Annie Brahler Explains Aaron Schock’s Office Design

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.

Here's Rep. Schock talking to ABC's Jeff Zeleny in the reception area of his new office in the Rayburn House Office Building. (photo from ABC)

Rep. Schock talks to ABC’s Jeff Zeleny in the reception area of his new office in the Rayburn House Office Building. (photo from ABC.com)

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.

Annie Brahler

Annie Brahler

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?

reception

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?

Photo from The Washington Post

Photo from The Washington Post

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?

settee

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.

bookcases

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.

Annie Brahler's home in Jacksonville, Ill. This photograph and the ones that follow are by Bjorn Wallander.

Annie Brahler’s home in Jacksonville, Ill. This photograph and the ones that follow are by Bjorn Wallander.

Click here for more photos of Brahler’s home.

 

Braher converted a barn on her client's property into this gorgeous hideaway.

Brahler converted a barn on her client’s property into this gorgeous hideaway.

 

Braher keeps a warehouse of furnishings and accessories for events and photo shoots. This was a wedding on a MIssissippi farm, using  planks on saw horses and dressed with runners made from fabric remnants at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores.

Brahler keeps a warehouse of furnishings and accessories for events and photo shoots. This was a wedding on a Mississippi farm, using planks on saw horses and dressed with runners made from fabric remnants at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores.

 

For this wedding, she hung chandeliers in the trees and lit them using extension cords. The lighting and settees all came from her warehouse.

For this wedding, she hung chandeliers in the trees and lit them using extension cords. The lighting and settees all came from her warehouse.

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Comments

  1. Such hate for such a successful woman. Maybe those of you filled with so much negativity would be best to concentrate your hate towards yourselves for being such horrible people. All i need to know about you is in the way you treat others.

  2. Jennifer Sergent says:

    Nate, thank you so much for this point of view!

  3. Nate Rice says:

    Being a NYC degreed designer (30 years); I have to say this woman accomplished her task on a shoestring. I have designed several highly public DC buildings for the private sector where each window treatment climbed over 4K per window/ $180.00/yard fabric and rugs upward of 25K each. The attention grabber in Schock’s office is nothing more than the bold- high contrasting red and while paint. Personally, I’ve spent more on a pair of period lamps for my home than his entire reception area cost. The general public is often fast to share their opinion based on first impressions, absent a baseline of understanding. It is my professional opinion that this interior designer produced a creative product but failed to temper the final product with spaces official purpose; solely due to Mr. Schock not editing the concept or providing his designer with the acceptable standards to work within in a public servant’s office.
    It is my belief if the walls were beige and white this would not be a topic of conversation and the limelight on the real matter at hand- Mr. Schock’s accounting. The office decoration is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the real issues. Be nice to this gal, she did nothing wrong.

  4. Jennifer Sergent says:

    Interesting perspective, Amy, but I just don’t think it’s true. And I’m not part of any clean up crew — I’ve never met the congressman OR his decorator. But as a journalist who covered Capitol Hill for years, I’m still awestruck by the kind of lazy pack journalism that occurs up there — news outlets quoting other news outlets rather than finding this “poor lady” and asking her directly. I would love to find her myself.

  5. I think the American people are very intelligent and reconize that Mr. Aaron Schock was not doing the apporate thing in his elected position. Annie Brahler was not honest either. Lets think on how we know this really works …instead of how the hired PR people from both parties would like us the American people to view it. Annie Brahler had been in & out of Aaron Schocks office for weeks… and everyone, is well awear of the time that will be spent ,working on this type of project! Lots of discussions and yes, they were in front of that poor receptionist who had a front row seat while working in Aaron’s Office. This poor lady, is now being thrown under this very expensive bus! This honest lady repeated what she had been hearing for weeks being said in that office from both the decorator & her staff and the congressman & his staff.. No Aaron would not like this reference towards the PBS “Downtown Abbey” to get out for obvious reasons ..one being he held a very high office in our country ,the United States. No decorator worth her salt wants to be known as coping someone else’s work,it implies that such a decorator can not develops her own style. So in stating the obvious, I will also mention that Jennifer ( who may be part of the Schock/Brahler clean up crew in the above post) may want to be less obvious regarding her roll in this blog.. A good rule to live by for anyone is “Just do the right thing…even when no one is looking” I guess these two weren’t taught that either.

  6. Jennifer Sergent says:

    Thanks for your comment Georgie — Not sure if you’ve ever been in a congressional office, but they are very small, and the reporter had walked in and was chatting with the receptionist when Annie was in there. He button-holed her and started asking questions. The congressman’s office is right there to the side — it’s not like you have to walk down any corridors or travel very far to see it. And because she’s not from the scandal-happy, litigious environment of DC, she pointed to his office to answer his questions. She was being nice, in other words, and she was punished for it. The story actually grew out of the obnoxious remarks of the congressman’s press guy — not anything Annie did. Plus, she never told him that she offered her services for free. He PAID her for her work in his previous office, and when she said she “loves doing things for Aaron,” the reporter improperly inferred that it meant for free — and that inference was never corrected. Her payment came from his congressional allowance, and more recently we read news that he paid her with his own money, and she returned the original payment to the treasury. And don’t get me started about Downton Abbey, which was never attributed to Annie or Aaron, but to a still-unnamed office staffer. But the press won’t let it go — because, you know, who would want to let the facts get in the way of a good story?

  7. I don’t know if the Post did a hatchet job but they were honest:
    Why would she think it was appropriate or her position to give a tour of the Congressman’s office to the member of the media, no less? Is she suddenly his Chief of Staff? This is DC, not Jacksonville, Illinois.

  8. Thank you for taking the trouble to research this. I read the original article in the Post and really disliked the hatchet job the author did on both the designer and the congressman. The designer seems charming – like the pictures of her own house – and good on the congressman for trying something different.

  9. I am guessing that Carrie’s talking about me. I wasn’t “beyond negative”, especially in the first piece I did about the room. However, some of the comments were negative. The second post I wrote was a little more negative, only because I find the look of the misplaced pictures and frames to be jarring, and meant for a more casual setting than a Congressional office. I also think that the name Euro Trash is derogatory.

  10. Thanks for this post. Another blog I like, based in Baltimore, went beyond negative about this
    room. The initial comments were vicious. I had a feeling there was more to it and went to Annie’s website myself. She seems talented, interesting and certainly resourceful. This room isn’t for everyone to be sure, but some elements are nice…or at least not dreary. Well done Jennifer!