"As Tom Dair noted, 'Design is about people, not things,'" Obama told the design rock stars assembled in the East Room, before urging the lunch crowd to use their talent to view the world in terms not of what's there, but what isn't. "Design can determine if a family has shelter, can educate a child, can make for a healthier planet. Design gives us works of beauty that lift our spirits and stirs our souls. And it can serve as an inspiration for the next generation."
For his part, Dair, whose Smart Design was one of ten honorees, was stunned to hear himself referenced from the podium. "I must say that I was totally surprised (and elated) that Ms Obama quoted me and I would have to say that it has to be the high point of my career to date," he told us. "That quote is one of the pillars of our culture. For me this was recognition and affirmation that we (Smart) are relevant and doing the right thing."
Design's potential to make a difference for kids is the topic that most resonates with Obama — although she was as giddy as a Project Runway fangirl at the thought of having lunch with the Bravo mainstay."I get to sit next to Tim Gunn," she crowed. "How cool is that?"
In planning the luncheon, she had urged the staff of the Cooper Hewitt to bring its annual teen-focused event, customarily held during Design Week in New York, to Washington D.C. in conjunction with the White House affair."
"Mrs. Obama asked us to expand the program from last year, and make this year's focus on high school students," said Caroline Baumann, the Cooper Hewitt's associate director.
Prior to queuing up at the White House gate for lunch, this year's winners hosted tables at the nearby Renwick Gallery for more than 400 teenagers interested in design careers.
Jenna Lyons of J. Crew had kids fighting for a seat to see a walk-through of the company's line, Peter Hudson of Nike drew future athletic shoe designers, and Jared Schiffman and Phillip Tiongson of Potion, regaled digital design fans with visions of a promising future on the cutting edge of interactive design. A number of kids were enthralled by James Timberlake's stories of his own career confusion, where he started out in product design before discovering architecture.
"This is amazing," said Nathaniel Wilkes, an instructor at Sherwood Recreation's "DC Camp Runway," a summer fashion design camp for local teens. "The kids don't often have ways to see themselves in the fashion industry."
But like any budding fashionista, he was most dazzled by TV's runway wrangler: "Just to be in Tim Gunn's presence is awesome," he said. "He's an idol."
For his part, Gunn delivered a tough-love message to his rapt audience, the kind he'd give a laggard designer on his show: "You're not little birds, waiting in the nest for worms," he said. "Your teachers can help, but you're at least 70% responsible for your own education. Get out there and deliver at least 150% in whatever you do."
Once they had earned their meal ticket, the NDA winners trekked over to the White House, where they dined on salads of field greens, beets and goat cheese, lobster carpaccio, and a challenging dessert involving a sphere made of chocolate (stuffed with whipped cream, berries and chocolate cake. Tasty, if you could figure out how to crack it without getting chocolate all over your tie). Party favors were Viewmasters loaded with images of winners' work.
As military staff shooed guests out of the room after lunch, a crowd formed at the window to watch POTUS practicing his putting. "The country must be in better shape than we thought," one onlooker noted drily.
Just over a decade old, the National Design Awards are the country's most prestigious design citation; this year's nominees were drawn from solicitations of over 2,500 design professionals.
Here's a tour of this year's winners in all ten categories.
[Top image: Michelle Obama flanked by G. Wayne Clough, president of the Smithsonian, and Bill Moggridge, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum's director and last year's NDA honoree for lifetime achievement]