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Q: I’m ready for something different in holiday decorations. Any ideas?
A: First, figure out your holiday style. Glittery (silver is the new gold) or earthy (think natural elements and burlap)? Then get creative—starting, if you have the space, with a tree.
Interior designer Jessica Lagrange favors fresh ceiling-skimming Fraser firs, known for their fragrance and excellent needle retention, and opts for untrimmed branches for a natural look. She gussies them up with heirloom ornaments she has collected over the years that represent family experiences and interests. To set off the ornaments, Lagrange dangles lengths of rich gold bullion trim from the branches. “It’s much more opulent and interesting than plain tinsel,” she says. She buys her favorite kind at Cost Plus World Market: “They have it only at the holidays, and I’ve never been able to find it anywhere else.”
Chicago-area designer and stylist Joy Frey-Waltmire (savvycityfarmer.com), who says her style runs to “romantic farmhouse chic,” usually puts up several trees and varies her themes. Last year, one tree was hung with vividly colorful glass ornaments that looked like pieces of candy; another was trimmed with pheasant feathers, six-inch-wide burlap ribbon from Michaels, clear string lights, and old black-and-white family photos attached to branches with wooden clothespins. “I don’t really make plans. The trees just evolve from what I have around my home,” she explains.
Chicago designer Rod Maxwell and Winnetka designer Holly Wilson opt for artificial trees for practicality. Both rely on a thematic approach to make the trees decoratively arresting.
Maxwell color-coordinates his trees, using gold and silver trappings on the one in his living room to play to the cream, brown, and taupe decor, and saving his colorful vintage glass ball ornaments, as well as clip-on songbirds he has collected for years, for the tree in the den. Wilson, like Lagrange, trims her tree with heirloom ornaments and has an especially nice collection of personalized needlepoint pieces.
But a tree is not de rigueur. Mantels, tables, sideboards, dressers, and desks are fair game for decorating, says blogger Candace Jordan. She adds antique glass paperweights with holiday motifs to those she has on display year-round and puts vintage Christmas-themed children’s books on side tables. Maxwell groups sleek little Kosta Boda glass trees on his coffee table; Lagrange brings out her festive snow globes.
Frey-Waltmire is particularly fond of the vintage glitter-encrusted white churches she collects, many of which she arranges as a centerpiece on her table, using a casually twisted and bunched piece of coarsely cut burlap as a runner under them. “You get great visual strength when you display things in multiples,” she points out.
Not a collector? Repurpose. “You can do a lot with a little,” says Frey-Waltmire, who mines what she already owns and forages in her garden for things to use in her holiday decorating efforts. Large vases, baskets, and bowls filled with flowers or fruit make dramatic centerpieces; basic candelabra and candlesticks can be dressed up and used en masse; trays become transportable tablescapes of fruit, flowers, candles, and miniature figures; fabrics and ribbons in seasonal colors provide festive splashes.
Instead of nutcrackers and toy soldiers, use Russian nesting dolls or small animal figures in tableaux, says Bridget C. Johnson, creative director at Kehoe Designs, an event decor and design company. In place of a tree, she suggests, try a frothy wire birdcage and hang ornaments on it, inside and out. “Or fill a glass hurricane with sparkly ornaments instead of candles,” she says. “For even more drama, you can elevate the hurricanes on tabletop pillars, using glue dots to keep them steady.”
Give a space instant glamour with interesting mirrors. Prop them on bureaus and mantels, hang them up in lieu of your usual artwork, or use them tray-style for tableaux, suggests Lagrange. They are particularly dramatic when positioned to reflect candlelight, doubling its impact.
Use textiles and dressmaker trims to quickly and easily transform your home into a storybook setting. Off-the-bolt fabrics, from the glitzy gold lamé Johnson favors to the earthy burlap and vibrant red-and-green plaids Frey-Waltmire likes, can be used to drape any surface or even become elegant tablecoverings. If you want a more formal look on a tablecloth or a runner, finish the edges with iron-on hem tape.
Ribbons of different materials, widths, and textures can be used to trim trees, garlands, wreaths, and more. Jody Nash, who owns the Chicago boutique Fabrice, likes them best on stair railings and in complementary pairings. “I always mix two or three different ribbons together, such as a plaid or a brocade with something metallic,” she says.
Finally, remember that the holidays come around the same time as the winter solstice, when nights are longer and colder than at any other time of the year. “What we’re drawn to most is light and warmth,” Lagrange says, “which is why I like holiday decor to be dazzling.”