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How Do Designers Decorate for the Holidays? We Invited Ourselves Over to See.
There’s no right way to decorate for whatever holidays you celebrate. But it never hurts to borrow some ideas from the pros. (Especially that gumdrop tree.)
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By Tim McKeough
It’s that time of year again. Go ahead and get a little carried away with decorating your home. No one is likely to accuse you of bad taste.
That’s one of the gifts of the holiday season: the opportunity to go all out with color, lights, greenery and flowers. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the changing of seasons or some combination of traditions, there’s no right or wrong way to go about decorating.
But a little inspiration is sometimes helpful. So we asked a few top interior designers — Ken Fulk; Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer, the founding partners of Roman and Williams; and Rayman Boozer, the founder of the interior design firm Apartment 48 — to show us how they create holiday magic in their own homes in Manhattan.
Decorating for the holidays offers “the opportunity to go the extra length,” said Ken Fulk, a designer based in San Francisco. “To use the good china, to break out the silver and to be generous, in all forms of that word.”Credit…Ashok Sinha for The New York Times
An Old-Fashioned Celebration
Mr. Fulk got his start in interior design at a young age, when he took over decorating his family home on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Va., for the holidays.
“The holidays were a very big deal,” Mr. Fulk said. “When I was six, I began to orchestrate them.” That meant putting together a detailed schedule listing every step that needed to be completed, including cutting down a Christmas tree with his father.
The decorations covered two levels of their home. “The main level was always traditional, kind of Currier & Ives, old-Virginia-meets-old-England holidays,” he said. “Downstairs was groovy, where we had a metallic tinsel tree. It was a whole ‘shagadelic’ Christmas.”
These days, Mr. Fulk is based in San Francisco, and he takes a different approach to holiday decorating. Even so, he said, “I still have that childlike excitement about it. It’s the opportunity to go the extra length, to use the good china, to break out the silver and to be generous, in all forms of that word.”
To decorate his TriBeCa loft, which serves a dual purpose as his pied-à-terre and New York office, Mr. Fulk and his assistants mixed vintage artifacts with a flurry of magnolia leaves, flowers, lights and favorite serving dishes to create a warm, inviting atmosphere with a dash of nostalgia.
To adorn his Christmas tree, Mr. Fulk repurposed vintage objects rather than using store-bought ornaments. For sparkle, he threaded hooks through individual pieces of crystal that had come loose from chandeliers. He did the same with vintage tassels and epaulets, and tied old ribbon intended for military uniforms around individual branches (all of which came from Tinsel Trading, a company founded in New York and now based in Berkeley, Calif.). To finish off the tree, he added bunches of foraged pheasant feathers (which came from Jamali Garden in New York’s flower district).
“You need that contrast,” he said. “If the whole tree was just sparkle, it wouldn’t work. Adding a more natural element is important.”
After using more vintage ribbon to wrap the loft’s structural columns with candy cane stripes, Mr. Fulk ran wild with magnolia, wiring lengths of leaves together with white string lights to create illuminated garlands, hanging wreaths in windows and stuffing tall branches into an oversize vase for a dining table centerpiece.
“It’s a nod to my Southern roots,” he said, adding that magnolia has an advantage over other greenery during the holidays. “It’s long-lasting. It doesn’t shed like a cedar or evergreen garland, which tend to be messy and dry out really fast.”
But the pièce de résistance was the dessert buffet, where he mixed conventional holiday elements with decidedly unconventional ones. To create towering vases bursting with flowers, he combined cut amaryllis, a classic winter bulb, with peonies, which are difficult to find after early summer, adding pomegranates and more magnolia leaves. He filled big silver bowls with heaping arrangements of mandarins, persimmons and pears. He heaped silver- and gold-rimmed porcelain serving platters with cookies, meringues, chocolates and nuts, and placed them below a tower of French macarons from Ladurée. Finally, he arranged taper candles in mismatched candlesticks at various heights across the spread, to give the whole expanse a romantic glow.
“I’m still that guy who loves holiday rituals, whatever they may be,” he said. “It’s not about the material stuff; it’s about those experiences and shared times. It still makes me crazy when I go to things and someone hasn’t made the effort. Because it just seems like: Why would you not take the opportunity?”
Natural Décor That’s Good Enough to Eat
Every winter, Mr. Alesch and Ms. Standefer layer cut greenery and flowers into their NoHo loft with such abundance that it can feel as if nature has run amok. In doing so, the couple celebrate not just the holidays, but the end of fall and the beginning of winter.
“We’re preparing for winter, and collecting all the treasures of the harvest and the last green before it dries up,” said Mr. Alesch, who is an avid gardener at the couple’s second home in Montauk, N.Y. “It’s almost in our biology to collect and celebrate these things before this long, gray winter. Because after Jan. 1, we hibernate.”
Another inspiration is the Scandinavian artist Louis Moe’s 1930 children’s book, “The Forest Party,” which has illustrations depicting animals dressed up in fancy clothes to share a lavish feast in the woods. The couple strive to create similar unexpected moments that will delight their guests.
This year, friends arriving for holiday meals may not immediately notice that the vintage metal light fixture hanging over the dining table has disappeared behind an enormous cluster of mistletoe — but once they do, it’s an invitation to kiss their dinner companions.
“We always use mistletoe,” said Ms. Standefer, who worked with her husband to drape the light fixture not only with sprigs of natural mistletoe, but also with shaggy branches of juniper, pine and asparagus foliage to create something resembling a tree canopy. “If there’s any tension at your holiday table, hopefully that dispels it. You can just kiss it goodbye.”
Over time, Ms. Standefer added, she and Mr. Alesch have become increasingly focused on decorating in a way that minimizes waste, by using locally grown plants and foodstuffs that can be eaten, dried or composted at the end of the holiday season. On a recent day, they mixed real nuts, grapes, cherries, pears and mandarins with marzipan doppelgängers from Fortunato Brothers, scattering them throughout the apartment, on living room side tables and on a large cabinet with glass doors that serves as a bar. Everything is edible, and the arrangements offer a sense of fun that keeps guests on their toes.
The only downside to decorating with food, Ms. Standefer said, is that Mr. Alesch can’t stop eating the décor: “We fight for cooking versus decorating.”
On the dinner table, they displayed real mushrooms with marzipan ones and threaded kale leaves through silver rings as conversation-starting napkins that could be eaten at the end of the meal or cooked at a later date. (They also equipped each place setting with a traditional linen napkin, lest things get too messy.)
To decorate the Christmas tree, they hung antique Czech glass ornaments collected over decades alongside new, natural ones made from strawflowers affixed to balls of papier-mâché. Then they draped a garland of sliced, dried teasel between the branches of the tree. Behind the bar, they swagged a second garland made from teasel and sweet gum and poppy seed pods.
“We love dried things, because you can use them a second time,” Ms. Standefer said.
Elsewhere, they created big, unwieldy bunches of teasel, asparagus and white pine cut from their garden in Montauk, adding locally harvested flowers and branches from the floral design studio Field Studies Flora. And they displayed heritage mums in places guests might not expect to see them — inside tall, stemmed glasses, for example, and mixed with white pine branches in a wine cooler.
“It’s about being a little playful, surreal or unexpected,” Ms. Standefer said.
Holiday decorating, she added, is a chance to experiment with new design ideas: “Stephen and I have always felt that the holiday table was a total outlet for our creativity. Decorating for the holidays is really personal, but then it becomes public when you share it with family and friends.”
A Cross-Cultural Holiday, With Gumdrops
When Rayman Boozer decorates his NoHo apartment for the holidays, he mixes old and new.
“I don’t always take all the stuff out of the closet,” Mr. Boozer said, describing his cache of holiday decorations, “because I feel like it can get really repetitive.”
Last year, he used some of the ornaments he has collected over the years in combination with a colorful paper chain made out of wallpaper samples. Another year, he installed a blue artificial Christmas tree and decorated it simply with lights. Then there was the time he hung a blizzard of snowflakes — made of paper, wood and ceramic materials — from his ceiling.
No matter what he comes up with, Mr. Boozer said, he loves decorating for the holidays, because “it forces you to put yourself in a festive state of mind” — which many of us need as we move into winter.
“I spent some Christmases in Sweden, because I used to date a Swedish guy, and it’s super dark in December, so I can see why they do so much with candles and other things,” he added. “You need something to lift your spirits.”
This year, he decided to mix mementos from his years growing up in Alabama and Indiana with souvenirs from travels to places like Mexico, Morocco and France. “It’s a true reflection of who I am,” Mr. Boozer said. “I like to travel and pick up things when I go.”
For festive lighting, he dropped LED candles into paper bags to give his apartment a warm glow, as his mother and grandmother used to do with real candles. “My mother would always try to think of things that didn’t cost money, because we didn’t have any,” he said.
Another of her favorite creations: a gumdrop tree made from twigs and sweets. To build his own, Mr. Boozer used twigs found on his fire escape after a storm. He coated the branches in white glue and sprinkled them with glitter before standing them in a vase and pushing pieces of candy onto the tips.
“It’s going to look good,” he assured a reporter as he was making it. “Because you can’t mess it up.”
He strung a ribbon across the ceiling near the apartment’s entrance, to show off holiday cards from family and friends, and placed a wreath of artificial white berries on the back of the door. “I used to put a wreath out front, but there’s only one person who lives across the hall and she’s never here at Christmastime,” he said, so he figured he might as well enjoy it himself.
To reflect his travels, he hung stockings made from pieces of Turkish kilims and decorated a Christmas tree with ornaments from places near and far: a tiny tractor that evokes his formative years on a farm in Indiana; little donkeys, hearts and votive offerings he collected in Mexico; an elephant from India; an Ashanti mask from Ghana; and knitted decorations from Morocco.
He set his dining table with embroidered Otomi place mats from Mexico, Haviland chargers from France and green glasses from Morocco. Down the center, he placed stoneware candelabras he bought in Amsterdam and low vases filled with ranunculus, freesia and juniper. To hold ikat napkins in place, he made napkin rings from glitter-covered pine cones and ribbon.
Finally, to demonstrate how he would welcome guests, he mixed a big bowl of Ponche Navideño, or Mexican Christmas punch, full of fresh fruit, dried fruit and tequila, to anchor a bar at the end of the kitchen.
“Everyone thinks I overdo things, but I’m actually doing it for myself,” he said. “I think that’s what Christmas is about: abundance.”
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