By Barbara Thau
Classic with an edge, cool, multicultural: These terms capture the style essence of President-elect Barack Obama and his family. The Obamas are poised to inform the home design tastes of the American public, said influential interior designers and taste-makers.
Not since the Kennedy era has a presidential family so captured the imagination of a nation. The Obama family’s youth, good looks and seemingly innate sense of style—with a populist, accessible twist—are bound to have a ripple effect, designers said.
“They are well educated, beautifully presented, thinking people,” said David Wolfe, creative director of trend forecasting firm The Doneger Group.
But they are also real, he said. “If they weren’t so human, they’d be intimidating. … The Kennedys were the template for this entire idea. There was not a first family before them that was so covered intensely by the media,” Wolfe said.
And the Obamas “could turn out to be very influential in terms of home decor and how people look at their environments.”
The president-elect’s message of change—and Obama being the embodiment of change and racial healing—has sparked a mind-shift in America’s collective conscious that will spread throughout the culture, sources said.
“Design and taste are a reflection of society,” Wolfe said. “If society is changing, then we’re ripe to embrace change in all different fields.”
Presidential administrations have long been cultural influencers, said designer Jamie Drake.
“The influence of our first families is inevitable,” he said. “People arrive in the White House as fully formed individuals and [their essence and style] only get amplified on this broad, international stage.”
As a result, “They subliminally influence people on trends, decorating and lifestyle.”
A look back at former presidential families makes the point.
The Reagans were all about Hollywood glamour, Drake said. “We saw during the Reagan period a combination of lavish traditionalism in window treatments, luxurious fabrics, as well as a preponderance of floral chintz.”
The presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush ushered in an entirely different aesthetic epitomized by “a new England type of chaste, old-money style … which dovetailed with the ascendancy of Martha Stewart,” Drake said.
So what will the Obama brand bring to the fore? Good taste that rejects ostentation; an American flavor with a bit of an edge; and an eco-friendly conscious, designers said.
The Obamas embody a down-to-earth quality that has wide appeal, said Thom Filicia, designer and host of the Style Network’s “Dress My Nest.”
“In the past, the lifestyle of the presidents usually represented a very small niche of Americans,” Filicia said. “The Obamas are more in touch with where we are. They will have an aesthetic approach that’s attainable by most Americans.”
And the Obamas will set a tone that reflects the life of a vibrant home with kids, designers said.
Americans will take a cue from not only who they are but how they live in the White House, not to mention Michelle Obama’s style.
Michelle Obama has emerged as a fashion icon in the Jackie Kennedy model. The first-lady-to-be has whipped the fashion industry into a frenzy in anticipation of what she will wear for the inauguration. And the world will be watching to see how she and her husband make the White House their own, designers said.
The president-elect spoke of the White House he will inhabit as being “the people’s house.” He looks forward to transforming it into somewhat of a cultural hub and opening up the house to things like jazz musicians and poetry readings, and inviting kids from local schools. Designers also expect the Obama home, and the way they entertain, to reflect a variety of ethnic influences.
“They’re going to make a lot of designers look at traditional design aspects and a way to interpret and modernize them without abandoning the traditional, but not in a stuffy way,” Wolfe said.
Designers anticipate a renewed interest in American style and U.S.-made products.
“There is this big psychological thing going on,” Wolfe said. “We as Americans experienced shame issues. Now we’re getting over that. Pride in being an American is a pent-up desire that is going to burst forth. It’s already happening.”
That means stars and stripes and red, white and blue could make a stronger showing on home goods, he said.
“The White House is a quintessential American brand,” said designer Charlotte Moss. “I think in the [Obama] White House, there will be a focus on American products, American fabrics.”
The Obama’s low-key, toned-down aesthetic will offer a reprieve from an era of excess and gaudiness, Wolfe said.
“They’re turning the tide of pop culture away from the gutter. We have lived through a decade of bling … and vulgarity and bad taste has been admired,” he said. “How many sequined pillows have we seen?”
What’s more, their populist image dovetails with these sour economic times and the resulting backlash against rampant consumerism.
They serve as a reminder that “we don’t need to indulge in over-the-top luxury to live well,” Drake said.
That sensibility is evidenced by Michelle Obama’s fashion sense.
“Look at Michelle,” Moss said. “She says, ‘I paid $150 for this dress.’ That is the most democratic approach to fashion you can find,” Moss said.
And in keeping with the president-elect’s pledge to practice what he preaches and live green, expect the White House to be peppered with things like vegetable-dyed products, organic sheets and furniture reupholstered with eco-friendly foams, Filicia said.
“It’s more a point of view that’s going to change,” he said. “You can paint the White House different colors and it’s not going to change anything. It’s about them demonstrating and leading by example.”