Garlands frame the entry to the living room, welcoming guests and setting the tone for the evening.

Every year for as long as he can remember, interior designer Martin Horner has thrown a holiday party. Sometimes it’s for eight people; sometimes it’s for 30. But be it big or small, the co-principal of the firm Soucie Horner pretty much sticks to the same checklist from year to year. He pulls out from storage his multiple boxes of ornaments and pine cones. He discusses the menu with his friend and caterer, Joe Schroeder, owner of Gerards Personal Chef ("I always have parties catered so I can relax," Horner says). He buys a ton of greenery, including a tall Douglas fir Christmas tree, often at Gethsemane Garden Center in Edgewater. And then he gets to work. The man has a lot of garlands to hang.

Martin Horner awaits guests in his dining room; behind him isan antique Japanese screen from Asian House of Chicago. The black-lacquered wood chairs were prototypes made for Holly Hunt, one of this consummate host’s many guests.

"I like walking into a room and smelling fresh greenery," says Horner, who drapes the arched doorway in his hallway, the fireplace mantel in his living room, the chandelier in his dining room, and more with decadent amounts of it. On the mantel, he adds moss, pine cones, and little white lights to the garlands, along with standing branches of winterberries for a splash of color. He throws cinnamon-scented pine cones into the fire and has mulling spices simmering away in the kitchen for yet more seasonal aromas, scents that remind him of the holidays at his childhood home in Indiana.

As for the tree, Horner’s is always understated. "I don’t do themes," he says. "I like the tree to look classic and simple—and to sparkle." He tends to stick to crystal, white, gold, and silver ornaments, buying a new one to add every year. "It’s a big ritual," he says of the purchase, whether it’s a silver Eiffel Tower picked up in Paris or a hand-painted springer spaniel in honor of his own pooches. Sometimes he punches things up a bit: Last year, he added red ribbons, the year before it was pheasant feathers retrieved by his dogs in Wisconsin. He likes the idea of adding berries or fresh flowers, or wrapping under-tree gifts with a single bold color to add pop.

Horner’s dinner parties always begin with cocktails (and end with coffee and after-dinner drinks) in the living room of his Buena Park co-op, which is filled with original Beaux Arts crown moldings and a mix of antique and contemporary furniture arranged for mingling. Back-to-back upholstered benches from Lincoln Antique Mall divide the space into two cozy seating areas.

The party then moves to the dining room, where, last year, a long formal table was set with a mix of contemporary china and pieces Horner inherited from a great-grandmother. Yet more pine cones and greenery made their appearance scattered among the serving pieces, while the centerpiece was a more formal arrangement of whites roses, eucalyptus, and artichokes. Mirroring his tree, the table’s palette is white, silver, and gold, with some accent colors, including black and red, thrown in. The white branches fanning out from the antique alabaster chandelier were inspired by a similar design that Horner saw in the men’s department one holiday season at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.

Horner isn’t one to sit around caroling with his guests. He mixes holiday music in with classical selections to remind everyone of the occasion. And he comes up with small ways to keep the mood light and fun.

"Last year I passed tree branches around the dinner table and had everyone pose with them for a picture," he recalls. A few weeks later, he e-mailed the photos to his guests. It’s always good to remind people how much fun they had at your party to get them excited for next year’s.


Photography: Matthew Gilson

Next: Recipes 


Chili Lime Aioli

1 clove garlic, minced
1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 cup canola oil
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 habanero pepper, seeds and ribs removed, minced
zest of one lime


Place the garlic and salt in the bowl of a food processor, process until pureed. Add egg and egg yolk and process. Scrape down the sides to combine all of the ingredients. With machine running, drizzle the canola oil until it emulsifies and thickens. Add the lime zest and juice and pulse to combine. Transfer to a bowl and stir in peppers. May be made a day ahead of time.


Photography: Matthew Gilson

Next: Dinner



Classic Crab Cakes

12 oz. lump crabmeat
3⁄4 cup dry bread crumbs
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed, minced
3 tbsp. fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 large shallot, minced
2 tbsp. mayonnaise
3-4 tbsp. canola oil
zest of one lemon
fresh cracked black pepper


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Combine the crabmeat and the bread crumbs in a medium bowl and set aside. In another bowl, mix together the mustard, Worcestershire, Old Bay, jalapeno, cilantro, egg, shallot, mayonnaise, and lemon zest. Add the mayonnaise mixture to the crabmeat and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Shape 11⁄2 tbsp. of crab mixture into half-dollar–size rounds. Heat the canola oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, place the crab cakes in the skillet and cook until golden brown, approximately 30 seconds to one minute. Transfer the cakes to paper towels  to absorb oil and then place on the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes and serve with the chili lime aioli. Makes 30 crab cakes.


Photography: Matthew Gilson

Next: Dessert


Brown-Sugar Spice Cake with Cream and Caramelized Apples

8 Gala apples (3½ lbs.)
3⁄4 stick unsalted butter, softened
3⁄4 cup (packed) light brown sugar

1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
1⁄2 tsp. baking soda
1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice
1⁄2 tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
1⁄8 tsp. ground cloves
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1⁄3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 large egg
1⁄2 cup maple syrup
1⁄2 cup sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1⁄4 cup heavy whipping cream
1⁄2 cup sour cream
2 tbsp.sugar


Arrange oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour 9-inch round cake pan. Peel and core apples, then cut into 1⁄2-inch thick wedges. Spread the 3⁄4 stick of softened butter in an even layer over bottom of a 12-inch heavy skillet and sprinkle with 3⁄4 cup of brown sugar. Add apple wedges and cook over medium heat without stirring until sugar is melted and apples start to give off liquid. Cook until apples are just tender and juices become syrupy, about 30 minutes. Pour off excess syrup and reserve,   and sauté apples until caramelized and very tender. Return syrup to the apples and cook until heated through.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and spices. Using a standing mixer, beat together one stick of butter and 1⁄3 cup of brown sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in egg until combined. Add maple syrup, 1⁄2 cup sour cream, and vanilla and beat until well combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and mix until well combined. Spread batter in cake pan. Bake  until a toothpick comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Beat cream with sour cream and sugar using mixer on high speed until soft peaks form.

Cut cake into wedges; top each piece with caramelized apples and a dollop of cream. Serves 8-12.


Photography: Matthew Gilson