Americas - Issue 24 - Magazine | Monocle

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View from Washington

The top-secret redecoration of the White House is headed by an interior designer to the stars

By Sasha Issenberg

Every outfit in Michelle Obama’s wardrobe has been picked over by the public and press, but her biggest style move is taking place out of view on the White House’s second floor.

Remodelling the presidential apartment suite is routine practice once a new family moves into the residence, but none of Barack Obama’s recent predecessors enlisted anyone as high-profile as California designer Michael S Smith.

The interior-design community took notice, but the arrival of someone described in his own book as “the thinking celebrity’s decorator” jarred with anyone trying to make sense of the Obama aesthetic. Most days, their White House feels less Versailles than community centre, with schoolchildren tramping through for concerts or holiday celebrations. The family’s personal tastes have been appropriately modest for the times, choosing J Crew for inaugural wear and burger chain Five Guys for a staff lunch. (Even the Obamas’ anti-­consumerist moves resonate in the marketplace: seed sales took off nationwide when the first lady unveiled her “kitchen garden”, according to agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.)

Smith, who the Obamas discovered through a Chicago friend, is following his clients’ cues. He has downplayed the opulence that marked out his houses for Steven Spielberg, Cindy Crawford and Dustin Hoffman. Instead, he talks up a high-low mix that matches the way the Obamas talk about how they shop.

During the campaign, Barack joked about Michelle’s loyalty to discount chain Target, which Smith has also recommended in magazine features for garden-party accoutrements. “The family’s casual style, their ­interest in bringing 20th-century American artists to the forefront and utilising affordable brands and products will serve as our guiding principles as we make the residence feel like their home,” Smith said in a statement released by Obama’s office.

Indeed, Smith has long shown an Obama-esque knack for undermining the labels others might apply to him. “He doesn’t foist one point of view on every client,” says Diane Dorrans Saeks, a writer who collaborated on Smith’s book. “He wants not to have a ­signature look. For each house, it’s a portrait of that person.”

The Obamas are entitled to $100,000 (€77,320) to redecorate, but have signalled they will use their personal funds. The gesture may have also been an acknowledgement that $100,000 would not go far with Smith. “I was only surprised because I know how expensive he has become,” says Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a Democratic fundraiser and Obama detractor whose Manhattan home was designed by Smith.

But, Saeks notes approvingly, the decision to personally finance the work will grant the Obamas respite from scrutiny of their consumer choices. No one will know how much the improvements cost, or what the money bought. The First Lady’s office, which is coordinating the redesign, would not offer any update or news on its budget, and refused to make Smith or social secretary Desiree Rogers available for interview. “The private residence,” says spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld, “will never be seen”.

Gone downhill


You might have thought the highest ski resort in the world would be the last to melt. But no. Chacaltaya, 5,421m up in the Bolivian Andes, has provided a high-altitude playground for Latin America’s wealthy since it was opened in 1939.

However, over the past two decades the glacier on which the resort sits has shrunk by 80 per cent and today the main lodge is left high and dry (see above) and there is only one stretch of piste left: enough for a two-minute swish downhill.

Pollution from nearby La Paz, the capital, and climate change are the main reasons for the demise. Artificial snow appears to be the only option if the Bolivian Andean Club wants to keep the skiers coming.

Election watch


Date: 29 November 2009
Type: Presidential
Incumbent: Leftist José Manuel “Mel” Zelaya Rosales
Challenger: Elvin Santos, a rival from within the Liberal Party

Main issues:
Violent crime
Growing ties with Venezuela

What it means for the world:
Zelaya wants to change the constitution so he can run for president again – which many see as a threat to democracy. He aims to take Honduras further to the left, which could complicate relations with the US.

Two-way road


Four years after crews started laying asphalt through the Amazon, construction is nearing completion on one of South America’s most ambitious – and controversial – development projects: the first continuous paved road across the breadth of the continent. The Interoceanic Highway will run from the Pacific coast through Peru and Brazil to the Atlantic coast. Most of the roads on the Brazilian side are ready. On the Peruvian side, a 400km stretch through the remote Madre de Dios region is set to open later this year, leaving only two short Andean segments yet to be paved (crews are trying to finish these by 2010).

Business leaders expect the 5,400km road, connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo with three ports on the Peruvian coast, to be a boon for trade. But environmentalists warn of grave impacts, particularly in biologically rich Madre de Dios where they say the highway project has already led to deforestation and sales of vast tracts of land to oil and gas companies.

More ambitious plans:

  1. The Panama canal is being widened so that bigger ships can cut across Latin America there.
  2. The Swiss are drilling under the Alps to build the world’s longest tunnel (57km long) and slash train journey times between Zürich and Milan.
  3. Russia is building a two-mile long suspension bridge (which will be one of the longest in the world) to link Vladivostok, in the far east, to Russki island off the coast.

Icing on the cake


Alaska is celebrating a big birthday: 50 years ago, the vast Arctic territory came in from the cold and officially joined the US following a vote by Congress. But the state may not make it to its 75th anniversary if the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP) has its way.

Buoyed by the publicity generated during last year’s presidential election when it was revealed that Todd Palin, husband of Sarah Palin, had been a member of the secessionist group, the AIP has signed on hundreds of new members and is planning to introduce a bill in the state legislature in January affirming the state’s sovereignty.

The next step, hopes party chair Lynette Clark, is a referendum on Alaska remaining a state or becoming an independent nation. “We shouldn’t be dictated to by a far-distant government,” she says. “We’re an incredibly oil-rich land. We should have a seat on OPEC.”

Car plant

Detroit [FARMING]

Detroit is fast becoming the US’s leading example of urban farming. City officials are reviewing plans for Hantz Farms, which would be the world’s largest urban farm. Upon approval, the town will be working in six months. While not replacing the car industry just yet, the project will create jobs for green-thumbed car workers and rehabilitate 70 acres of vacant lots.

Shut your beak


Brazil may lose up to 190 languages by the end of this century. Only America (192) and India (196) may lose more.

Old crooners


Fifty-three languages have disappeared across the US in the past 50 years. And there are 71 more that are on the brink. In many cases, it’s only a few elderly people who can speak any words of these dying languages.

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