Red, white, and Tiffany blue

The White House was in a state of disarray when Garfield died, only six months after his inauguration. His redecoration had barely begun.Workmen abruptly abandoned their tasks, and it took months until the disheveled rooms were habitable again. The fascinating story of Arthur’s intimate involvement with all matters of taste is a highlight of Seale’s newly published and expanded edition of his definitive two-volume 1986 study, The President’s House. He is the foremost authority on White House design, and surveys the complex evolution of the building and its interiors with unrivaled factual command and the eye of a connoisseur, and is particularly evocative in his account of the Arthur-Tiffany collaboration.

Arthur’s plans for a massive addition that would have doubled the size of the White House came to naught, and his fallback position for brand new interiors in the existing building was thwarted by the contracts Garfield had already made. Although the sophisticated new tenant deemed the local furnishers on hire hopelessly déclassé, he had to let them finish. But that did not stop him from micromanaging their activities. “Night after night,” a presidential aide recalled, Arthur “would go from room to room and corridor to corridor, giving orders to change this and that according to his own taste.”3

It was no use. Arthur detested the results and ordered most of the new work ripped out and redone after a mere six months. This time there would be no Washington jobbers, or big-name firms, either. Instead, Arthur made an audacious but inspired decision when he turned to Louis Comfort Tiffany, the thirty-four-year-old son of his friend Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812–1902), founder of the eponymous New York jewelry and luxury goods emporium.

It had been just four years since young Tiffany opened his first decorating atelier, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated Artists, but he had completed several high-profile assignments, including work at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York in 1879 and 1880. Little is known about preliminary discussions between the ascendant designer and the knowledgeable president. Nonetheless, the results clearly indicate a shared vision of the White House as, in Seale’s phrase, “a stage for ceremonial functions.”4 This was accomplished through Tiffany’s unabashedly theatrical effects of deeply saturated color and subtly modulated gaslight. A requisite degree of magisterial display was leavened with a dash of whimsy, in counterpoint to the prevalent pomposity of Gilded Age mansions.

Tiffany’s inventiveness and wit were most evident in the project’s tour de force, the Blue Room, the elliptical centerpiece of the main floor (Figs. 3, 3a). Its name notwithstanding, that formal reception room has not had blue walls during much of its existence (including the past forty-six years). But because the salon’s unusual ovoid shape reminded Tiffany of a bird’s egg, he swathed it in tones of robin’s egg blue, an amusing visual pun (and a ringer for Tiffany and Company’s iconic packaging color).

An artist through and through, Tiffany was never content with routine formulas, and his wall and ceiling treatments involved complex applications of alchemical pigments, multilayered finishes, and exotic appliqués of various sorts, all to enhance his desired illusions of shimmering depth and glittering reflection. He specified that the color of the Blue Room’s curving perimeter be progressively lightened as it rose from floor to ceiling. The trio of horizontal ombré bands that encircled the space continued across the three window curtains dyed to match those gradations.

From the 1830s onward, a favorite White House leitmotif had been a shield emblazoned with the stars and stripes. Aesthetes of the post–Civil War era disdained such nationalistic symbolism, but not Tiffany. For the ceiling of the Blue Room, he designed an allover pattern of intersecting ovals, each centered by a red, white, and blue American escutcheon. Next door, in the pompeiian-toned Red Room, the traditional stars were deconstructed, almost to the point of abstraction, and redeployed overhead in a stylized constellation of lustrous copper and gold-bronze (see Figs. 4, 4a).  

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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