In a new book by Laura Dowling, “A White House Christmas: Including Floral Design Tutorials,” readers can enjoy a tour of holiday decor at the White House—not only the home of presidents but also a museum of American history—and crafters can stimulate their creative sides by indulging in the gorgeous photos, accompanied in many cases by excellent tutorials. Lavishly produced with many photographs, the book offers tremendous variety.
Laura Dowling served as chief floral designer for the White House for six years (2009–2015) during the Obama era. She managed the flowers and decor for all White House events, including Christmas.
Applying for the position was an intense process, spanning more than seven months. The final interview itself was a four-hour, timed-design competition in which Dowling and two other finalists made a complete state dinner tableau, a large Blue Room bouquet, and an Oval Office arrangement. The finalists were invited to the White House, arriving before 7 a.m., and were sequestered in separate rooms for the duration of the competition, which culminated in an interview with the first lady.
Grateful to participate in this competition, Dowling felt that it personified the American dream. It was an opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.
On the job, Dowling focused on several aspects: implementing a casual garden-style elegance, having her creations reflect the historic rooms they graced, improving overall efficiency through operational systems, and bringing in corporate best practices to revitalize the government flower shop. She also expanded the volunteer work program.
When asked what her favorite projects in the book are, Dowling responded and added some humorous anecdotes.
Fruit and Vegetable Wreaths for the East Colonnade
Long inspired to use natural materials for Christmas decorating, Dowling learned that several former first ladies also had enjoyed fruit and floral motifs and used these in their White House holiday decor.
Michelle Obama wanted to encourage healthy eating through the holiday designs. So, using the first lady’s vegetable garden as inspiration, Dowling created handmade, oversized fruit and vegetable wreaths for the East Colonnade, the long connecting hallway that links the East Entrance to the main executive mansion.
Soda Can Trees
The soda can trees for the Green Room were made from recycled aluminum cans from the White House complex. They showcased how simple, ordinary material could be reused artistically.
Taking about five months of volunteer work, this project involved gathering thousands of soda cans, cutting them, crimping and fringing the aluminum, and pinning it onto pyramid-shaped tree forms.
Dowling added that everyone got involved in the project, from the West Wing staffer who gathered soda cans (and an occasional beer can) at the end of long White House workdays, to East Wing staffers who helped cut up cans and the volunteers who worked diligently to ensure that there was enough manpower to complete the designs.The project created a unique spirit of collaboration and camaraderie.
The soft incandescent light of candles was an integral part of Dowling’s holiday decor. She incorporated candles into displays, with mirrored and mercury glass vases as embellishments.
Although real candles were used at the White House, they were usually encased in metal sheaths (chace candles) to minimize the fire hazard.
Dowling said that once a volunteer accidentally launched a spring-loaded chace candle across a fully set holiday table, shattering glassware and china, causing quite a ruckus!
Organic vases were a key part of the White House decor all year round. These were especially useful at Christmastime when Dowling incorporated fragrant evergreens into all of her displays. These vases were covered in magnolia leaves, since the velvety leaves dried in place to create long-lasting designs that could be used over and over again.
In the Red Room, Dowling created floral containers that especially exuded the festive style of the Christmas season. Among her favorites were handmade sugar-flower vases.
She remembered one large vase that a local cake artist had made completely from sugar-paste flowers. It took six months to make, and served as the vessel for displays. Dowling needed to be careful with the watering, however, and learned to always insert the flowers in a plastic liner first. She learned the hard way that whenever water touched the sugar paste, the flowers melted!
One year at the end of the season, a worker inadvertently threw away this piece that had been featured in the press and on TV. The vase was rescued at the last minute by a sharp-eyed volunteer who saw it peeking out of a garbage can.
Sugar-paste flower vases also showcased a princess pine topiary, and a lush display of green flowers and ferns with red berries, among other displays.
Dowling added that berries dropped and became embedded in carpets or stuck to floors when they were crushed underfoot by thousands of visitors to the Red Room. The housekeepers and curators were not always happy.
Column Covers Using Illusion Cubes
The most ambitious of all of the volunteer projects was making a set of four “illusion cube” covers for columns in the lobby near the East Wing Entrance. This project involved gluing 60,000 berries, 10,000 folded lemon leaves, and 10,000 individual pine cone scales into a geometric pattern.
The entire project took almost six months to make and required hundreds of volunteer hours. Some volunteers cut, some measured the pattern, and some applied materials with silicone glue guns. Adding even more time to the project happened during the installation: The carpenters accidentally cut the wrong ends to fit around moldings and heaters, resulting in extra hours of work.
Nonetheless, the final result was striking to visitors and staff members alike. One Secret Service guard who sat at the entrance mentioned to Dowling that looking at the illusion cube pattern day in and day out had a hypnotic effect on him.
Bo and Sunny
Last but not least were the family pets. The Bo and Sunny replicas were a key part of the White House holiday magic. Each year, Dowling created life-size versions of the first family’s dogs, starting with chicken wire bases and covering them with a variety of black and white materials: ribbons, pompoms, licorice and marshmallows, pipe cleaners, and even trash bags.
To create the dogs realistically, she measured them, taking care to get the perfect expressions, poses, and proportions and dimensions of black versus white markings, and so on.
Dowling’s most ambitious effort came in 2014, when a volunteer team of computer scientists and Presidential Innovation Fellows collaborated with her to create robotic versions of the first family’s dogs, adding computerized parts and motion sensors to make the dogs’ heads swivel and track visitors as they walked by, exemplifying the use of modern technology in White House decor.
Dowling said she experimented the year before with a more rudimentary approach: inserting simple motors from lawn reindeer (the kind you purchase at the drugstore) in the rears of the dogs to make their tails wag. The concept worked well until the end of the season when the ribbon covering became ensnared in a motor and began to smolder, emitting smoke from Bo’s tail.
Linda Wiegenfeld, a retired teacher, welcomes readers’ comments. Her email is [email protected]
‘A White House Christmas: Including Floral Design Tutorials’
By Laura Dowling
Stichting Kunstboek BVBA
160 pages; hardcover, $41.25