For eight years, decorator Kaki Hockersmith worked closely with the nation’s first family to create a home that reflects its bold personality and passions.
On Inauguration Day 1993, Nelson Wurz, draper to the president, stood patiently at the West Gate of the White House, waiting for Bill Clinton to be sworn in. When the call came that the oath of office had been administered, the gates parted and Wurz rushed to the Oval Office. He had only a few hours to complete his mission: to hang the lush golden presidential draperies he had just completed, and to do it before the Clintons came “home.”
The orderly transition of presidential style was in progress.
Wurz, head of the Washington drapery and upholstery firm Nelson Beck, recalls that January day as a blur. “You could hardly move around the room. There were about 28 people in there,” says Wurz. “There were telephone people, Secret Service, window washers, picture hangers and movers.”
Amid the frenzy, the 1880 Resolute Desk used by John F. Kennedy, which Clinton had chosen from White House storage (and which George W. Bush has decided to keep), was upended and wired for a new communications system.
In the middle of the swirl was Kaki Hockersmith--the woman who had selected the new Oval Office curtains and who would over the next eight years go on to establish the Clinton look. Bill Clinton had told her he wanted a bold backdrop behind his desk, one that would not only signal change but also make him comfortable as he settled into his new role.
“The president wanted a strong patriotic statement--red, blue and gold,” said Hockersmith recently, recalling her first official day as the Clinton White House decorator. “He wanted it to mean something.”
On that frantic day, Hockersmith watched carefully as Wurz and his team installed the silk swags she had designed to replace the Bush blue cotton damask curtains, designed by A-list New York decorator Mark Hampton. Hockersmith says the “strong gold damask” happened to be a pattern once used by George Washington.
That day was just the beginning of a presidential decorating marathon, as Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton swatched their way through more than 25 rooms--two floors of stately public rooms plus the upstairs private quarters of the White House and the woodsy cabins of Camp David. Because both the president and the first lady are passionate about White House history, they took an active role in the renovating and refurbishment.
The Clintons discovered there was plenty to do in the house that more than 1 million people visit each year and that is just celebrating its 200th anniversary. Through private funding and the support of the White House Historical Assn. and the White House Endowment Fund (which grew to $30 million during the Clinton years), many problems that had long needed attention were finally addressed.
The Clinton restoration has been called one of the most extensive renovations in recent White House history, with major work done in the Blue Room, State Dining Room and Red Room as well as in the Treaty Room and Lincoln Sitting Room. It included rehanging Whistlers and Fragonards, de-gilding eagles in the State Dining Room and peeling layers of paint off the wood walls of the presidential elevator.
As the Bushes are moving in and the Clintons’ moving van is loading up, Hockersmith, as the faithful family decorator, is continuing her design role at the Clintons’ Dutch colonial in Chappaqua, N.Y. She won’t say if she will be helping out at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new Georgian digs off Embassy Row. “It’s all got to go somewhere,” said Hockersmith, referring to the Clintons’ possessions. “Now we have two choices.”
Meeting with her in Washington recently, it’s easy to understand how Hockersmith, 52, has slipped in and out of town quietly over the last eight years. She speaks cautiously, offering few personal insights into her close collaboration with the most talked-about couple in the country. She has largely avoided the limelight while she worked with the Clintons, first on their private quarters and then as a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.
After initially receiving a decorating fee from the First Couple, she says most of her work has been pro bono, and, on many trips, she has bunked in with the family at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She has maintained her residential and commercial decorating business in Little Rock as she has added clients around the country. But she has not cashed in on her White House connection.
Hockersmith’s ties to the Clintons are deep, going back to Little Rock, where she and her husband, Max Mehlburger, a lawyer, were social acquaintances of the Clintons.
The Arkansas native got her start in design and merchandising at Dillard’s department store. She opened her own design studio, Kaki Hockersmith Interiors, in 1980 and now employs a staff of three. Hockersmith, who has two daughters, runs an antiques and decorative accessories business there as well, a place where Bill Clinton has been known to do Christmas shopping.
In 1990, she was hired to do some remodeling and decorating work at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. Then, when Clinton was elected president, Hockersmith accompanied Hillary Clinton to the traditional passing-of-the-torch tea hosted by First Lady Barbara Bush.
She met some of the White House staff and took measurements of the family quarters. Hockersmith spent the next few weeks on airplanes, visiting showrooms in Dallas and New York looking for fabrics and wallpapers to settle Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton into their new home.
After the inaugural curtain-hanging, Hockersmith worked for six months to totally complete the most famous office in the land, which was first occupied in its current location by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934.
When the Oval Office was finally unveiled, it revealed a much bolder style: a new blue wool rug with a large center medallion of the presidential seal, two sofas of cherry red and cream silk striped fabric and red pillows decorated with gilt-leaf medallions.
Public reaction to some of her work was mixed. Some critics protested that Hockersmith had gone overboard, injecting too much splashy Victoriana into the Lincoln Sitting Room and the Treaty Room just outside the private quarters upstairs: tufted velvet upholstery, bullion fringe, burgundy fabrics and lots of swags and gilt. Reminded of that now, Hockersmith doesn’t flinch. “I knew it was unjustified. I had so many knowledgeable people involved.”