Michelle Obama Reflects on Decorating the White House: 'I Had My own Space Where I Could Hide out in Sweatpants and Catch Up on Bad TV'

When The Obamas moved into the White House in 2008, former First Lady Michelle Obama had one concern: making sure her daughters, then 7 and 10 years old, felt at home.

Interior designer Michael S. Smith helped her achieve that and more, she reveals in the foreword of his new book, Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House. 

“Immediately, he understood that we were a young family with two little girls who preferred Crate & Barrel over antique credenzas and a grandmother who bristled a bit at any whiff of pomp," she writes in the design tome, out September 1. "But we were also the Obamas: the first Black residents of the White House."

She praises Smith for the balance he ultimately struck in the space.

“The pressure on any First Family is enormous. The pressure on the first Black one would be even greater. Michael never lost sight of that,” she writes. “He made sure our values and vision for America—one based in inclusivity and a love for all of its people—were reflected in every detail of this remarkable home.”

Smith's other clients include George Clooney, Harrison Ford and Shonda Rhimes. His good friend former Architectural Digest Editor in Chief Margaret Russell also contributed to the book. 

Exploring what home has meant to her over the years and throughout her childhood in Chicago, Obama, 56, writes, “Home was a specific place, with specific people and specific memories. But more than that, it was a specific feeling. It was comfort and warmth and security, an enveloping richness of our family’s story.”

The Becoming author strove to recreate that environment for her daughters Sasha and Malia, now 19 and 22, as they grew up, explaining, “My husband and I had done our best to achieve it in our home in Chicago, but when the vortex of a presidential campaign concluded and sent our family to the White House, my biggest worry was the most basic: Would our daughters be able to have a childhood that in any way approached normalcy?" 

She goes on to note that while the White House is both an “office” and a “museum,” it’s also “a place where real families with real lives spend four or eight years together, in and out of the spotlight.”

With that in mind, “in addition to its vital role in our democracy, I also needed the space to play a very practical purpose,” she explains. “A place where our girls could sprawl out on the floor with their Polly Pockets and stuffed animals, where they could invite friends over for popcorn and a movie, where they could play ball in the halls and go outside to play in the snow.”

One of Smith’s most practical updates was to the "old-school" lighting throughout the private residence. 

When the Obamas moved in, most of the rooms were still lit primarily by crystal chandeliers. “These chandeliers are gorgeous works of art unto themselves, but they weren’t always the most practical choices for bringing warm light into a family space or illuminating the masterpieces hanging in our halls," Obama explains. Smith brought in some modern recessed lighting and added dimmers in some of their personal spaces. 

The Michelle Obama Podcast host continues, “That’s the magic of Michael—shining a light on the past to bring more life to the present.”

Beyond the upgrades in lighting and “meticulous research” that went into furnishing the residence with the work of American artists and craftspeople, what Obama appreciated the most was how the Los Angeles-based interior designer helped to make their house feel like a home. 

“From his very first projects, Michael helped us foster the warmth and comfort for our family that I’d hoped. Our daughters had rooms to call their own, where they could swap out a great work of art for a poster or a photo of their friends,” she writes, painting a picture of what her family life in the White House was like. “There were cozy couches to cuddle up with our dogs, Bo and Sunny, after a long day. And I had my own space where I could hide out in sweatpants and catch up on bad TV.”

With Smith’s help, “The residence became a true refuge where our family could simply be a family, where our girls could grow into young women with voices of their own,” Obama writes. “What I know now is that home isn’t somewhere you go — it’s something you create.”

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