WASHINGTON — The crowd on board the 8 a.m. Acela Express as it pulled out of New York’s Penn Station on Friday morning was more artistic than usual.
Narciso Rodriguez was snoozing in the first-class car. Mayer Rus, design editor of House & Garden, glided by in Nike trainers and a Commes des Garçons jacket that looked like pajamas. Later, somewhere in Maryland, Tracey Hummer, an editor at Art in America, sat on the arm rest of a chair and proudly described her touring outfit: a black leather skirt and blouse she had borrowed from Vivienne Tam for the occasion, as well as the pale gold dress she planned to change into once the train reached Washington, and then, more loudly, that she was going for lunch at the White House.
It would have been difficult for any of the other guests on board for said destination to have sounded less blasé as they recounted on their cell phones over and over that they were part of this day trip, a bit of pomp and circumstance to honor the finalists for the National Design Awards with a ceremony hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. The regular commuters were duly impressed, as one chino-clad man asked another, “Which do you prefer, Vogue or Elle?” and the other responded, “I just read about a new fashion trend, something called car-go pants.”
Fashion might not be considered such a serious topic inside the Beltway, nor does the Bush administration profess to regularly keep up with the world of design, but to be fair, as several guests reached the East Gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, no one appeared to give the vaguest hoot about President Bush’s press conference on illegal travel to Cuba that had just wrapped up in the Rose Garden, either. They were more interested in Rus’ audacity to wear trainers to lunch with the First Lady.
“It’s just lunch,” he said. “Dinner gets you the good shoes.”
Once inside, past the security force that looked as if it was greeting a delegation of aliens, that patina of bemused cynicism slowly wore off in the grandeur of the setting, a gallery of rooms on the State Floor all filled with the history of Presidents and First Ladies.In the oval-shaped Blue Room with its commanding view of the mall, Rodriguez leaned against the windows, commanding, “You’ve got to check this out.” The neighboring Red Room, Jacqueline Kennedy’s favorite in this wing, features recognizable portraits of Martin Van Buren and Dolley Madison and, who’s this? “Angelica Singleton Van Buren,” a handsome cadet answered out of nowhere, along with a description of her role as an “acting first lady,” since she actually was the widower Van Buren’s daughter-in-law.
Still, this crowd being what it was — design giants like I.M. Pei, Lella and Massimo Vignelli and even the good folks from Target Stores — a few guests couldn’t help but comment on the Bushes’ paltry selection of toiletries in the guest bathrooms, which included a bottle of Adidas Sport fragrance with the label scratched off, and that “lunch” was a “buffet.”
By most appearances, the Bushes have never been into the social scene or making a big fuss about entertaining, but as the First Lady pointed out, appearances can be deceiving.
“I’m having the chance to meet people whose work I’ve admired for years and that is certainly one of the perks of my job, having you all here today,” she said, taking the podium for a ceremony in the East Room. “Your work not only improves our lives, it improves our world. We sometimes forget its impact.”
Bush explained that she doesn’t often think about the design of her bed or a coffee maker, just that she likes her husband to bring her a cup of coffee in bed in the morning.
“Of course, I buy cashmere sweaters for their style, but I love their comfort much more,” Bush said. “I’m someone who doesn’t always think about the artistry behind design, but appreciates it immensely.”
The First Lady is acting as honorary patron of the National Design Awards on Oct. 22 at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, which is being chaired by Richard Meier with Carolina Herrera, Reed Krakoff, Murray Moss and Deedie Rose. The awards were launched at the White House in 2000 as a project of its Millennium Council and include a fashion design category for the first time, with Rodriguez, Tom Ford and Christina Kim as finalists.Pei, who is being honored with a lifetime achievement award at the event, as are the Vignellis, said he, for one, was convinced the Bushes have done more for design than they’ve been credited with.
“Symbolically, the fact that this lunch takes place in the White House makes it more important,” he said. “They are continuing the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, and this is the first president that I know of that has put design in that high of a regard, since.”
Well, it wasn’t Monticello, but Bush gave her own nod to fashion, later confirming the black pinstripe pantsuit she wore for the ceremony was from Escada.
“It’s a German designer,” she said, “but usually I’m in American.”
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