September 25, 2017
The White House Oval Office is one of the few rooms in the world that is instantly recognizable. For Americans, it has developed almost iconic proportions, as the workplace for 18 presidents. Decisions that affected the course of history were – and still are – routinely made in this office.
Of course, any place as important as the Oval Office needs the décor to match. And the sumptuous furnishings in this room do not disappoint. From the Oval Office rug to the Resolute desk made of wood from the British Arctic exploration ship, (the Resolute was a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes from England’s Queen Victoria), the room is filled with fixtures that are focal points of the American imagination.
Many are now familiar with the pictures of President Kennedy’s son, John Jr., playing underneath his father’s desk in the Oval Office. Or Kennedy seated in his famous rocking chair. Or Nixon on the telephone with the Apollo 11 astronauts. Or Ronald Reagan addressing the nation from the Oval Office after the Challenger disaster.
In almost every picture of the room are the grand floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the president’s desk, adorned with resplendent drapery. The drapery has changed often over the years, as each new administration brings its own sense of what image the Oval Office should portray.
The current occupant, Donald Trump, even made news with his choice of drapery. It is well known that this president prefers opulence in his décor, with a liberal use of gold and marble. To no one’s surprise, Trump replaced Obama’s reddish drapery with gold ones. It was one of the few changes he made to the Oval Office.
Trump is actually not the first president to install gold drapes in the Oval Office. Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Gerald Ford also had gold drapes.
The styles of drapery over the years include more classic, clean, and simple looks, such as Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office, where the drapes were slim, cream-colored panels lined with red trim, hanging from a decorative wood rod. Other chief executives opted for stately, majestic designs, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who adorned his windows with lambrequins embroidered with eagles.
Presidents also chose a variety of colors for their drapery, from the muted red of Barack Obama, to the ivory tones of George W. Bush and the deep orange and pale gold of Gerald Ford.
The Oval Office has been around since 1909, when William Howard Taft was president. From the time of Taft to Herbert Hoover, the drapery in the room was dark green with eagle valances, olive green walls and a dark green rug.
Here is a short description of the drapery used by each president from Trump back to FDR, along with a picture of the window treatments.
Say what you will about President Donald Trump, the man has a consistent sense of style. Just as the Trump Tower penthouse in NYC is decked out in golden opulence, so is the Clinton-era drapery in his Oval Office. Every president who came before him has brought their own unique vision of interior design to the White House, and Trump is no exception. You can take the man out of Manhattan, but you can’t take Manhattan out of the man!
The look: opulent. This is a curved empire valance with jabots and cascades. Mounted inside the valance are two pairs of pleated drapery. The top treatment has tape trim inset of one inch, and the drapery lead edges have the same tape trim detailing.
President Barack Obama appealed to many young voters with his charisma, easy-going attitude, and accessibility on social media. This sense of playful practicality carried over into the decorations in his office — his Oval Office curtains have a neat, tailored and modern appearance with an ever-so-slightly dramatic red color scheme. They seem to be a good fit for a liberal, thoroughly modern president.
The look: tailored. Curved box pleated valances with stepped, tapered returns and contrast binding sewn on bottom edges. Two pair of minimal fullness pleated drapery installed inside the valance.
George W. Bush
President George W. Bush was, first and foremost, a Texan. Many of us recall (with a certain amount of fondness) his penchant for cowboy boots, including a specially made pair embossed with the presidential seal. And W’s Texas roots were also reflected in his office’s décor. Note the ivory tones and the damask-patterned, brown-gold curtains. That’s a design scheme that should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area!
The look: sophisticated. Curved shaped bottom valance with inverted pleat returns. There is intricate complementary trim applied to bottom edge of the valance. Two pairs of drapery with the same trim applied to lead edges fall one inch above the floor.
President Bill Clinton, whose good-natured grin made him popular with his constituents (but wasn’t always enough to keep him out of hot water), brought a major change to the plain-and-simple curtains of the Bush Sr. era. Clinton’s yellow-gold drapery (especially when viewed alongside the blue carpeting and red and white furniture in the rest of the room) may seem just a bit gaudy by today’s standards. But remember: this was the 1990s—contrasting colors were “in.” And if you could include a throwback to the opulence of the 1980s, then so much the better!
The look: cheerful. Curved empire valance with jabots and lengthy cascades at the returns. A contrasting blue banding is inset on the bottom edges and two pairs of drapery has lead edge binding and three-inch inset bottom binding. The drapery touches the floor.
George H.W. Bush
Though it’s not uncommon for vice-presidents to assume the presidency due to extenuating circumstances, President George H.W. Bush was Ronald Reagan’s VP and then ran—and won—a campaign of his own. The differences between Reagan and Bush Sr.’s policies and administrations are a subject better tackled by historians, but one thing that set the two apart dramatically was their taste in drapery: President Bush opted for an understated, slate blue set of curtains that were a far cry from his predecessor’s orange-and-gold set. Compared to the decorations of yesteryear, his choice was a bit less formal and regal.
The look: unconventional. Closely spaced jabots on an empire valance with short cascades at the returns. A somber blue drapery fabric for the top treatment and outside panels with a full, contrasting ivory fabric. For the inside drapery panels, a wide tape trim is sewn to the bottom edge of the top treatment and outside drapery panels, which pool two to three inches on the floor.
America’s original celebrity-turned-politician, President Ronald Reagan brought a sense of elegance and high-class to the White House that (arguably) had not been seen since the Kennedy administration. Reagan also chose to preserve the curtains of President Ford and President Carter with minimal alteration, and it’s not very hard to see why: their long, dramatic appearance is somewhat reminiscent of auditorium curtains. Could anything be more fitting for the office of a former actor?
The look: restrained. Minimal length and fullness empire valance with jabots and short cascades at the returns. The top treatment has a tape trim inset of one inch on the bottom edges. There is one pair of stationary sides in the same fabric with a trim inset of three inches at the bottom and one pair of functional full drapery in a contrasting fabric two inches from the floor.
Not much can be said about President Jimmy Carter’s choice in décor, as he decided to keep President Ford’s drapery in place instead of opting for an entirely different look. Carter was known for being “an average Joe” and a gentleman of fairly humble beginnings. Like Eisenhower, he likely thought that there was no need to fix something that wasn’t broken.
The look: restrained. Minimal length and fullness empire valance with jabots and short cascades at the returns. The top treatment has a tape trim inset one inch on the bottom edges. There is one pair of stationary side panels in the same fabric with a trim inset of three inches at the bottom and one pair of functional, full drapery in a contrasting fabric two inches from the floor.
President Gerald Ford’s drapery can be summarized in two words: “the 1970s.” Though some early photos show Ford sitting in front of Nixon’s bright gold curtains, he switched to a different design before too much time had passed. The end result was elegant and somewhat dramatic, with a color scheme of deep orange and pale gold. What other decade called for—nay, almost demanded—such a combination?
The look: imperial. Shaped bottom curved valance with wide trim sewn inset of one inch at the bottom edges. Four panels of stationary drapery fall two inches above the floor.
Design-wise, President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office is a very far cry from the office of President Johnson. The gauzy and simple curtains were replaced with a more imposing pair in bright gold, and the visible curtain rod was once again concealed by a large valence. When taken together, the gold curtains and the navy blue carpet seem almost vibrant enough to be visible from space—somewhat fitting, as Nixon did make a long-distance call from this office to the astronauts aboard the Apollo 11 spaceship.
The look: imperial. Shaped bottom curved valance with wide trim sewn inset one inch at the bottom edges. Four panels of stationary drapery with fabric two inches above the floor.
Whether it was out of practicality, respect, or a combination of both, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to use the red carpeting and white drapes originally chosen for Kennedy as he “settled in” to his new office. After some time had passed, though, Johnson made a few creative changes, and that included replacing Kennedy’s red-themed décor with softer, more utilitarian curtains and sheer drapery.
Johnson’s office, with its three televisions and linoleum flooring, could come across as extremely modern and fashion-forward, but the understated drapery manages to give it a rather timeless look.
The look: minimal + subdued. Three pair of minimal pleated drapery lightly lined with contrasting trim on the lead and bottom edges. Drapery is installed on two-inch black wood rods with gold finials, rings and brackets. Three pairs of sheer drapery is mounted inside.
The tale of John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office decorations is a bit of a sad one: for the entire duration of his presidency, he simply used the same décor as Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. First Lady Jackie Kennedy did eventually work with interior designers to come up with a brand-new “look” for the office, but her husband never got to see the finished product—decorators were just putting some final touches on the room when Kennedy was assassinated.
The look: utilitarian. Three pairs of drapery as detailed above with the stark absence of sheer drapery and replaced by three inside mounted roller shades.
Unlike the two presidents who came before him, President Dwight D. Eisenhower mostly opted-out of changing the decor in the Oval Office. Photos comparing his choice of drapery with that of President Truman seem nearly identical. If anything, Eisenhower’s choices were even more plain and unadorned. The decision to keep the old drapes seems very fitting for a pragmatist and long-time military man; at the end of the day, why fix something that isn’t broken?
The look: casual. Three regal valances mounted low with trim inset three inches on the bottom edges. One pair of drapery was installed inside each valance and tied back with matching shaped fabric tie bands. The drapes had trim sewn directly to the lead edges. Some photos show one pair of sheer drapery on each window, as well.
In a sharp contrast to his predecessor’s choices, President Harry S. Truman selected a plain, practically minimalist appearance for his Oval Office. By today’s standards, the curtains appear fairly modern; they lack the ornate embroidery and designs that Roosevelt had selected. The end of World War II had brought the country into a new era, and we had no choice but to keep moving forward.
The look: Same treatments as above with the exception of one staid roller shade mounted behind the drapery.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Stately and dignified, Roosevelt’s drapery is fitting for one of our greatest presidents, the only man to be elected president four times. He guided the United States out of its worst depression and through World War II. He began a number of social programs that remain an important part of American life today.
The look: majestic/ornate. Three heavily embroidered lambrequins with three-inch fringe trim was sewn at the bottom edges. Three pair of minimal pleated drapery was mounted inside. The drapery was held back with rope tassel tiebacks and each window had a roller shade.