Fort Worth Designer Ken Blasingame has become the ‘first designer’

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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When the George W. Bush Presidential Center — with the Presidential Library and Museum, plus the Bush Institute — opened on the University Park campus of Southern Methodist University in early May, it marked the seventh project on which Fort Worth-based interior designer Ken Blasingame had worked with the Bush family. Over the years, he had become Laura’s go-to designer.

Blasingame first met George and Laura Bush in 1989. They were introduced by mutual friends, and the Bushes hired Blasingame to do some work on their home in Dallas.

“Then he bought the baseball team,” says Blasingame. “I thought, ‘Gosh, he owns a baseball team.’ I never thought where it might lead.”

It led to Blasingame working on public and private quarters for both Bush homes in Dallas (before and after public service), the Texas Governor’s Mansion in Austin, the White House, Camp David and the Bushes’ Crawford ranch.

Designing rooms in the Bush Institute was another one of the hybrid personal/public facilities in which he specialized. It also marked what might be the last big building project for Blasingame and the Bushes.

Because Blasingame had always been mute on the subject of his projects for the Bush family — never, ever talking about his role as First Designer — he was finally rewarded. On a recent day at the Bush Center in Dallas, Laura Bush sang his praises, and Blasingame talked about their many endeavors culminating in the Bush Center.

“I want you to know how talented I think Ken is,” says the former first lady. “He is also brilliant at making pretty rooms, which is just what we like.”

One of the first orders of business after George Bush won the presidential election in 2000, even before he had been sworn in, was to put his stamp on the Oval Office. Each president has been encouraged to make the Oval Office his own by designing a new carpet, picking out a desk, sofas and chairs, as well as hanging artwork that reflects his tastes and personality.

“George likes to tell about one of the very first phone calls he received after he became president-elect,” recounts Laura Bush. “It was from the curator at the White House, who asked him, ‘What rug do you want in the Oval Office?’ George said, ‘I knew I was going to have to make a lot of decisions, but I didn’t know I was going to have to make that kind of decision.’ So he delegated it to Ken and me, saying, ‘I want the rug and design of the Oval Office to look like an optimistic person offices here.’”

Visitors to the Bush Library can see an exact replica of Bush’s Oval Office with the cream colored-rug that Laura Bush and Ken designed, with rays emanating from the circular presidential seal and with a laurel leaf border. The re-created room has been thoroughly researched, so that it is accurate down to the exact number of decorative nail heads used on the upholstered side chairs.

There is a fastidious attention to this kind of detail that is ingrained after working on the Governor’s Mansion and the White House. Blasingame found that with any additions to rooms in historic houses, whether it’s additions of furniture, reupholstering or even the decorative bibelots, “You want it to be authentic. You have to be as accurate as can be.”

A desire for authenticity led Laura Bush and Blasingame to tackle the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. Blasingame says, “It is the most accurate Lincoln Bedroom that ever existed.”

He can say this with impunity, as there never was a Lincoln Bedroom. There was the room on the second floor in which Lincoln officed. (The West Wing, with the presidential Oval Office as we know it today, was built during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration). There was a highly ornate Victorian bed that Mary Todd Lincoln had bought for the White House, and a sample of the wall paper and photographs of the rug that had been in Lincoln’s office on record with the White House archives.

Blasingame and Laura Bush cobbled together all the known artifacts and reference materials and assembled a room that was accurate to the Lincoln era. The heavy draperies that hang above the bed, the settees donated by Winterthur, and the fireplace are all now appropriate to the time. The public can see the renovation of the Lincoln Bedroom, as it is documented with before-and-after photographs in the Bush Library.

Personalizing the White House

The two Texans found that America’s House, as the White House is often called, is layered with the personal stamps of past presidents and first ladies.

“While I might not have chosen some of those antiques if I had been the first lady at the time, it was very interesting. You live with the effects of the decorating of all the people who come before you. It’s different than owning a private house,” says Laura Bush.

Having spent time at the White House during her father-in-law’s administration, she was aware of the White House’s trove of antiques, so when the second wave of Bushes moved to Washington, D.C., she shipped only a single piece of furniture.

“I knew when we moved to the White House there was this wonderful White House furniture in a climate-controlled facility with a curator, so I didn’t move anything down with us. I only brought one chest of drawers that had been George’s grandmother’s for my dressing room. It was partly because it had been his grandmother’s, and I thought it would be fun to have a third-generation of Bush furniture in the White House, and there was a spot I knew it would fit.

“So as soon as I moved there, Ken started going with the White House curator to the facility, picking out various pieces of furniture and bringing them back and putting them in the space we thought they would look good. If it did, then we would talk about recovering if it needed reupholstering, and that was fun,” she says.

Effecting the room redos was a lark for Laura Bush, and for Ken, “It was a dream job. All the contractors were on staff,” says Blasingame. The White House has full crews of carpenters, plumbers, painters and electricians. “They’d bring the paint sample to you; they’d rewire lamps for you,” he says.

Designing the Bush Center

The pair’s most recent project, a hybrid personal/public design job, did not come with a built-in staff and a climate-controlled warehouse of antiques to shop.

Blasingame, who was on the design committee for the entire Bush Center, conferred on many of the choices made for the public rooms. He also designed the presidential offices and reception hall, private rooms in the Bush Institute — as well as a living room and large and small dining rooms — for the Bushes’ personal use. They will be used for invitation-only receptions, and as such, they had to have a public presence, as well.

“The Bush Library didn’t have a great budget,” says Blasingame, “but we still needed the aura of ‘presidential,’ so we went with a good selection of antique reproductions.”

In the very pretty living room, Blasingame used teal velvet on the facing sofas and coral and teal floral upholstery on the chairs. The floral prints and soft sofa fabric suggest an intimate family place; the paintings, though, are of a monumental scale, and these came from the White House. They were originally made for a White House Christmas display and are on loan from the Bush Library.

The scenes of Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon were painted by former Fort Worth resident Adrian Martinez.

“Mrs. Bush had a vision to bring them to this room, so the niches were built to accommodate them,” Blasingame says.

Vestiges of White House projects show up again in the small dining room. Here a Gracie wallpaper is the same pattern that was used in the Vermeil Room’s foyer to the ladies’ room in the White House.

The plain white china is serving as a place holder for Audubon plates and a set of china from Lenox that bears the Seal of the United States.

In a private reception area next to the dining room is one of Van Cliburn’s personal black grand pianos, donated after the Fort Worth pianist died in February by his survivor and longtime companion, Thomas Smith. (Smith donated another one to the Smithsonian Institution.)

The larger dining room has the same chairs with drawer pull handles on the back to facilitate one-handed maneuvering. Blasingame ordered 46 of them to service large parties.

Many of the paintings, prints and decorative pieces are being replaced by works that are currently at the framers, or are still being manufactured, or are on their way from enthusiastic donors.

The large print of Washington With His Generals in George Bush’s office belongs to Blasingame. It will be replaced by a print similar to one in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

The mid-century desk was found in Dallas; Laura Bush is fond of mid-century furniture, says Blasingame, so while it might seem an anomaly, it is in keeping with their personal tastes.

A red Chinoiserie desk in the library doesn’t boast an antique pedigree; it’s early 20th century, probably, but it is a stunner. Blasingame said he found it in Pennsylvania long before he began working on this project and tried mightily to fit it in his home.

He had to pass on it, but as soon as the planning began, he knew he could work it into the design of the small library in the Bushes’ private quarters.

Red albums that line the lower shelves are a photographic history of the White House years. The artwork is framed antique prints of eagles. The French pedestal table, which came from the estate of Lena Horne, was donated by a Bush supporter.

The oval reception room has 19th-century lacquered tables, American side chairs and a pair of Empire mirrors that Blasingame found in San Francisco.

He chanced upon the bust of George Washington in Austin.

The White House may be considered America’s House, but to furnish the Bush Center, Blasingame had to shop across the entire nation.

Now that the final pieces are being installed, he can finally talk about the projects and relationship he has with the Bushes.

But he is still guarded. Over the years, they have become more than his clients.

“We are very close friends as well,” says Laura Bush.

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