “You inherit a lot of things. And people respond to everything you do to it. Despite the fact the colour changes, the essential architectural impact doesn’t.”
When Clinton took over from George HW Bush in 1993 he replaced the curtains and rug and added a casting of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. “Bill Clinton was a young, energetic and active president and he wanted his office to express that exuberant, bold style,” says Hockersmith. “He wanted patriotic colours, hence the military blues, reds and golds. I found that awesome painting of a flag in the rain which I think is still where I hung it on inauguration day.”
In 2001, George W Bush replaced Clinton’s blue rug with one featuring a sunburst design created by his wife Laura. “The interesting thing about this rug and why I like it in here,” Bush told a reporter in 2006, “is because I told Laura one thing. I said, ‘Look, I can’t pick the colours and all that. But make it say ‘optimistic person’.” Obama eventually replaced the rug in 2010 with one bearing quotations from four former presidents and Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
“The president loves text and is a very accomplished writer,” says Smith, who designed it, “so we had the idea of having this carpet with these quotes on.” He also borrowed models of inventions from the Smithsonian to reflect American ingenuity and technological advancement and replaced the traditional bouquet of flowers on the coffee table with a wooden bowl of apples. “Obama may eat one or two a day,” he says, “but people actually take them as a memento of having been in the Oval Office, which is charming.” What might Trump replace them with, one wonders. A solid gold dish of Skittles?
While for continuity Clinton seems the natural candidate, Trump’s love of gold leaf is not entirely at odds with previous White House residents. Fifth president James Monroe was such a fan of the French Empire style after his sojourn in Paris as ambassador that in 1817 when he moved in he brought with him a load of gilded Bellangé furniture. Under the Clintons, the Blue Room was restored in Monroe’s favoured style. If The Donald misses his Angelo Donghia-designed New York pad while slumming it in Washington he need only head there for a bit of Trump time.
Although neither candidate is measuring the drapes just yet, Hillary Clinton will be hoping she can pull the rug out from under Donald Trump in more ways than one.
For the FT’s US election coverage visit ft.com/uselection
Photographs: Jonathan Becker/Contour by Getty Images; Colin Miller/Getty Images; Cecil Stoughton, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Images Collection/Getty Images; REX/Shutterstock; Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images; The LIFE Picture Collection/Time Life Pictures