Beyond Buildings


The Empire of Beige

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Oval Office
Photo: Brendan Smialowski for Bloomberg; Courtesy: The Washington Post


Beige and bland: It is almost too easy a metaphor for Obama’s presidency so far. The redesign of the Oval Office, features two brown (actually, "camel") couches facing the kind of coffee table you might pick up at Pier One, and is supplemented by what look like Ethan Allen chairs, all sitting on top of a lighter brown rug and surrounded by striped wallpaper with a yellowish tint—this speaks neither of rampant socialism, nor of the audacity of hope, but of the blandness of a country club. Whatever dreams Obama has or tries to represent circle around this mess in the form of uplifting quotes, while the seal of office and the “Resolute” desk anchor the Obama presidency in inherited traditions of power that I find deadening rather than uplifting.

Is it an improvement over Bush’s decor? Like the administration as a whole, without a doubt. That is something I have to keep reminding myself when I confront my own disappointment, shared by many, in the fading of inspiration into a quagmire of compromises. My political thoughts are those of a lay-person, so let me ask the question my mother would have asked: But what has he done for design? (Again, in her case it would have been the Jews, for her a flexible construct that meant all good people). As it is evident in the interior design Michael Smith perpetrated on a space whose very shape is supremely elegant, and whose aura of power already gives it a sense of importance, less than nothing. This redesign sets the cause of interior design—which for the last few decades has struggled to rise out of its history of color swatches and replica furniture meted out over pre-existing architecture in the service of comfort and client ennoblement to embrace a more disciplined, open, and well-grounded approach to the very notion of the interior—back to the era of Dynasty, Dallas, and Mario Buatta.  

It begs the wider question of what Obama has done for the cause of architecture and design. I, for one, do not know, and would love to hear from those who do know of specific instances of great design that this administration’s stimulus money, or any of its actions, have inspired. In art, the Obamas have brought excellent paintings into the White House, and certainly the budget for the National Endowment of Arts has increased. Will any of the high-speed trains, installed solar panels, bridges and road improvements, schools, or healthcare facilities build an America that is better not just because of these examples' existence, but in how they work and appear, how they represent us and define us as one nation? And, what of the image of this great country, which Obama vowed to improve? Where is the clarity and boldness of his campaign brand?  

These might seem like trivial issues. However, as some critics are pointing out, it is exactly Obama’s failure so far to inspire, to present us with a clear image or model of what we could and should become, to offer concrete projects and case studies, and to engender our own creativity, that has stymied so much his original promise.

I say all this less than halfway through his presidency, and he has already achieved a great deal. I also would love to hear of cases around the country where this administration’s actions do give hope and inspire. All I can hope is that the nest Obama has made for himself is not indicative of the true vision he has for our home, this country. Forget socialist red or Islamic green: Obama is tending towards beige.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.