Let Ben Carson Keep His Table

The case for lavishly furnishing a Cabinet secretary’s dining room.

Ben Carson in front of expensive furniture.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; James River.

Administrators at Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development have been on a yearlong quest to replace the housing secretary’s dining room furniture inside the agency’s headquarters, a Washington building designed by legendary brutalist architect Marcel Breuer. A series of news reports revealed that HUD officials (as well as the secretary’s wife, Candy Carson) had pressured staffers to get around spending limits in order to spend more than $31,000 on a mahogany table, 10 chairs, and a handful of sideboards, including a three-piece set “crafted of crotch mahogany, satin wood and quartered mahogany borders, [with] carved teardrop and dentil molding on crown, ” according to CNN.

Whether or not Carson’s executive suite was in need of a new look, HUD responded with a series of obfuscations and excuses. The department spokesperson lied to the Guardian about the purchase of the set, which was supposed to arrive this coming May. Carson said the current table had been characterized as “dangerous,” while the interior designer who sold it to HUD said the office’s existing furniture was said to be “raggedy.” Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro chimed in to say he had never had any problems with the table. Finally, on Thursday, Carson said he had requested that the order be canceled and that he was not happy about the price tag.

Is a $31,000 dining set appropriate for the leader of an 8,000-person federal department where he has preached about the moral rewards of abstemiousness? It just may be, according to Michael Rock, the creative director at design consultancy 2x4 and a professor at the Yale School of Art, who has followed the controversy closely. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Grabar: The first thing that caught everyone’s eye about this was the price tag. As someone who works with this kind of stuff, did that seem abnormal or in line with what an executive would pay to furnish a suite?

Michael Rock: An interesting phenomenon in America is that billions and billions of dollars are spent on things that no one has any reaction to, but something that’s just so tangible, everyone reacts to, because everyone has to buy a table and chairs. Whereas if that space shuttle costs $15 billion, should it be $14 or $17 billion, who knows? But when a chair is $5,000, [people say], “Well, I just bought a chair for $100.”

Is the Regency style popular among corporate clients? I associate corporate culture with high modernism, and this looks like something from a house museum. 

What is the look of an executive in America now? There’s all different variations on that. In one sense it’s kind of futuristic, like a Bond villain, you go into the office and it’s like the deck of a spaceship. And then there’s classic modernist, familiar from movies, the Mad Men style. That executive had modern furniture typified by Stoller or Knoll. But there’s also a kind of traditional style. You may very well find on Wall Street, in a completely modernist skyscraper, a wood-paneled Edwardian office that looks like it was taken directly out of a country home in Britain and reassembled piece by piece. It’s a different kind of symbol of executive power, I think, which is traditional, baronial, classic. There was the recent thing with the congressman who decorated his whole office in Downton Abbey style.

Aaron Schock!

And that was adopting the style of the landed aristocracy, and I think he was run out of office ultimately. [Editor’s note: Yes, he was.] So there’s all these different signifiers of power, and that’s where this contrast between this high modernist building and this ersatz historicism as a symbol of fanciness is interesting.

This building is designed by Marcel Breuer, one of the icons of modern architecture. But what you’re saying is there’s not necessarily a custom of having furniture match the architecture, and that there’s probably a number of low-design objects stuffed inside this iconic building.

It speaks to the unlovable quality of brutalist architecture. It’s been almost universally unloved and seen as anti-human, uncomfortable, hard. There’s a parallel at HUD. That same criticism is applied to modernist housing projects. These projects are so dehumanizing and uncomfortable, so you get this way of decorating these building in this quaint or historical way to try to humanize them somehow. The classic instance is these Bauhaus buildings in Germany with lace curtains in the window.

Which Walter Gropius would have hated.

Yeah, but it was seen as a way for people to fight back against the security of the architecture, so you get all these funny decorating moments, where high modernist buildings have this almost kitschy Americana. That was always an attempt of the common man fighting against this intellectualized high modern appeal of these buildings. And the HUD building in particular, there was a sense in Breuer of trying to democratize the spaces—everyone had equal access to sunlight. [Former HUD Secretary] Jack Kemp famously said it’s 10 stories of basements.

The Newport Dining Table by James River and Regent Dining Side Chair by David Phoenix. HUD officials reportedly ordered the chairs with blue velvet fabric.
The Newport Dining Table by James River and Regent Dining Side Chair by David Phoenix. HUD officials reportedly ordered the chairs with blue velvet fabric. James River; David Phoenix

Is it important to make the distinction that even though this is an office, Carson was furnishing a dining space, and we should expect something different from furniture for a fancy business luncheon than for office work?

It’s a sideboard, a lowboard, eight chairs [plus two armchairs. —ed.]—there’s a whole bunch of stuff there, and when you start to break it down by piece the cost goes down a lot. It’s not, like, this one gold-plated table. How many people work in HUD? It’s huge. It’s not at all surprising that an executive would have a suite with a table where he might have lunch or an informal meeting, that would be very typical of a corporate office suite. All of those pieces would be quite typical in any office suite.

I wonder if there’s a racial component to this criticism. If it had been Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, would people have had the same reaction as they did to Ben Carson at HUD, which is seen as this inner-city organization tucked away in this horrible building? And he’s a black guy going to try to buy all this fancy furniture? If that were Alan Greenspan or Steve Mnuchin or Gary Cohn, would there be the same outcry? I’m not sure.

The blue chairs might have made him particularly susceptible to that racially tinged criticism of being a parvenu.

Oh, the blue velvet on the chairs? I wouldn’t do it myself, but within the style of 19th-century Regency it wouldn’t be out of line. What did Reagan say about Cadillac welfare moms? Cadillac, to me, is a type of gauche car in a way that this strikes me as a gauche furnishing choice. The fact that it’s a black guy at HUD splurging on this fancy furniture for himself, it strikes me that those tie together somehow to portray him as undeserving.

I don’t support Trump, I don’t support Carson, I think he’s a terrible choice. But the controversy over the furniture reveals all these different things: ambivalence about how much we spend on government, ambivalence over how someone dealing with inner cities should be treated, ambivalence over rising above your station—a perfect storm of all these stories.

An implication being that because HUD deals with primarily anti-poverty programs, it’s somehow less deserving of having a proper set of furniture than Treasury would be?

That’s right. So much coverage already was like, “They’re slashing for money for housing at the same time as spending money on furniture.” I completely object to the cutting of HUD’s budget, but this furniture has nothing to do with that. It’s a drop in the bucket. It’s played as, “Here’s someone in charge of creating housing for poor people and creating a palatial setting for themselves.” If the table and chairs had cost $20,000? If they had cost $10,000? What would have been the number people would have accepted? At what point does outrage become ignited? A person’s sofa is the fourth-biggest expense they make in their lifetime—a house, a car, a diamond ring, a sofa.

Part of the outrage stems from how they’ve handled it. The initial reports have the acting director, under Candy Carson’s instruction, saying you can’t get a decent chair for $5,000. Then the subsequent attempts to cover up the expense and not submit it for congressional approval. I think if they had been more forthright about the idea that HUD is no less deserving of a set of C-suite furniture than any other department, the reception might have been different.

For sure, it was terribly handled, and I think the involvement of Candy is significant somehow. There have been several of these wife stories recently. Mnuchin’s wife was involved in chartering that airplane to see the eclipse. The avaricious wife is a plotline in all these things, the husband driven by this wife trying to get everything she can.

A Lady Macbeth subplot.

It’s the third or fourth wife story in this administration already, playing the system. Like most things the Trump administration does, it has been terribly handled in the press response, and probably illegally handled at the beginning, because there’s a $5,000 limit which they tried to circumvent by saying it wasn’t really for his office, it was for the whole building. There are two different stories. One: Should there be a $30,000 furniture makeover in the director of HUD’s office? That’s a question that could be debated. The question of whether the wife of the director should be trying to manipulate the system to get to buy it, that’s maybe a different story.

One thing he said in the letter was that this furniture was 30 to 50 years old and was characterized as unsafe. At what point does a dining room table become unsafe?

I highly doubt the reason they’re replacing it was really a safety concern. Again, a new executive coming into a corporation—most would remodel their office. But the series of overlapping and ridiculous stories to justify this is really out of control.

In Carson’s case, whether or not you think the chair of HUD should have a new set of furniture, his rhetoric has been all about efficiency, cutting corners, public housing should not be too comfy.

Yeah, that’s where the story completely falls apart, because he’s such an inept director. It’s absurd that someone so unversed in the subject would be heading an agency like that that’s so technical. And coming after Shaun Donovan, who had many years of experience, was an architect, trained at Harvard, ran New York City’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, really knew something about cities.

And Julian Castro after that, who came out of San Antonio.

Now you’ve got someone who is a neophyte, with this harsh rhetoric about not making public housing too comfortable because we want people to get out of it. … The real frisson of the story is that he needed to be able to flaunt all rules to go and aggrandize himself while taking things away from the needy. You can’t escape that image. I think it wouldn’t really matter how much the table and chairs cost as long it was a number large enough to pique anyone’s attention.

Now we hear Carson wants the order canceled. So rather than trying to make a defense of properly furnishing HUD, if not properly managing its programs, he seems to have agreed this was an unnecessary expenditure.

Which completely undermines the whole thing. It’s not about efficiency, it’s not about safety, he just got caught. So it’s the worst possible outcome. He doesn’t even stick by the original argument, he just says, “OK, never mind, I won’t do it.”

They seem to have made a wrong turn at every single juncture.

You couldn’t have crafted a worse trajectory for this story. The reason I’ve been following it so closely is that there’s so many things tied up in it, and in a way, the denouement that you’re describing is fitting too. After you get your hand in the cookie jar, you say, “Oh, you caught me, never mind,” and skulk away. It’s horrible.