Even if you’re not into interior design, it was hard to ignore last week’s Washington Post story about U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock’s office, and all the squawking that followed.
Everyone seems to be shocked—SHOCKED—(Schocked?) that a member of congress would pay an interior designer to decorate his or her office. If you ask me, more members should follow Schock’s example—most of those Hill offices are tragically forgettable.
And then there’s all the clucking about a dubious reference to the office being inspired by “Downton Abbey,” attributed to a still-unnamed staffer and never corroborated by either Schock or Annie Brahler, his Illinois designer whose own home has been featured in House Beautiful, and whose clients range from a Fortune-500 CEO to a young family on Capitol Hill.
I finally caught up with Brahler the other day, and she tells the real story behind this decidedly UN-elitist design. Her DIY approach illustrates her company name, Euro Trash, which is a winking reference to the pedigreed look she creates with often-humble finds from flea markets, barns, antique malls—and anywhere else interesting she finds at the side of the road. “I don’t hide behind price tags. I just use what works,” she says.
The impetus for the red color scheme grew from the office’s plain-Jane layout. Schock’s former office in the Cannon building was Navy blue and kelly green, Annie says, but she was initially stumped when she saw his new Rayburn office, which is much less architecturally interesting.
Here, she says, “I needed impact—there was no architecture.” That’s when she suggested red. Also, she says, “I wanted it to be patriotic”—to the United States, not to Britain or the fictional “Downton Abbey.” (The “telephone game” effect of all the unsourced reporting took the Post’s original anonymous quote and morphed it into Brahler herself saying the show inspired the look. Wow.)
Filling the office interiors was a matter of “inventive thinking,” Brahler explains, because contrary to all of these reports about “lavish” decorating, she was adhering to a very small budget. See all the photos of presidents on the upper wall of the reception area?
Brahler found them in a box at a thrift shop, the product of an old school house. Cost for all of them: $6. Some of the glass in the frames was smashed, so she and her assistant took all the glass out, making them easier to affix to the concrete wall with double-sided adhesive.
Next, those who frequent the Hill know that in most members’ reception areas, two desks normally flank the front door, so visitors walk in staring at a wall before they realize they have to look right or left to see a person. Brahler sought to have Schock’s visitors greeted head on, so she opted to create a reception desk on that rear wall. She found a work bench at Home Depot, surrounded it with plywood and created trim with stock wood base. She painted it all white, and capped it with a congressional medallion that she found in the Capitol gift shop.
Brahler made the desk counter-height, furthermore, after she noticed how the aides who sit there are up and down from their seats dozens of times a day—these kinds of observations, indeed, is why you hire designers.
Proceeding right along into the inner sanctum of Schock’s office, what do we find?
A series of gilded frames. Brahler haunts every antique mall, thrift shop, Good Will store, and flea market she can find. She appreciates good frames, so she often buys “art” and rips out the actual painting or poster contained in the more valuable frame. None of these frames cost more than $20. The “paintings” of Ulysses Grant and Lincoln—both sons of Illinois—are not actually paintings, but inexpensive canvas reproduction prints from an online photo developer. The “portrait” of George Washington is a $5 photocopy that she found in an antique mall.
To give the office a contemporary and slightly edgy look, she hung the frames so they overlap the existing trim, and didn’t worry about whether the paintings fit inside. As you can see, she even left one frame empty.
Much has been made of the office’s “drippy” chandelier and golden-eagle cocktail table. Pretty rich looking, huh?
Well, that chandelier came off Craig’s List. The cocktail table came from an antique mall in St. Louis, and cost less than $150. The tufted leather furnishings came from the office-furniture inventory that the Architect of the Capitol makes available to lawmakers at no charge. And Brahler found the frames for the settee and footstools at antique malls. She reupholstered them in red velvet from Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores—the labor to upholster all of them was about $200.
Brahler then found the pheasant feathers at an antique shop in Mount Sterling, Ill., while she was working on another job. The owner’s husband is a hunter, so she gave them to Brahler for free because there were so much of them. “I always like to use natural elements in my design,” she says, noting that Schock’s previous office contained arrangements of dried magnolia leaves.
The beautiful glass-front bookcases came from the Architect of the Capitol—Brahler gave them impact with a $30 cornice she found at the Quintessential Antique and Furniture Company in St. Louis. Not shown is the large, oval-shaped desk where Schock works—he didn’t want the standard variety, because he likes to collaborate with visitors and staff, so he wanted the desk to double as a larger conference table. Brahler searched the Rayburn basements for something that would work, but the round tables were too wide. Instead, she again turned to Craigs List, where she scored an oval dining table from a local home.
Say what you will about the decor—red certainly isn’t for everyone—but it’s depressing that reporters jump to all sorts of conclusions about how much it cost without actually asking. The truth, it turns out, is so much more interesting than the speculation.
And if you’re wondering, here are some images from other projects—as you will see, “drippy chandeliers” are practically her calling card, in the most beautiful way.
Click here for more photos of Brahler’s home.