IT'S the week before Thanksgiving, and people are gridlocked at Roger's Gardens. The Corona del Mar store is stuffed with trees and expensive glitter-bilia. "Silent Night" plays but is drowned out by noisy shoppers politely jostling to get to the center of attention.
There, amid the twinkling lights and trappings stands Eric Cortina, posing for photographs and autographing his $200 pewter-colored crown tree toppers and $50 golden pocket-watch ornaments. This year, the man who decorated Roger's Gardens popular holiday gallery will sell almost 5,000 of his handmade designs, some assembled on his dining room table.
Cortina doesn't want to be the next Christopher Radko, the New York-based king of glass ornaments. But in his third year of producing high-end holiday baubles, the point may be moot. He is expanding nationwide and is poised to become a contender in the $600-million-a-year Christmas decorations market.
"Creatively, I have a niche, and certain people are drawn to what I do," Cortina says. "I don't think I will ever attain what other designers have, but that's not what I'm trying for."
Although there seems to be little room for novelty and innovation in holiday decorations that by nature draw their popularity from familiarity, Cortina at 45 has developed an eclectic eye that melds tradition with a somber, sometimes European, sometimes Mexican edge. As often as he comes up with Victorian lanterns, Venetian harlequins and Roman columns, he also surprises with carved santos and angel wings, scrolled-metal ex-voto medallions and other rough-hewn elements of religious and folk art.
This innovator in style and technique uses nontraditional colors and multiple molds to make black birds, orange circus tigers and golden hands holding love notes. In the process, he has helped legitimize the use of ornaments to decorate homes year-round.
"Eric's designs have a point of view, a mystery and drama to them that is rooted in the past when Father Christmas was feared," says Carla Dunham, a buyer for New York's Henri Bendel who looked at "innumerable" ornament designers' work this year and selected only eight lines. "We have a couple pieces of Radko's, but it's not a statement we want to make in the way we want to make a statement with Eric Cortina. Radko represents a more traditional interpretation of Christmas but we want to delight our customers with something unexpected and new. Eric's are not the notion of a jolly Christmas."
Bergdorf Goodman in New York and 80 other stores nationwide are carrying his line, which had been sold exclusively at Roger's Gardens for two years, where he is the creative director. The home and garden center, across from Fashion Island shopping center, has fostered and inspired his vision since he started working there 24 years ago.
For the store, Cortina worked three months, wrapping posts in snowy-white fabric, topping tables with amaryllis, orbs and seashells, and smothering 28 trees with garlands, figures and bows, each with a price tag. There are rooms teeming with figures by Radko, Cortina and another well-recognized designer, Larry Fraga. The center expects to sell 100,000 ornaments by Christmas Eve.
Cortina applauds homeowners he's met who have so much garniture on their trees that it's too time-consuming to take them down. And he respects the emotional touchstones that these ornaments become. Yet for someone who makes his living as a tastemaker in holiday excess, Cortina practices an unexpected discipline in decorating his home. He opts for a few bright accents -- red votives, red roses, red-tipped succulents and ivy cut from his backyard. He wants his home, he says, to be simple and livable.
CHRISTMAS and its festoons used to get Cortina in trouble. Big trouble. When other kids were picking up baseballs during hot Pomona summers, he was pulling out dime-store ornaments and stringing up lights.
"I put the lights up in my room once and my mom said, 'You'll burn the house down,' " Cortina says. So he slid under his bed, looped them to the box spring, plugged them in and enjoyed a private showing. "To me, decorating was magical and our Christmas ornaments were like jewels."
In second grade, he was the only Baptist in his Catholic school class. "The Mass was very theatrical and not being allowed to participate in Communion made it even more alluring," he says. "It was so beautiful, the art, statues, ceremony, candles, flowers and everything."
These indelible scenes still fascinate him, supercharging his imagination. Unable to get up close to the symbolic objects in his youth, Cortina has spent decades collecting them, although he says he's not religious. Now he incorporates some of those images in many of his designs.
He moved out on his own when he was 17, to an apartment in Huntington Beach where he didn't have much furniture but he did put up Christmas lights. Four years later, he got a part-time job at Roger's Gardens as a production assistant in the Christmas department. He worked in the floral and merchandising departments, became a buyer, then eight years ago was promoted to creative director.
"I grew up at Roger's," he says. "What better learning ground?"
During 24 years there, he's seen the best and the worst of the holidays: bad designs, fixated shoppers.
"Being in the business I was able to see what was lacking, what I wished ornaments were," he says. "I love glass, wood, metal. I'm not crazy about resins and plastic. I see what everyone else is doing so I don't copy."
For a polar bear ornament, he designed a then unheard-of six molds that are blown separately, and seamlessly glued together. His santos busts are life-size and have movable arms. For 6-foot-long strands for trees and mantels, he strings together vintage pink, silver and clear beads. Dangling on one end is an oval Madonna medal from Italy and on the other, a square medal with his EC logo.
"I do designs I have an affinity for," says Cortina, who stepped away from a lucrative pottery business he owned a few years ago because it became too big and stressful. "The ideas come from me, not because someone will buy it."
WHEN Cortina takes you on a tour of his labyrinthine workplace, it's easy to lose sight of him behind bulging Christmas trees and towering cabinets covered in pine branches. It's a retail fantasy land, and Cortina is one of the best in the business; even competitor Radko in a recent phone interview praised his work at Roger's Gardens, though he said he hadn't seen Cortina's ornament line.
At Cortina's Aliso Viejo home, however, there are many unadorned areas. He has an artificial tree, some fresh greenery and candles, and that's about it. "Roger's is the grand finale; at home I like understated elegance," says Cortina, balancing on a ladder while cascading small-leaf ivy on his entry chandelier. "This looks loose and casual."
Throughout the year, his home looks a little holiday-esque. There are as many religious statues, wall mountings and El Greco-like paintings of angels as in a small church. On a dining room wall are Stations of the Cross stone blocks he found at an antiques store. On the table is a startling life-size Madonna bust, a santos that he dresses for the season in a red coral necklace, a crown and rhinestone-studded ex-voto.
Moving into the living room, he pulls dried magnolia leaves out of an urn on the coffee table and replaces them with an 8-inch ball made of miniature jade plants and other pale green succulents with red edges. Next to it, he sets a foot-high cone-shape arrangement of echeveria, sedums and aeonium.
"This is so easy I should do it all the time," he says.
He already spends most of his year thinking about Christmas. In January and February, he's buying for Roger's Gardens. In March and April, he's sketching new designs to hand over to a computer graphic artist to render technical drawings. In May and June, he's meeting with glass blowers in Poland to finalize the molds, colorations and hand-painted finishes of his line. In October, he's completing orders and starting his 10-hour days decorating the store.
Yes, Christmas plays in Cortina's head year-round. And now, finally, the holiday and his visions are out there for all to see.
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Branch out this year
Eric Cortina, the creative director at Roger's Gardens, creates his own fake Christmas tree at home because he likes big gaps between branches to show off ornaments. "It's not perfectly symmetrical," he says. "It's perfectly imperfect."
The materials and tools needed to assemble his tree: an 8-foot landscaping tree stake, a 7- to 8-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree (no lights), bolt cutters, a drill, gravel and a container such as an urn.