Amy Zantzinger joins us for “Five Questions With…” this month to reflect on her two years as White House Social Secretary, pass along a few pro tips for holiday decorating and entertaining (hint: plan ahead) and share a memorable story about the Dalai Lama and a U.S. Marine.
Q: Before we get to holiday decorating and your experiences as White House Social Secretary, can you give us an update on your company, Amy Zantzinger Interior Design and how your approach to design has evolved over the years?
I have been designing homes for over 25 years – before and after serving as White House Social Secretary. I would describe my design aesthetic as “casual elegance.” The spaces I create are distinctly classic and hopefully tell a little about the people that live in them.
I am generally brought into a project shortly after the architect is hired, so I am involved from the beginning. My services include decorating as well as the design of kitchens and baths. I am blessed with wonderful clients that have homes throughout the Eastern Seaboard and the Bahamas.
Q: You were an accomplished interior designer before coming to the White House. How did you come to be appointed White House Social Secretary?
My time working with the Bush family began when I finished college. I worked in Washington, D.C. as an assistant to George W. Bush, who at the time was a senior advisor to his father’s campaign. Once George H.W. Bush won the election, I worked in the transition office and helped with First Family affairs for the Presidential Inauguration. After the inauguration, I worked in the White House Visitors Office. In 1993, I moved to San Francisco and became the Protocol Officer to Mayor Frank Jordan and ultimately got a master’s degree in interior design and worked for a design firm. I came back to D.C. when I married my husband in 1998. At that time, I started Amy Zantzinger Interior Design. Initially, many of my clients were friends from my years working with President Bush 41, including Anita McBride. As Chief of Staff to Mrs. Laura Bush, Anita approached me in January 2007 when she began looking for a new Social Secretary. It has been my most significant honor serving President and Mrs. Bush in that role.
All the Social Secretaries get together once or twice a year to share stories and provide moral support to the sitting Social Secretary. They are an incredible group of people, and each has a very different story to tell about their path to the job.
Q: Coordinating the holiday season at the White House would be overwhelming, to say the least. How did you approach the work and what lessons learned from that period continue to serve you well?
Mrs. Bush selected outstanding themes when I was Social Secretary, “Holiday in the National Parks” in 2007 and “A Red, White and Blue Christmas” in 2008, both honoring our country in amazing ways. She had very thoughtful ideas on how to execute the decorations each year, such as sending every national park a paintable Christmas ball and having them select an artist to decorate it, reflecting the character of that particular national park. Each one was a treasure and looked stunning on the tree. Once the tree was decorated, Mrs. Bush kindly invited every artist to a reception so they could see their ornament hanging on the big, beautiful tree in the Blue Room.
The process wasn’t overwhelming because we planned months in advance. Mrs. Bush is incredibly organized and efficient, which helped very much. The holidays are always a hectic time of year, so don’t wait until the last minute to order your cards, purchase gifts, plan your menu and decorate your house, otherwise you will be disappointed by what is left on the shelves – particularly this year!
Q: Can you please share a few tips for holiday entertaining and decorating with your fellow BCAers?
Keep it fresh and simple. I have a few favorite decorations – beautiful Simon Pierce crystal trees for my living room coffee table and numerous large gold balls I place deep in the tree as the backdrop for all the traditional ornaments. I also install fresh garland on the mantles and insert acorns or balls depending on the year and lots of candles! I fill the house with fresh flowers, preferring single-type flower all white arrangements of orchids, white tulips or white amaryllis. And you can’t go wrong with an affordable potted white poinsettia.
Q: Can you leave us with a favorite story or moment from your White House days?
Oh, there are so many! Working in the White House is the most special place to work in the world. President and Mrs. Bush are exceptional people and brought the best out in all of us working there. They are thoughtful and giving and wanted visits to the White House to be memorable – whether it was a head of state and their spouse having dinner by the warm Yellow Oval Room fireplace in the private residence or a festive Christmas party for hundreds of people on the State Floor.
A favorite story of mine is when the Dalai Lama visited the White House. After a visit with the President and Mrs. Bush, he was leaving from the South Portico and a Marine sentry opened the door for him, with the standard sharp movements and crisp about-face. But, just as the Dalai Lama passed him, he tickled his chin and whispered, “just give me a little smile.” The gesture was so endearing and so very surprising. Like so many days at the White House, you just never knew who you might meet or how the day would unfold.