- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

If you think your children spend a little too much time on their laptops, take heart: Michelle Obama has the same problem.

The first lady made the rueful revelation as she feted the nation’s top innovators and designers in fields as diverse as architecture, technology, fashion and communications — winners of the annual National Design awards — at an East Room luncheon Friday.

“What would we do without our laptops?” asked Mrs. Obama, addressing one of the winners, Bill Moggridge, who designed the world’s first laptop. “My kids would die,” she said to laughter. “They’d be — they wouldn’t make it through the summer. I don’t know whether to thank you, Bill, for that.”

Hosting the design awards, which are presented by the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, has been a recent tradition for first ladies, starting with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000.

But Mrs. Obama, who has put a priority since the beginning of her tenure on spending time in the local community, added a twist: Earlier Friday, she sent both award winners and White House staff members to five Washington museums for free public seminars.

At one of them, an eclectic combination of Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa, interior designers Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown, and White House Deputy Social Secretary Ebs Burnough riffed on such subjects as the meaning of design.

One audience member’s query was somewhat less philosophical. Nina Hammond asked the panel how she could help her 12-year-old daughter achieve her goal of becoming a fashion designer, since they do not live in New York, the country’s fashion capital. She even held up a purple frock designed by the girl, Clarke Smith. “I’m trying to foster her dream,” said the mother.

Mr. Costa said she’d surely be welcome in New York.

Ms. Hammond wanted a little more: “Can I get a name, or a number?” she asked, to laughter.

Mr. Burnough noted that Mrs. Obama had wanted the designers, who spoke at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, to get out during their Washington visit “so that the community at large had the opportunity to really benefit from their knowledge and their expertise.” Seminars at other museums touched on such subjects as technology and sustainability, neighborhood transformations and interaction design.

Later at the White House, Mrs. Obama addressed guests that included executives from Google, Target and the Bravo TVnetwork, among many others, lunching on White House china from the Bush, Truman and Eisenhower administrations. She returned to an oft-stated theme: Kids need more than just a good education, they need exposure to the arts — and early.

“An educational foundation is only part of the equation,” the first lady said. “In order for creativity to flourish and imagination to take hold, we also need to expose our children to the arts from a very young age.”

She said Albert Einstein had it right when he said imagination is more important than knowledge. “We need to ensure that our children have both — knowledge and imagination. I know I want that for my girls. They deserve to have access to a good education and access to ideas and images that will spark their creativity.”

She also spoke of her efforts “to break down barriers that too often exist between major cultural establishments and the people in their immediate communities.”

“So we’ve been sending a lot of role models out there in the far reaches of this city and then inviting kids to come back here to the White House,” she said. “That’s been a big part of the messages of every single event that we’ve done here at the White House. These kids who are living just inches away from power and prestige and fortune and fame, we want those kids to know that they belong here, too … and in the museums, and in libraries, and laboratories all over this country.”

Dressed in a short-sleeved, bright canary yellow suit by Michael Kors, the first lady also was not above making a quip about the nation’s obsession with her fashion choices.

“What I love about design is the artistic and scientific complexity that also becomes useful: a laptop, a bridge — an outfit,” she said, pausing slightly to stress that last word, and drawing laughter. “A garden,” she added. “All drawn from a thousand wells of inspiration and yet grounded in the basic principles of math or science.”

Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.

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