"He sounds like a wise choice, with his interest in traditional though not pedantic museum settings," said historian William Seale, author of "The President's House: A History." "What works best in the White House is someone who is immersed in the past and can design in a modern way."
Recent presidents and first ladies have hired a designer from their home states. George W. and Laura Bush hired Kenneth Blasingame of Forth Worth to tone down the bright colors brought in by Bill and Hillary Clinton's Arkansas designer, Little Rock-based Kaki Hockersmith.
Since the Truman administration, however, most presidents have engaged top names in New York City's design firmament. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower used Park Avenue modernist Dorothy Draper, John and Jacqueline Kennedy relied on society decorator Sister Parish, and George and Barbara Bush employed Manhattanite Mark Hampton, who had created Christmas displays at the White House for the Carters and Reagans.
Smith has not yet announced his plans for the Obamas, and calls to his office were not returned. The 44-year-old California native and graduate of L.A.'s Otis College of Art and Design will be the second Angeleno to decorate the White House since World War II. President Ronald and Nancy Reagan worked with Ted Graber in the 1980s.
"They did spectacular things," Seale said. "With Ted Graber, the Reagans created a stage for his presidency. But as dramatic as it was, Graber understood function so well, and the family quarters had never really worked before; they were never really furnished for daily use. He took the time to make them as livable as they are today."
Though the White House is a high-profile assignment, it is not necessarily a high-ticket job. According to Seale, the incoming president usually is allocated $100,000 per term for redecorating -- a relatively modest sum for what could be a large, complicated job.
Many presidents bring their own furniture to their new quarters, and President-elect Barack and Michelle Obama will have access to White House warehouses.
"It's been a mandate since the Kennedy administration that nothing can be thrown away," Seale said. "So Mrs. Obama will be shown a catalog of furniture, drapery, even curtain rods."
Unlike the official state rooms, the personal rooms are not subject to restrictions.
"The president can do anything. If he wants to make a room look like the Brighton Pavilion, he can," Seale said, referring to the extravagant palace of King George IV in England -- though that's not likely. The Obamas, he said, "seem to love old houses. They have an early 20th century classic Colonial Revival, so they are obviously interested in architecture."