Tan Lines


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Still, Obama is not George Bush on a practical as well as a policy level, and he spends a lot of time in the Oval Office. Given that he is prone to more substantive talk than his predecessor, things like couches and chairs seem important accessories. The taupes and beiges of the new décor, moreover, are in keeping with his style: Let all those commentators asking for more passion look at the room and acknowledge that the man doesn’t work in primary colors; he likes the muted and the neutral. It’s who he is.

Obama also has young children, not to mention a puppy. You’ll say that the Oval Office ought to be off limits to children and animals, but the barn door was opened ever since the world saw the photo of John-John under the Oval Office desk — a tradition, I might add, that continued with the entertainment of that other, older child, Monica Lewinsky, in the same place.

All this is to say that Obama’s having redecorated the Oval Office to resemble a  suburban den is understandable. Certain features strike the close reader of this room as particularly inviting. The sofas, for example, seem perfect for the girls to sprawl on with Harry Potter or a math problem set. And they look like they could be Scotch Garded to protect against dog-related accidents. Admittedly, there’s a hint of Ivy League clubbishness in the leather-upholstered armchairs, but they resist going so far as to be winged and worn in a style that might seem suspiciously elitest.

I have to say I have a problem with the wallpaper. It’s fine as a design element taken out of context,  but it strikes a note of gratuitous reversal given the way the room looked before.  Obama seems to have switched Bush’s stripes from rug to walls just to underline his sense of difference — that where his predecessor said potāto, he says potăto. It would have been a lot cheaper to leave the rug and the walls, the stripes and the solids, as they were.

The blue lamps seems to me a nice touch, colorful without being in-your-face about it (like Nancy Reagan’s red), and shiny in the manner suggestive of local potters who have taken a lot of time with the glazing. They sound the note of upscale rusticity evocative of country places in the Berkshires where West Side New Yorkers (who are simply richer versions of West Side Chicagoans) go to vacation in the summer. The bowl of apples picks up the same note. One is reminded of those trendy boutique hotels that have apples at the front desk, usually too hard to bite into (and who wants to eat an apple while checking into a hotel, no less hanging out in the Oval Office?), but supplying a sense of welcome and hominess nonetheless.

One element that seems to be jarring in the décor is the contemporary coffee table. The insertion of this aggressively Danish modern-style element in a venerable Colonial building is just plain bad taste. In the Oval Office, no item should call too much attention to itself, and one thing that the room shouldn’t do is evoke a condo in Boca Raton.

As for the rug — it seems to me that one hallmark of good taste is to avoid having writing on anything that isn’t expressly designed for it. Short of a cubist painting, where a few distorted letters from Le Figaro can safely intrude without ruining the esthetic, writing on surfaces other than paper has a tendency to look cute. One doesn’t want cute in the Oval Office. Let the kids and the puppy supply that. • 3 September 2010


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.