A Very Special “Make It Work” Christmas Story

Tim Gunn will be at the National Archives on December 11, hosting “Deck the Halls: Holidays at the White House.” Join us in person or watch live on our YouTube channel. Details at the bottom of this blog post!

It was 40 years before his famous catchphrase, but Tim Gunn knew he needed to “make it work” if he wanted to get the Christmas tree decorated in time at the White House.

First Lady Rosalynn Carter holds an ornament designed by Tim Gunn. (Carter Presidential Library and Museum)
First Lady Rosalynn Carter holds an ornament designed by Tim Gunn. (Carter Presidential Library and Museum)

The future Project Runway star had recently begun teaching three-dimensional design at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, when the call came in. The White House was asking for students to make original ornaments for the tree in the Blue Room.

But just like a challenge on Project Runway, there was a catch: they had one week.

In Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work, Gunn recalled that they were excited to have the opportunity—and intensely curious about how the White House had come to be in this situation. “We heard a rumor,” he wrote, “that the Jimmy Carter White House perceived the work of this original ornament maker to be “inappropriate,” and we had a wonderful time trying to imagine what in the world those ornaments had looked like.”

His second-year students were assigned to make ornaments, and they soon had created “elaborately beautiful shapes and forms” on a folk art theme.

But this was not the “make-it-work moment.”

No, that happened when they entered the Blue Room and realized that the tree was enormous.

Gunn recalled that the tree “was at least as big to my eyes as the one at Rockefeller Center.  As I continued to stare at it, it became bigger still, like the magical tree in the Nutcracker.”

They hung the ornaments and soon realized they needed more ornaments. Many, many more ornaments. More than they could possibly make in time.

The Christmas tree decorated by Tim Gunn's students (Carter Presidential Library and Museum)
The Christmas tree decorated by Tim Gunn’s students (Carter Presidential Library and Museum)

Determined to make it work, Gunn drove to Sears, Roebuck and cleared the store of every last red-lacquered Styrofoam apple ornament that they had in stock and hung those ornaments on the tree.

He made it work.

(Gunn ends the episode in the book with an anecdote about not making it work. Although the First Lady  posed with each student and with the group for an official portrait, the photos never arrived. It turned out that the photographer did not have any film in the camera!)

Hear more stories of White Holiday traditions on December 11!

In partnership with the White House Historical Association, Tim Gunn of Project Runway leads a panel discussion on White House holiday decorations through history. Panelists—including Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Johnson; Genevieve Gorder, host of HGTV’s White House Christmas; former White House Chief Usher Gary Walters; and Coleen Christian Burke, author of Christmas with the First Ladies—will present a visual feast of the themes, designs, and processes that go into decking the halls, rooms, and exterior of the White House.

The official 2014 White House Christmas Ornament, featuring President Warren G. Harding, will be available for purchase. A book signing will follow the program.

Presented in conjunction with our “Making Their Mark Through Signatures” exhibit, which is made possible in part by the Foundation for the National Archives with the generous support of Lead Sponsor AT&T. Major additional support provided by the Lawrence F. O’Brien Family and members of the Board of the Foundation for the National Archives.

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