For Architectural Digest, by Elizabeth Stamp.
The White House is often called “the people’s house,” but given the entertainment industry’s fascination with the presidency, it sometimes seems like it belongs to Hollywood. The Oval Office has made frequent appearances on both the big and small screens, from the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House to House of Cards, which returned to Netflix for its fifth season this month. The production designers of these movies and television shows face a daunting task: painstakingly re-creating the country’s most well-known residence.
Whether the production is based on an actual administration, such as the 2016 movie Jackie, or telling the story of the fictional presidency a la The West Wing or Veep, the designers start with extensive research on the building and its history, turning to archives and former White House staffers. Steve Arnold, the production designer on the first four seasons of House of Cards, used records from the Historic American Buildings Survey as a starting point for the Underwood White House. “There’s some pretty good information, but [for] a lot of it we have to use photographs and scale off the photographs and try to interpolate measurements,” he says. “It’s not exactly common knowledge or accessible. We were lucky enough to ferret it out.” The production team of Designated Survivor toured the public spaces of the White House and met with the staff at various agencies, including the D.C. Metro Police, Secret Service, and FBI, to fill out their research.
For shows like The West Wing and House of Cards, the designers are able to take a few liberties and bring the personalities of their fictional presidents into the executive mansion. Arnold transformed the East Wing’s family dining room into the bedroom of Claire Underwood, and added art throughout the private residence that represented the couple’s style and interests. McMullen, on the other hand, borrowed design details from past administrations, including the striped wallpaper in Barack Obama’s Michael S. Smith–designed Oval Office, to create the backdrop for President Kirkland’s sudden rise to power.
While each team takes its own path to building the Oval Office, they all attempt to bring history and gravitas to the space.
Production designers who re-create actual presidencies don’t have the same leeway. For Jackie, Jean Rabasse reproduced the Kennedy White House down to the Tillet fabrics in the First Lady’s bedroom. “We tried to cheat as little as possible,” he says. “You can’t imagine how far we went in the details, even in the moldings and the painting. We had copies or scans of every painting.”
While each team takes its own path to building the Oval Office, they all attempt to bring history and gravitas to the space. And with the White House dominating the 24-hour news cycle in real life, Hollywood’s production designers are sure to be busy re-creating 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for years to come.
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