Two of the great ceremonial elements of the presidency are the design and furnishing of the White House, a working office building that is also a museum and home. Although much of the interior of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is managed by curators, First Families can impart their sensibility in subtle — and sometimes dramatic — ways. Jackie Kennedy chucked the department-store reproduction furniture that had filled the house in favor of proper antiques, Ronald Reagan had a Western theme in his Oval Office that included bronze saddles, and the Obamas modernized the Oval Office’s look with caramel-toned wallpaper and sofas and terra-cotta drapes. And who could forget the blood-red Christmas trees of the Trump years? “Everyone has a different taste,” Melania Trump told the New York Times.
All of which leads us to the question, What is the Bidens’ taste, and how will they impart it at the White House?
Well, we’ll probably have to wait a bit to find out. The Bidens don’t have immediate plans to bring in an interior decorator (more pressing matters, like, say, a pandemic, are taking precedence). But looking to the past — what previous administrations have changed, how the Bidens have decorated their former residences and offices, and seeing the one room that has already received a refresh — offers a few clues about the kind of mark they will make.
We do know that Joe Biden’s personal taste steers toward the conventional; no one can really argue against it, but no one will really be that enthusiastic about it, either. He feels most comfortable in the middle of the road. His affections make him seem relatable — his affinity for ice cream; the Ray-Ban aviators; his dogs, Champ and Major; his preference for commuting by train — but also project the image of a trustworthy, capable, and successful person (hence the Rolex he wore to the inauguration). Maybe his showiest possession is the forest-green Chevrolet Corvette that he bought new in 1967 and still owns. But even that reinforces the same story: It’s an American-made classic. His residences, from his time as a senator from Delaware in the 1980s and beyond to his vice-presidency, tell a similar story about his perspective and worldview: They’re furnished with traditional pieces (think bentwood dining chairs and a farmhouse table in his Wilmington home in the 1980s), classic elements (wingback chairs with damask upholstery in his Senate office), and hints of personability (a recurring signature color across many of his homes and offices, more about that later).
Biden’s a politician who plays by the rules, and that’s probably a good thing here because the White House has a lot of them when it comes to interior design. The building is divided into the public State Rooms — the ground floor that tour groups see, where dignitaries and heads of state are received and which leads to the Oval Office and the administrative spaces in the East and West Wings — and “the Residence,” comprising the First Family’s private living quarters on the second and third floors. Decisions about the State Rooms are guided by a preservation-first ethos and are made by a group called the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Most of these rooms — like the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Green Room, and the State Dining Room — are like museum galleries and are used only for special occasions (teas and receptions with other heads of state and dignitaries, things like that). While it’s fairly easy for First Families to make minor changes to the State Rooms, such as choosing artwork they like, any bigger changes, like reupholstering furniture, require committee approval. And certain items will never move — like Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington in the East Room and George Peter Alexander Healy’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room. The Lincoln bed stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, too.
Particularly since the Kennedy era, the ethos behind the White House décor has been explicit: “We tend to want it to be designed in a way that promotes the best of America and shows who we are as a nation,” says Lina Mann, a historian with the White House Historical Association. It’s a balancing act of historical stewardship, practical considerations, and personal preferences. “With a residential client or commercial client, you have one audience, and that’s the client,” says Kaki Hockersmith, the Little Rock–based interior designer who worked with the Clintons. “In this, you have a lot of audiences, and you have to think about that while realizing that your specific client, the First Family, are the ones living there. The design has to please them and meet the goals of preserving history and respecting the integrity of the house and inventory of its collection.”
It wasn’t always this way. For a long time, the White House was decorated at will, and few administrations have been more influential than others. After a White House fire in 1814, James Monroe commissioned a reconstruction inside the building’s shell, which was designed by the architect James Hoban and constructed by enslaved laborers. A Francophile, Monroe commissioned a 53-piece furniture collection from the Parisian cabinetmaker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé in 1817. After several redecorations, including one that filled the house with Louis Comfort Tiffany glasswork, the next big moment came during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. The United States was an emerging global power, and the president embarked on a renovation (which included building the West Wing) that would project that image through classical design elements and that stripped away any Victorian items — a stylistic touchstone that remains influential.
The unilateral redecorations stopped with Jackie Kennedy, who laid the groundwork for the White House as a living museum by establishing historical associations and curatorships. “Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there,” she told Life magazine. “It would be sacrilege merely to ‘redecorate’ it — a word I hate. It must be restored — and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship.” She also worked with big-name designers of the time, like the socialite Sister Parish and, later, Stéphane Boudin. (She semi-concealed Boudin’s contribution, fearing a backlash over his Frenchness.) Kennedy and her successors also managed to reacquire, through purchases and donations, a few of Monroe’s Bellangé pieces, and today several of them are the prize furnishings of the Blue Room.
Balancing conservation with contemporary demands is one of the less glamorous but equally important functions of White House interior design. During the early 1990s, for example, about 50,000 people a year were entertained in the State Dining Room, which led Hockersmith and the New York designer Mark Hampton to commission furnishings that were historically informed but could withstand wear and tear. Other rooms are essentially sets, the Cross Hall particularly. When Hockersmith renovated it in the 1990s, she did so with an eye to its status as one of the most televised and photographed spaces in the White House. Considering the repair job Biden has to do on the reputation of the United States, these are two spaces where he may want to direct the attention of a designer who can channel the image he wants to project.
In the private quarters, historic preservation takes a back seat to the First Family’s lifestyle. Practically anything can change in these rooms. Working with White House curators, interior designers can choose furniture and artwork from the vast White House collection — which is held in museum-quality storage in the basement of the building and in an off-site location — or bring in their own pieces. Presidents have often invited other politicians and dignitaries into these spaces, which hold a symbolism of their own even without the historical significance of the State Rooms.
The Obamas, working with their “decorator-in-chief” Michael S. Smith, picked some furniture, lamps, and rugs from the White House collection, but they bought most of the furnishings in their private quarters from American designers and manufacturers (like Bennington stoneware for the family kitchen) as well as from places like Crate & Barrel, Walmart, and Pottery Barn. The Obamas’ White House was warmer and more modern than previous administrations’, though still more formal than their family home in Chicago. Smith also refurbished the family dining room on the State floor with gray walls, a modern rug based on a weaving by Anni Albers, and artwork by Alma Thomas (the first Black woman artist to be represented in the White House). All of these elements symbolized the values Obama brought to the presidency — leadership that was more representative of all Americans.
Which brings us back to the Bidens. The White House interiors will change, but so far, the Oval Office is the only room the public has seen in the new administration. And the few changes that have occurred so far are already reinforcing Biden’s main promise on the campaign trail: to be a president who can unify the country. The Bidens don’t project an image of worldliness like the Kennedys did, Hollywood glamour like the Reagans, or modernity like the Obamas. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.
A few things in the Oval Office generally stay more or less the same from administration to administration: There are artworks on the walls, the desk is by the window, and there’s a seating area with sofas and a coffee table opposite it. After Biden’s inauguration, the White House staff quickly switched out a few of the furnishings in this room. Like most (though not all) presidents since JFK, Biden is using the Resolute desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford Hayes in 1880. The newly placed bust of Cesar Chavez on a table behind the desk has received the most attention. (The sculptures in the Trump Oval Office included three-foot-tall eagles and a nameless Frederic Remington cowboy.) Biden’s relatively light touch and his reliance on existing items for the Oval Office could augur a similar approach to his private quarters: using more of the White House collection as furnishings, rather than going out and buying mostly new things, as the Obamas did.
One of the most visible differences from his predecessor’s décor is the deep-blue rug, which was commissioned by Hockersmith from the Scott Group for Bill Clinton. (Trump used a cream-and-terra-cotta carpet that was originally made for Reagan, while Obama opted for a beige one with mottoes around the edge, part of a color palette that was picked apart for its overwhelming taupeness years before the tan-suit controversy. (“You do know you’re going to get trashed,” Smith, the room’s designer, told the New York Times about refurnishing the Oval Office. “You get people who say you ruined it, or other people would say it’s too fancy or people who said it wasn’t grand enough.”) Here too Biden left a lot alone in the room: The gold draperies (made for Clinton and reinstalled by Trump) and beige damask wallpaper (also from Trump) are still around.
Although Biden’s Oval Office rug wasn’t custom-made for him, its color speaks to his personal taste. It isn’t just any blue — it’s a vibrant, almost inky shade reminiscent of twilight. (Hockersmith doesn’t know the color’s official moniker. “There is some yarn name, but there isn’t a color, like on a paint can,” she says.) It’s similar to the color of the walls and carpet in the West Wing office Biden used as vice-president and to the dining-room walls of his vice-presidential residence, which was color-matched to the dining-room walls of his family home in Delaware; the Bidens picked the same color for their official porcelain at the vice-presidential residence. His interior designer at the time, Victoria Hagan, nicknamed the shade “Biden blue.”
In fact, the Bidens’ vice-presidential residence is probably our biggest clue to what the Biden White House will look like. The family’s favorite spot in the mostly traditional house was the sunroom, which Hagan outfitted with a comfortable linen sofa, apple-green throw pillows, a rectangular marble coffee table with a metal base, and a fiddle-leaf-fig tree — items that feel contemporary. “I didn’t want people to walk through the front door and feel like they can’t sit on the sofa,” Dr. Jill Biden told the Washington Post. At one point, there were Lucite chairs around their Regency-style wood table, and Hagan gave them vibrant yet comforting greens and yellows on the walls, replacing the Cheneys’ more restrained cream-and-celadon palette. It’s a style, and a philosophical approach, we can expect the Bidens will use elsewhere in the White House, even if we’re never able to see those rooms.