i+D - January/February 2020 - 33

Political Designs - By Brian Libby

Thomas Pheasant:
Transitioning Tradition
Buildings for American presidents or Canadian prime ministers-what could be a more
exclusive commission? Well, how about a building in which nearly all the world's other
heads of state have spent the night? That would be the President's Guest House in
Washington, commonly known as Blair House: a complex of four formerly separate
19th-century buildings near the White House that since the 1940s has been owned by
the U.S. government. It's been called the world's most exclusive hotel.
In the 1980s, Blair House underwent a six-year renovation overseen by acclaimed interior
designers Mario Buatta and Mark Hampton. But by 2012, it was overdue for a refresh.
This time, though, there was an extra degree of difficulty. Instead of closing for years
to undergo the renovation, the redesign by Washington, D.C., interior designer Thomas
Pheasant was broken down into a series of smaller efforts, each carried out during the
one month of the year that Blair House is closed. "Just from an installation and functional
issue, that's a big challenge," he says. While major additions such as the library and
master suite have been completed, the renovations by Pheasant remain ongoing.
Yet for the designer, the greater challenge was finding the right stylistic balance. Pheasant
has urged the nonprofit board running Blair House to accept more contemporary art and
furniture, but there are limits. "I'm working inside a building that has a history. There's
a sort of romantic quality about it, a sense of tradition that many want to maintain," he
explains. "As rooms need to be refurbished, it's deciding what's good, what's worth
keeping? While I'm labeled sort of a classically based modernist, this was stepping back
into traditional design, which has been a challenge. You walk into a room decorated with
heavy prints and stripes and trims and lots of decoration; for me the instinct was to go
in and pull that back a bit but maintain that romance."

Interior designer
Thomas Pheasant
notes one of the
challenges to
renovating an historic
property like Blair
House is finding the
right stylistic balance.
(Image: Durston Saylor)

The Blair House library, one of its signature spaces, is a good
example. "I tried to relax the room and simplify the palette
without changing the architecture," he says. "We kept the
portraits and antique pieces but lightened the spirit. It almost
went from looking like you were in a really nice library in
a lawyer's office to being in a library in somebody's home.
That's the spirit you want your guests to feel. It really is a
guest house."
Whether it's one room like the Blair House library, one large
space like Canada's temporary House of Commons, or an
entire complex of buildings like the Obama Presidential Center
or the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, perhaps the basic recipe
for success is still the same: Develop a vision born from the
client's values and your own, and express that in a way that
remembers the past while acknowledging the future.

BRIAN LIBBY
is a journalist, photographer, and award-winning
fi lmmaker. His articles have appeared in
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,
The Atlantic, and Architectural Digest.

i+D - January/February 2020

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