By  on April 5, 2005

WASHINGTON — The first photo the National Design Award winners cast their eyes upon inside the White House Friday was of a man’s hands, presumably those of President George W. Bush, holding a baseball. But their honorary patron, Laura Bush, proved she can play ball, too.

While much has been said about the legacy the President stands to leave behind and the orchestration involved in doing so, the First Lady has been cementing her own place in history with less fanfare. Days after her trip to Afghanistan and hours after she and her husband visited a school here to trumpet an antigang and drugs initiative, the First Lady welcomed 80 members of the design community and championed their accomplishments. 

Much to the crowd’s surprise, Bush lingered to mingle with guests. When the East Room fell silent after she stopped to kiss a friend, the First Lady advised with a smile, “OK, everybody keep moving, everybody keep talking.”

Asked to what extent she has helped remind Americans about the importance of fashion and design, Bush, who is the only first lady to attend a runway fashion show, told WWD, “It’s an important business, and it’s a great export business for the United States. It certainly expresses our fabulous ideas and it’s just fun. It’s fun to get to see all the great fashion designs, to meet the designers, to have some pretty clothes and to just shop with my girls.”

But Yves Béhar, the NDA product winner, said the government needs to pay even more attention to design. “In Sweden, in Scandinavia and even in my country of origin, Switzerland, designers are kind of…cultural ambassadors for these countries. There’s no reason why we couldn’t do the same in the U.S. I don’t think design is on the radar at all in the government. I don’t think any administration has paid a whole lot of attention to design. The public and the media are so taken in by design. Somehow, that needs to trickle up. The level of awareness should be there and exist for design and culture today.”

Béhar wasn’t the only one harboring a little ire. Upon entering the White House gates, one guest asked, “Do you see my shirt?” and flashed open her jacket. “It’s Imitation of Christ. Barbed wire. It’s my own little protest.”Once they cleared security, most guests blew past the photo of George H. Bush practicing his egg-rolling technique on the White House lawn, and portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Chester Arthur in a fur-trimmed coat to tour the East Wing’s rooms. Whether by instinct or chance, some of the New York contingent chatted near a painting of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Others in the crowd clustered in the Vermeil Room to admire the first ladies’ portraits.

Upon sitting down for lunch, Yeohlee Teng, the NDA fashion winner, asked: “Are you going to write that there aren’t any knives?” 

Meanwhile, Christopher Pullman, WGBH’s vice president of design, was busy photographing a silver tray of seafood crackers. “When I said I was coming here, everyone told me, ‘Make sure you take pictures of the food. We want to know what you had for lunch.’ This is the evidence. I also have a pocketful of napkins.’’

Like many in the crowd, Pullman was impressed with the decor. Admiring the State Dining Room’s 20-foot ceilings and interior, he said: “It’s exactly what I expected. It’s just perfect. It’s just so — rugs covered with flowers, sconces and presidential portraits. It would be amazing if there was one room with a completely different aesthetic that might be drawn from a different era. But by and large, this is where I would like to have dinner.”

Earlier, in her remarks, Bush hinted at how design helps dress up any occasion. “Funky footwear and stylish clothes add a kick to mundane events,” she said. “Colorful design on the cover of a book can draw children to the words inside.”

The First Lady told the winners, “I’ve been looking forward to this since 2003. It’s an opportunity for me to be able to meet people I have admired for years. Each one of you has made an unbelievable contribution to our culture.”

Afterward, a few winners said they are planning road shows. At the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in Milan this week, Béhar, the design force behind Fuse Project in San Francisco, will help Swarovski unveil the commercial versions of his “Nest” chandelier. He is also at work on a 1-ton light structure that will be installed in John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 4 in June. Smaller versions of the piece will be sold in the airport this summer.The concept of having well-known designers create a limited quantity is “closer to what is sold in high-end fashion,” Béhar said.

Design, after all, shouldn’t be so convoluted, said lifetime-achievement award winner Milton Glaser, who finessed his “I § NY” icon in the backseat of a taxi. “One of the big problems with design is that it is such a big canvas. When we use the word by itself, it gets undefinable.”

Any design on any given thing — whether it be the dress someone chooses to wear or the tiles on a floor — is technically a design decision, Glaser said. “Most of design is about the consequences of designing something, not the way it looks,” he said.

At the Cooper-Hewitt-supported event with the NDA design patron winner and chair of the NYC Planning Commission Amanda Burden, Charlie Rose said, “I don’t think we need to lecture to Americans about design, but we do need to make it accessible.

“John Kennedy once said something — in fact, about this very room. When Jackie Kennedy invited Pablo Casals to perform here, he said, ‘I don’t know the music of Pablo Casals, but I know it’s important that he be in the White House,’” Rose said. “That’s what should be at the White House — the best of the United States and its culture.”

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