Meet the Entrepreneurs Behind Christmas at the White House
BY Issie Lapowsky
These business owners donated their time and talents this year to make the White House merry.
To get an good idea of what it takes to decorate the White House each Christmas, it might help to take a look at the numbers. This year's decor included 24 Christmas trees, 450 repurposed books, 1,200 decorative cookies, 300 lbs. of dough (used to make an edible White House replica), and 83 volunteers, who put it all together.
Pulling off Christmas at the White House is no easy feat. Still, despite the sheer scope of the project and that the work is unpaid, plenty of business owners still revel in the chance to deck the White House's halls. Here, meet three entrepreneurs who donated their time and talents to make the People's House look beautiful this Christmas.
Maggie LaBaugh and Jess Rapier of Maggie Austin Cakes
A vase decorated with sugar flowers made by Maggie Austin Cakes on display at the White House. Inset: Maggie LaBaugh
Decorating cakes was never in Maggie LaBaugh's grand life plan. From the age of 4 onward, she lived and breathed dance. But when she was 26-years-old, dancing professionally in Chicago, she suffered an injury that derailed her dancing career. Having no experience working at a desk job, LaBaugh enrolled in The French Pastry School in Chicago, where she found that decorating cakes requires a lot of the skills she learned as a dancer. "It requires the discipline I learned from such an early age. I have unending patience," she says. "It's also a subjective thing. There's no perfection, which is true in all art."
It was at The French Pastry School that LaBaugh first fell in love with making what are now her signature sugar flowers, which were featured in the White House this year.
LaBaugh (whose maiden name is Austin) tapped her sister Jess Rapier, then a stay-at-home mom, to manage the business side of things, while Austin made the cakes, and in 2010, with a little help from an SBA loan and guidance from the local SBDC, the two sisters launched Maggie Austin Cakes in 2010.
The company's bread and butter (if you can use that expression to describe a cake business) has always been wedding cakes. Exquisitely detailed, the cakes cost customers thousands of dollars, which means Austin typically cats to the rich and famous. As luck would have it, White House florist Laura Dowling attended a wedding this year where LaBaugh's cake was served and decided to commission her to make hundreds of her signature sugar flowers to decorate vases in the White House (pictured above).
In late June, LaBaugh and her team of interns got to work. Making the flowers is a tedious process. Some types, like the ranunculus have 11 layers each, and every layer has to dry before the flower can be compiled. LaBaugh, who donated the cost of labor and materials, says she's yet to count exactly how many flowers, but she estimates it was many hundreds, if not 1,000. It was a long and arduous process, but LaBaugh says, "We'd do it all over again. I wouldn't have it any other way."
David Beahm of David Beahm Design
David Beahm, owner of David Beahm Design, an event-design company in New York City, helped decorate the entrance and East Room of the White House.
David Beahm also had a flair for show business. After getting his master's degree in fine arts, he moved to New York City to become a musical theater performer, but he never auditioned. Instead, in 1998, he launched David Beahm Design, a company that covers the full gamut of event design. Beahm started small, walking door to door advertising his services, and slowly built a stable of clients. One of his first big breaks came three years later when he was hired to decorate Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas's wedding.
Beahm is a White House Christmas returnee. During the Clinton Administration, he was a volunteer, and last year, he decorated the Red Room and Diplomatic Receiving Room. It was no less exciting, he says, when he was invited to contribute once more and decorate the East Room and entrance. "It's a thrill, an absolute thrill," he says. "The images of this holiday will be in the booms and looked at for a long time to come. To be part of history? I'll take it."
A little-known fact is that the White House has a warehouse of ornaments from the past--mountains upon mountains of shiny bulbs. The chance to scavenge through it all was, for Beahm, like. . . well, Christmas. It also gave him a chance to keep his costs (which he covered himself) low. He had just two days to decorate four 14-foot Christmas trees with about 6,000 ornaments and 100 yards of garland, all of which had to be scanned by Secret Service.
"It's two intense days," he says. "But it's our home, a symbol of our country. It's an honor just to be able to walk in there, much less work in there.
Tana Leigh Gerber of Bohemian Bloom
New York-based Bohemian Blooms created these specialty paper flowers used in the White House's elaborate holiday decor. Inset: Tana Leigh Gerber.
It's thanks to Beahm that Tana Leigh Gerber's specialty paper flowers are making their inaugural appearance at the White House this Christmas. She started Bohemian Bloom, a New York City-based business, in 2012, after learning how to craft paper flowers for her own wedding. She realized afterward the flowers were a unique commodity that event planners would be willing to pay for. Beahm soon became one of her clients.
When Beahm found out he was decorating the East Room, he approached Gerber to see if she'd be interested in contributing. It was a three-month project, which might ordinarily cost a client $40,000. Gerber only had five weeks to complete it and would be doing the work for free, but she eagerly agreed.
"I was working around the clock," says Gerber, who has two young kids at home. "I was taking advantage of nap times and bed times and doing most of it from my home studio."
In the end, Gerber assembled 50 large-stemmed roses, 400 small-stemmed roses, and 200 feet of garland, all by hand. The big payoff for all that hard work was a holiday event at the White House, attended by President Obama and the First Lady. After Obama made his opening remarks, Gerber's husband, Inc. columnist Scott Gerber, tapped on his shoulder and introduced President Obama to his wife. "He told us, 'This is the best the East Room has ever looked since I've been in office,' " Gerber remembers. With any luck, she says, she'll get to repeat it all again next year.