Christmas Decorating at The White House, 2011

Again this year, I was notified by an email from Jeremy Bernard, the Social Secretary at The White House notifying me that I was again selected to be among the volunteers to decorate the house for Christmas.  My method for applying was the same as last year.  I wrote a letter to the Chief Floral Designer, Laura Dowling, and also to the Social Secretary.  I sent my letters in February, and did not hear anything until the first week in October.  Once I got to Washington, I discovered that the selection process was essentially the same as it had been before.  A few veteran designers were retained to keep some amount of

familiarity with the process.  This time, there were about 160 total volunteers, most of which had not done it before, instead of the 100 who were there the previous year.  Some of the volunteers were selected on the basis of their skill, ability, and talent; while others were selected because of their want to do the work.  It was again an honor to work with all these volunteers to make the People’s House beautiful for this country.

That’s me with the incredible Jim Marvin from Nashville. We worked together on several projects this year in the White House. Here we are in the Green Room.

Many of the details of these days were similar if not identical to the previous year, so I am not including as many specifics about timing, descriptions of the warehouse, and even the preparations because it is so much the same.  If you want to just see pictures of the finished product, please just scroll on through.

The first day of work was Black Friday.  I worked at The White House warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of DC.  There were sample “baskets” of ornaments for each room sitting in front of huge stacks of boxes marked with the same names as the basket.  A basket and box stack (or box row) for almost every room in the house.  From the West Wing, to the historic State Floor, to the Private Residence, every part of the house would be decked for the Holidays.

My mom, Patricia Richesin, and I in The Blue Room at the Volunteer Reception

The theme for this years decorations was “Shine, Give, Share” and was all about celebrating and finding ways to lift up those around us; to take time to reflect on the opportunities we have; and to shine, give, and share throughout the season.  Each of us has the power to make a difference in our world through service to one another while at the same time brightening our future.  The hope of the President and First Lady was that “the sparkling brilliance of the People’s House, and all it represents, remain with us throughout the year, and may it remind us to reflect the light and joy of this season each day in our service to each other.”  My personal hope is that I was able to “shine” at The White House and use my gift and talent to bring joy to others.  Over 80,000 people will see the house during the Holiday season.

We unpacked ornaments, counted them, and sorted them into like containers for each room.  We removed any broken ones, repaired ones with missing tops, and added wire to ones with none.  Last year, about 75% of the decorations were recycled from previous years.  This year, I would say that outside of the greenery itself….which would all be fresh…..95% of the things that were used were recycled from previous years.  I have done holiday decorating professionally for many years.  It is really hard to re-use items in a different way, even in a small scale project, because what you have is designed to fit a certain way.  Ribbon is especially hard to re-use in a different way.  Somehow, the folks at Agency EA who organized the event had all that figured out.  Agency EA is the group who organized the entire production of decorating the house.  From coordinating volunteers, to deciding what goes where in the house, they were the team who supervised, planned, and ultimately were responsible for the magic that would happen.  I didn’t see all the personal ornaments this year that were sent in that I saw last year…..but they were there.  Many people were unpacking those, I just was working in a different place.  I can tell you that if it was sent in, it was used somewhere in the house.  They even read ALL of the letters of request for the volunteers!  Once counted and sorted, all of the boxes were re-sealed and labeled with a different color label….pink meant it was complete and ready to be put on a truck…..then inspected by the Secret Service, and put on a truck to be delivered to the house.

Detail of the magnolia and fruit cluster garland for the State Dining Room

One of the things we started at the warehouse on Friday was figuring out the look for the State Dining Room.  I worked with Jim Marvin on this.  Jim has been a White House volunteer for 15 years, and consulted and designed many of the decorations for years before that.  A large percentage of the decorations used in the house were originally designed by him.  We decided to use magnolia garland as a garland on the two large trees flanking the fireplace and Lincoln portrait in the room.  We would create clusters of fruit made from tiny individual glass beaded apples, pears, and plums; incorporate fresh seeded eucalyptus into them; and tiny green velvet leaves.  This was a labor intensive process, and one that would ultimately start on Friday at the warehouse, and still be going until mid-day on Tuesday in the State Dining Room.  There were literally hundreds of these clusters made and used on these lavish garlands.  We also decided to use gold glass pinecones, and beautiful pink glass spiral ornaments to decorate the trees.  We added in gold shiny balls, and other decorations in brown and copper tones to add some depth.  The overall effect would be stunning once complete.  The items for the State Dining Room were not totally grouped together in the warehouse, so we made sure we got them all in one place before we finished for the day.

On Saturday, I was assigned to work at the White House instead of the warehouse.  I reported early, and was escorted into the First Lady’s office suite by Ximena Gonzales, the asisstant to the Social Secretary.  We had a sneak tour of the First Lady’s office, which looked more like a comfortable living room than an office.  There was a large mahogany dining table and 10 chairs on one side of the room, and a sofa with a pair of “spool” chairs from Hickory Chair Company on the other side.  I was tickled to see the spool chairs, since it is one of my favorite frames.  We have one of them at home, and even have one in the shop right now.  The look was very tailored and neutral.  There are a lot of people who work in The White House….it truly functions as an office, a museum, and a home….so most of the offices are very small.  Even people who hold really important positions have relatively small offices.

Finished trees and garland in the State Dining Room

After this sneak peek, we had to unload one of the delivery trucks that had arrived with the decorations for the West Wing.  The President was getting ready to leave the house with his family, and there were at least 10 vehicles in the driveway on the South Lawn.  We had only a few minutes to completely unload the truck because it had to be off the property before the President could leave.  We staged items on the terrace of the Rose Garden, and would ultimately carry them through the Palm Room, down the collonade to the West Wing.

I worked on the mantle in the Roosevelt Room, directly across the hall from the Oval Office, with Jordan Calgaro…..one of my veteran friends from last year.  Sherri and Cate, new friends from this year, worked on the tree in the Oval Office.  We used thick noble fir garland and draped it across the mantle letting it drape onto the floor on the ends.  We wrapped the garland with wide gold satin ribbon, and a brown and gold woven ribbon with wired edges.  This ribbon would ultimately be used in many rooms of the house.  We did large clusters of natural pinecones painted gold in the corners and center of the garland, and then added some glass pine cones, and glittery copper balls in.  We tucked in some gold leaves…..the same ones we used last year in the State Dining Room and East Room.  After lunch, we worked on the garland in the Cabinet Room.  We used the same thick noble fir garland, and laid it straight across the mantle and let it drape onto the floor.  This look is apparently a White House standard, and is something I always try to do in my own work.  The extra length on the floor really adds a lush look.  The ribbons for the Cabinet Room were a gold satin ribbon, mixed with an orange and green stripe with gold sequins.  We tied large bows for the corners of the mantle, and let the tails cascade into bishop’s sleeves down the sides.  Everywhere the ribbon tucked up, we put a cluster of gold pine cones, satin orange balls, and bronze glass acorns.  We then did a similar cluster in the center of the mantle and at the corners.  Add in a few gold leaves for sparkle, and it was really beautiful.

Beautiful sconce decorations in the State Dining Room, created by Jim Marvin, and using laurel and bay leaf swags, pink spiral glass ornaments, and clusters of beaded fruit

The top of the tree in the Oval Office was out of Sherri and Cate’s reach, so I finished off the top for them.  Security was super tight.  There was a guard inside the colonnade doors, and to get into the Oval Office itself, you had to show your identification….where it was recorded in ink in a book.  No white out or deletions that way!  Once recorded, you could move freely about the office, but only for the time period you were allotted.

The Oval Office was a beautiful space.  Very neutral, with beige shadow stripe walls, and sofas upholstered in a rich brown velvet fabric.  There was a modern cocktail table with a simple wooden dough bowl on it filled with honey crisp apples.  There was

definitely a lack of decoration, but it still looked Presidential.  The draperies were in a wool crepe shadow stripe fabric in a deep red tone, and by the fireplace were a pair of tan leather chairs.  A beautiful antique table on each side of the fireplace held a bronze bust of Lincoln on one, and of Martin Luther King on the other.  The rug was noticebly not plush, but was a beautiful neutral texture, having the eagle symbol in the center also in neutral tones.  The border was deep blue with inscriptions that were meaningful and inspirational to The President.  Of course, there was the legendary desk.  It was a little smaller than I had imagined, but the detail carvings on it were amazing.  The ceiling in the office was slightly domed, creating perfect acoustics.  You could literally hear a pin drop.

I also got a peek at the Vice President’s office.  No Rose Garden view here, and considerably smaller; it was painted a navy blue, and was accented with reds and golds.