Designs on the White House Clintons give task to (surprise) an Arkansas pal

April 27, 1993|By Linda Bennett | Linda Bennett,Contributing Writer

LITTLE ROCK — Kaki Hockersmith, an Arkansas interior designer, is indeed the mystery woman who's in charge of redecorating the White House for the Clintons.

The identity of the first family's elusive decorator has been the subject of much speculation in design circles and the media for the past few months, but neither the White House nor Ms. Hockersmith would confirm or deny her rumored involvement until recently.

Finally, the White House press office has lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding Ms. Hockersmith, acknowledging that the Little Rock native is working on both private and public-private rooms at the new home of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.

"Kaki Hockersmith is working on the design of some rooms in the White House," Neel Lattimore, deputy press secretary to Mrs. Clinton, confirmed yesterday.

Ms. Hockersmith was considered a prime candidate for the job from the beginning because she had worked closely with the Clintons during renovation of their living quarters in the Arkansas governor's mansion in 1991.

Specific details of the White House project remain a closely guarded secret, although Ms. Hockersmith says information about the redecoration will be released by the White House as soon as the job is finished. As to when exactly that will be, no one is at liberty to say.

But it's a relief to be able to talk about her role in the project at all, the 44-year-old designer admitted during an interview recently at her studio in Little Rock's chic Pulaski Heights shopping district.

She has just finished a photo session in the opulent Victorian dining room that was her contribution to the local Symphony Designer House, a biennial fund-raiser for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. This year's showcase is a century-old Queen Anne structure in the heart of the city's historic downtown residential district.

Designer showcase

In the dining room Ms. Hockersmith has created an opulent interpretation of upscale decor at the turn of the century, incorporating luxurious fabrics, a hand-painted trompe l'oeil wall treatment, period antiques and artwork. The focal point of the room is the lavishly decorated round dining table, ornately draped with damask, dripping with passementerie and centered an antique Aubusson carpet.

On this balmy Arkansas spring day, Kaki (the nickname, pronounced like the color, resulted from her attempts as a toddler to pronounce "Katherine") is dressed in a tailored, short-sleeved black crepe suit and ivory silk V-neck blouse. Her chin-length, dark blond hair is styled simply, her makeup skillfully applied but minimal, her nails short and uncolored.

The pace of her already busy life has reached a frenzied pitch in recent months, Ms. Hockersmith says, with both the White House project and work on the designer showcase going on at the same time.

She admits she was not prepared for the frenzy of media attention, the barrage of telephone calls to her office and home, to her staff, clients, friends and family.

To ensure privacy for work related to the White House project, shesays she has had to retreat to her home to work when she's in Little Rock, relying on her answering machine to screen calls.

But lack of access to Ms. Hockersmith or release of official information from the White House has not stopped the media speculation. And some of the gossipy tidbits in resulting articles have been rather humorous, she acknowledges.

"They keep trying to put me in some neat little category. They want it to be Arkansas cutesy or something, but that's just not me," she said.

No 'Kaki' rooms

Her design style is eclectic, and her clients say they like the fact that the designer's interiors aren't easily recognizable as "a Kaki room."

"There are so many different design styles, and I like many of them personally," the designer notes. "I like for rooms to be comfortable and inviting, not look contrived or like a display.

"Or if it's a very formal room, I want it to be grand and wonderful."

Although she still can't talk about the specifics of her work at the White House, she spoke in general terms about the experience.

"I've tried to approach this project as I would any other client's house," she said, then grinned as she realized how that sounds. "Don't get me wrong, this is certainly not just any job. I don't mean that.

"But I've approached it from the beginning as a job that I needed to get done in a certain time frame, and that I wanted to be satisfactory to the Clintons and also be something that the American people would be proud of," Ms. Hockersmith added.

"My goal was to please the Clintons, and yet bring my creativity and expertise to the project on their behalf."

Did she realize how much national interest there would be in the White House redecoration?

"There was a period of time before I was able to appreciate, or really just stop and think about, the excitement of this opportunity for someone in my profession," she said.

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