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The 2015 Obama China Reveal (DS Goes to Washington)

by Grace Bonney

Last Tuesday, I was going through my emails when I noticed one that stood out. The subject line was “Invitation to the White House.” I clicked on it, expecting it to be fake, but to my complete and utter shock (and joy), it was a real invitation. So two days later, I left our house around 6 am to hop on a bus and then train to Washington, D.C.

Growing up in Virginia, I’ve spent many a summer and school field trip walking around outside the White House, but to be invited inside — and to meet Michelle Obama — was nothing short of one of the greatest honors of my personal and professional life.

Along with five other bloggers, photographers and writers from the home/lifestyle community, I spent Thursday afternoon getting a tour of the White House kitchen, garden and family dining room, finishing up with an amazing hour in the official china room, where we met with White House Curator Bill Allman (more on this incredible man later) and Michelle Obama to get the very first preview of the official . We got to preview this new collection before the main press, which was a huge honor, but just being there in such a beautiful place surrounded by such inspiring people will be something I will never, ever forget. xo, grace

Read on to see the Obama State China Service and peek inside the White House interior and gardens…

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First Lady Michelle Obama drops by to present the official China to the press in the Red Room of the White House, April 23, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
2/43
This is the The Obama State China Service, which consists of 11-piece place settings for 320. Last week we got to see this one full set, which is a clean, modern design produced by Pickard China of Antioch, Illinois (the Obama Family's home state). Each service was donated by the White House Endowment Trust, administered by the White House Historical Association.
3/43
The main dinner plates are surrounded by a band of blue that the first lady refers to as “Kailua Blue," inspired by the waters off the President’s home state of Hawai’i. The soup tureen on the right is significant, as the existing china didn't include an official bowl design, making it difficult for the kitchen to plan and prepare soups for service. So Mrs. Obama and designer Michael Smith consulted many members of the Residence staff and the food and beverage service staff to come up with a design that suited the needs of food service in the current era. Hence, a soup tureen! (I asked if there was a chance they would be eating late-night ice cream from those bowls and the First Lady said there was.)
4/43
One of the elements I loved most about the service was the connection between this beautiful embossed pinwheel detailing around the edge of the larger dinner plates. I asked if there was any significance to the pattern, and it turned out to be derived from the French Empire dinner service purchased for James Madison in 1806, when he was secretary of state.
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This is James Madison's plate that inspired the relief work detailing on the Obama china behind.
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This is White House Curator Bill Allman. He was a wealth of fascinating history about the White House, having worked his way up from a junior position over 35 years ago. He knew everything about EVERYTHING in the White House and was a joy to speak with. I could have asked him questions for hours.
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Every formal meal begins and ends with a plate that has the gold Presidential coat of arms at the center.
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The was, on its own, a beautiful space. Each cabinet is lined with red silk and contains pieces from the official china services of many past administrations.
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The room was rumored to have been inspired by this portrait of President Calvin Coolidge's wife, Grace Goodhue Coolidge (painted by Howard Chandler Christy, c.1924). The dress she wore was actually a much shorter flapper-style dress, but it was deemed inappropriate for the White House, so she was painted in a longer dress.
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I loved this small study for Mrs. Coolidge's painting.
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I also loved this relief figure that seemed to guard the (well stacked) fireplace wood with attitude.
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This was a selection of pieces from the official service collection of President Andrew Johnson.
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President Hayes had the most creative collection from the past archives, including plates painted with a hunting scene, lifelike oysters and a dessert plate that looked like a snowshoe.
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The infamous snowshoe plate.
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I loved the floral components that were a part of the official service of President James Monroe.
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This grand piece was part of Abraham Lincoln's official service. There was a new collection designed along with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, but he was sadly killed before they were able to use it.
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First Lady Michelle Obama drops by to present the official China to the press in the Red Room of the White House, April 23, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
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Prior to seeing the Obama China reveal, we had the pleasure of visiting the White House Kitchen and Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison (both are the first women to hold their positions in the White House).
19/43
Part of the prep for the Japan State Dinner taking place tomorrow at the White House.
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Susan created these stunning cherry blossom flowers from gum paste.
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The pièce de résistance was Susan's gorgeous hand-blown sugar tea pot. She's making these for the dessert course of the Japan State Dinner and each one takes over an hour. This was a total work of art.
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A peek inside the kitchen, which is just under 900 square feet in total. Because you can't move or build walls within the White House, the chefs work inside this space for all food prep, including 300+ person state meals. Chef Cris said that they actually love working in this small but efficient space because it keeps them clean and orderly.
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Organizational drawers in the kitchen. I love seeing "New Stuff!" typed out on the top drawer.
24/43
I took this photo mainly for Julia, who loves creating menus. This is an archive of many meals past served at the White House.
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This small space is where all White House meals are prepped and cooked - with a surprisingly small team! I enjoyed seeing that some of the most important food being cooked in the country happens right here in this space. What these chefs can achieve right here makes me 100% convinced that no one needs a giant, monster kitchen.
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In addition to meeting the First Lady, the real highlight of the trip for me was getting to see the garden she's created. My heart belongs to gardening and outdoor space these days, and getting to see this up close and personal was an honor.
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As part of her "Let's Move!" initiative, the First Lady has been maintaining this incredible garden, which includes veggies, fruit, fruit trees and pollinator plants (and a beehive!) with her team. The labels were beautiful and I loved the angular raised beds they created.
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The official White House beehive. The kitchen often uses honey from this hive for cooking and tea.
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I was especially happy to see the pollinator garden, which includes plants that attract and support bees.
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The current garden design features over 40 different plants, veggies and fruit, like: Pac Choi, Spinach, Raspberries, Broccoli, Lettuce, Kohlrabi, Strawberries, Onions and more.
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Raspberries growing in the garden.
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Asian greens, from above.
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A fig tree to the right and a beautiful dogwood in the back, which was next to a fledging apple tree.
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I was so impressed with the White House gardens and grounds. I asked how many people worked on it daily and found out that the entire property was deemed a National Park by the government a long time ago, so the National Parks Department works on this space daily to keep it looking pristine. That honestly sounds like my dream job.
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A view of the White House from our position at the kitchen garden. We got to hang out here for a while because the President's motorcade was preparing to leave, so I took off my shoes and walked around in the grass, documenting as many trees (like this gorgeous Japanese Maple) as possible for my own garden interest.
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Last but not least, we got to visit the old family dining room. This is where the kitchen staff will plate all the meals for the Japan State Dinner this week. The Obamas when they moved in, to include more modern art and textiles.
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My favorite part of the room was this stunning wool rug, inspired by a pictoral weaving, "Black, White, and Gold I" by Anni Albers. The piece was interpreted by Scott Group Custom Carpets as a rug for this room.
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These pieces of modern art on the south wall of the room were created by Annie's husband, artist Josef Albers. (Study for Homage to the Square: Asking by Josef Albers (1888-1976))
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Early Bloomer [Anagram (a Pun)] by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) sits on the west wall of the room.
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I was blown away by the enormous woven tassel on this chandelier, that starts at the ceiling and ends just above the top of the chandelier.
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The woodwork on each door was breathtaking.
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An overview of the room, facing a painting, "Resurrection," by Alma Thomas.
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I thought the detail work on this cabinet was stunning. The little turned spires on the top were beautiful.

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Comments

  • What a great surprise to find this post at D*S this morning and take the lovely, intimate tour along with you, Grace! It was a real treat to see your detail pictures of the gardens, kitchen and “house.” I was transported for a few minutes and really appreciate the short trip into the White House with you. ~B

  • Suddenly my Hermes Rallye doesn’t feel so fancy. You and Michelle with similar cuts parted on different sides is tickling me like a golden ratio. A house, your own lipstick color and an invite to the White House, someone certainly is winning this year.

    • Thanks so much, everyone! This was a day I will never ever forget. It was a true honor. I wish I could hang out and talk design history with the First Lady and Bill all day :)

      xo
      G

  • Grace! This is incredible! You’re such a rockstar – and for some reason, this post gave me chills and a couple tiny happy tears.

    I’m so happy your HARD work is being noticed and valued by THE MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE ON EARTH?!!
    Xo. Emily

  • Congratulations! The embossed details on #4 are gorgeous. And the cherry blossom flowers lovely. Also enjoyed the photos of the garden; I didn’t know about the beehive till now. Thanks for the tour!

  • This was a treat! I especially enjoyed seeing the china from the different presidents, and a peek at the kitchen and chefs. Thanks for documenting this so well, Grace.

  • I’m totally history-nerding out about this! I love all the history and that James Madison plate, whoow. The new china is lovely too. I was going to ask President Obama over to our house. I know Obama is a secret smoker, and was going to send him a letter and ask him if he wanted to smoke his last cig in our house, since President Ulysses S Grant smoked his last cigar here. I thought it would be cool to say TWO presidents smoked in Stony Ford. Total entertaining fantasy. :)

    Thanks for the amazing tour!

  • This was the nerdiest, most wonderful post ever! I also love how you gave Anni Albers top billing but her husband also got a mention. It’s true– the rug makes the room.

  • I’m a tad lost for words after reading this Grace.
    It’s simply so AMAZING (and I’m Canadian).
    I think it’s wonderful they invited you, I love how the Obama’s do things.
    That garden just warmed my heart.
    It must have felt like you were in a dream in some ways, and Julia must be so proud, and happy that you got all those kitchen details.

    Sincere Congrats!
    You rock Grace Bonney!!!

    Ash xo

  • Grace, you rock, how did you keep this a secret for a week? All my favorite things, China, Gardens, Michele Obama and DS (not in any particular order.) A.

  • What a lovely post to read this morning!
    Pic #4 – beautiful texture
    #17 – will you print and frame this one?
    #21 – hand-blown sugar teapot?!! Crazy!! – Do you have a video of this??
    #37 – scrumptious pattern – loved seeing how the Obamas added their own style & flair to The White House. What is the “old family dining room”?
    #40 – was this a real tassel?

    • MK

      Thanks!

      No framing planned, but it’s permanently etched in my memory.

      No video, as they were all already made, sorry.

      The old family dining room is where the first family used to eat dinner. Now they eat in a more private space inside the private residence area of the White House- this is on the state floor, which is more public.

      Yes, real tassel :)

      G

  • Oh Wow Grace I am so delighted for you – and grateful we got to see your photos and read your words! I love thinking about you joking with the wonderful Michelle O about late-night ice cream in those gorgeous bowls and loved seeing your photos of how they turned the Madison plate design into an embossed design. I had a huge grin by the photo of you and Michelle together. Congratulations to you for working so hard to build Design Sponge and being recognized with this most special invitation. Well done!!

  • What an AMAZING opportunity! Thank you so much for sharing your experience w/us! I loved every single picture and appreciate your perspective and all the fun details. I especially love the new china pattern! It feels very consistent with their sharp style. LOVE IT!

  • This is such an exciting post! So fun to see all the china services from the different presidencies. I really love what the first family has done with the dining room- love the works by the Albers!

  • I enjoyed that so much! I was excited enough to see the china, but the kitchen and the garden and the dining room and art… all these lovely details! Thank you for sharing.

  • What a wonderful opportunity, Grace! Personal china is such an alien concept to me, though. I had no idea the White House did such a thing. I’m curious, though, what were they using before this china reveal event?

    • Malia

      They typically pull from whatever china collection the previous administrations used, as not every president decides to have a new set made. And even this set will be mixed-and-matched with old collections :)

      Grace

  • Grace, I am just so thrilled for you. Thank you so much for the wonderful tour you have given to us as well. I know more now about things at the White House than I do of our 24 Sussex where our Canadian Prime Minister resides. One of my favorite parts of your tour is Michelle Obama’s garden, so wonderful. Oh and the rug adapted from a weaving is gorgeous.

  • Wow! What an honor, and a thrill — congrats! OK, there were so many amazing things it was hard to narrow it down, but my three favorite things were:
    1)hand-blown sugar tea pot — how cool is that?
    2)the Albers color studies — I knew the Obamas had awesome taste but this just confirms it
    3)the statuary guarding the fireplace — they just don’t make beautiful mantel surrounds like that any more!!

    Overall, just so, so, jealous. I love Michelle Obama!!

  • Grace! This is so incredible! First post I’m commenting on (silent fan here!) because OMG. What an amazing opportunity! Were you nervous to meet with the First Lady?

  • What an opportunity of a lifetime–I am so glad you clicked on that email! And I am really glad you shared all of these amazing pictures with us! I hope the White House food garden lives on after the Obamas leave office. The First Lady’s food and health initiatives are truly some of her greatest legacies.

  • This is all so awesome! I should be sleeping but instead I’m reading all about this trip you got to take. Thanks for sharing :)

  • Wow Grace! Sitting here in Germany this morning, and suddenly you and Michelle pop up on my screen TOGETHER. This must’ve been such an amazing moment that you’re still pinching yourself that it was real. Congratulations on the invite!

  • Like everyone else, I love this! And I’m a little bit jealous–the china room, kitchen & garden would be the things I would want most to see. I’m curious about a couple of things….I’m wondering if a lot of chemicals are used in the garden and on the lawn. (Personally, I’ve stopped using them, but I miss my pretty lawn.) And the art that got swapped out in the dining room–where will that go when the Obamas leave? Rauschenberg is not for everyone. They could send it to me…..

    • hi aidel

      i don’t know about chemicals in the lawn, sorry :(

      the art stays i think- as does most things in the white house that don’t go to the smithsonian or archives. if they’re personal gifts to the obamas (and not the white house), they’ll go home with them and the original art might go back, or the next president will add things.

      i have to disagree though about rauschenberg- i don’t think that art is any less agreeable than some of the older paintings. ;)

      grace

  • WOWOWOWOW! Congratulations Grace — what an honour! So cool that the White House is paying attention to design/lifestyle bloggers, writers, and creators, and that they would create this whole experience for you. Mind-blowing! Thanks for sharing the photos!

  • The White House chose well – your story helped me feel a part of this lovely occasion. And your smile lit up the place!

  • What an amazing opportunity!!!!! I’m so excited this happened for you and that you are sharing it with us!

    Annie
    The MAMA Gazette

  • Wow! Wow! Wow! What an incredible experience you had at the good ol’ White House. What fun! The spaces you’ve shared are stunning, and I was happy to see the modern injection in the dining room. I wonder what design blogs Mrs. Obama reads.

  • What a special post! Thank you so much for sharing your photos of this amazing space, and especially for all the personalized, thoughtful captions that really get us to look and see what you noticed on the visit. You must treasure that photo of you with the First Lady! Incredible! Thanks again!

  • I love seeing the little details like the pots and pans, and garden beds. What a wonderful peak into the private world of a very public family. And that sugar tea pot! Wow!

  • Grace! Thank you SO much for this post! I’m so curious about the White House history and interiors, and it’s hard to find details like this.

  • Congratulations, Grace! How amazing! I can’t wait to get home to look at all the photos–I’ve got shivers, thinking of how cool your trip must have been!
    Thanks for sharing all this with us.

  • So awesome! I really like the coffee and tea pots in the 39th photo. Also, that snow shoe plate is so cool!

  • wow, congratulations! I keep going back to that sugar tea pot…how in the world??? I would love to see a video of how that is done, so beautiful.

  • This is A-mazing! Grace, you really took us all on a personal tour of such a gorgeous, historic place. I’ve been to the White House in person before but it feels so special delivered like this (especially the garden pics.. LOVE love LOVE. And First Lady MObama – obsessed!). Thank you!!

  • Thank you so much for sharing! More than anyone else in the world, I desperately want to meet Michelle Obama…I’m so obsessed with her.

    I love the modern slant she’s injecting into the White House. Love the mini tureens too. But love Mrs Obama more. She’s for me the best thing about this White House.

  • Bravo to all of you guys, this must have been a great experience! Most of all thank you for sharing these aspects of life in the White House

  • This kind of confuses me all existing sets have a soup bowl, it’s call a soup bowl. I know because I work at a Lenox store and I also know that white house sets come with soup plates, cream soups, and bouillon soups. Soup Tureens are supposed to be serving pieces. And those pieces are super traditional so I am kinda confused as them not ‘having something for soup’.

    • Jesse

      All I know is that Mrs. Obama made a big point of telling us there was nothing to serve individual soup bowls in. Maybe the Lenox collection was inspired by the White House china and they added soup bowls to be practical? They White House historian confirmed the lack of soup bowls, too (it’s in the press info online, too).

      Grace

  • Congratulations from Ottawa – Canada’s capital. I’ve seen some of the presidential china at the Nixon Library, but would have loved to have seen the china room and meet Mrs. Obama. What an amazing experience!

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