Rejoice, with a little restraint

Bottles of Champagne ice up with sprigs of winter greenery in an antique trophy bucket that flaunts its age in unpolished splendor. In the foreground, a smaller vase holds black privet berry.
(Al Seib / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

Mary Poppen vows every year to rein in her holiday décor. But as the days creep closer to Christmas, she once again tears open boxes of bubble-wrapped treasures: miniature re-creations of all 21 California missions and a glass mosaic tree she made from crushed green bottles and costume jewelry. Then there’s her bountiful collection of Santas — one holding a Bible, another astride a Harley.

This time of year, homes — and lives — can be overwhelmed by what traditionally passes for holiday cheer.

For some of us, blinking lights inside and out seem to outnumber those in Times Square. Jaunty knickknacks take over every flat surface, and fake snowflakes dangle from banisters, doorways and, yes, shower curtains. With every passing season, and the addition of one more Christmas tchotchke, the old trappings get squished together to make room for the new, and our living spaces begin to look like Hallmark stores after the explosion.

Kathryn Anthony, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in use of space, calls the holidays “a time when it’s socially acceptable for adults to act like kids in the candy store.”

Poppen, 82, has been on one long sugar high. When she packed up her belongings a few years ago to move from Mission Viejo to southern Oregon, she had 22 boxes of Christmas whatnots, enough to fill a small U-Haul truck. Today, they absorb more than half of her attic. Last week, she hired two college students to bring down a dozen boxes from the attic. Three days later, her willpower eroded and she asked a friend’s son to retrieve more.

“I tried,” she says, shaking her head. “I go to friends’ houses and see that they have put out one thing, maybe a Nativity, and I think, ‘That looks so beautiful, why can’t I do just that?’ ”

Next year, she promises.

Anthony knows it’s difficult to give up the habit of spreading kitschy joy to every inch of the house. One of her friends even festoons the toilet seat. But perhaps, she says, it’s time for binge-loving Americans to say, “Enough already” and pick one spot to highlight.

Design experts would agree. They say a single dramatic touch can have more impact and be far more personal than piling it on.

Sometimes all it takes to launch the holiday mood is the sound of pine cones crackling in a fireplace or a solitary candle near a front window, welcoming us in from the cold, dark night.

For a restrained decorating approach, think about where friends and family gather, perhaps around the dining table or Christmas tree. Then examine what you already have, suggests Kristan Cunningham, host of HGTV’s “Design on a Dime.” If most of the year the coffee table has a stack of books, candles and a vase with flowers, resist the urge to embellish.

Instead, make small substitutions. Use flowers that are more seasonally specific, such as red gladioluses, and change the candle to one that’s spice scented. Maybe the books can have cranberry and olive-green covers, hints of traditional red and green.

Here are other less-means-more ideas from designers on how to tastefully drum up the holiday spirit.



When it comes to holiday decor, people can act like squirrels, says New York image designer Dean Christopher. If something sparkles and flashes, they want to take it home. That attitude, he says, makes for “lots of ‘just-plug-it-in’ prefabricated decorations out-flashing each other.”

Instead, Christopher suggests devising a color palette as you would for an elegant outfit. “If it helps, give your environment a personality, whether it’s Grace Kelly or Grace Jones,” he says. “Singular design elements using color and texture can create impact. Treat it as you would jewelry. Use it as a focus or finish to your look, not to clutter it.”

Holiday palettes don’t have to follow the traditional route of fire red and forest green. Designers suggest you play with the various shades or get radical with unconventional ones. Reds, they say, can range from oxblood to orange rust to pink; green from sage to chartreuse to acid green.

“Purple? Why not?” says Edgar Zamora, an event stylist for the Academy Awards and movie premiere parties. He had a fuchsia tree and matching ornaments at one of his events.

“The decorating industry is so big, there is a rainbow of colors, so choose what you like and work with what you already have,” says Zamora of Los Angeles based Revelry Inc.

Holiday color can be used sparingly, but effectively, in one or two accessories. Interior designer Alexa Hampton of Mark Hampton Inc. in New York says a blue-and-white color scheme is modern, crisp and cozy. She attended a holiday party with small ornaments, candles and drinks in the two colors that “exerted control over the many larger objects in the room.”

Colors can be big too. Neutral furniture, which is so chic most of the year but can look a little drab during the holidays, can be slip-covered in brighter fabrics. For a large area, Zamora once created a “wall” of fresh green apples suspended on baling wire.

To be successful with color, limit the combinations to two or three complementary hues. West Hollywood interior designer Suzanne Rheinstein used silver ribbons, lime-green dragonflies and chocolate brown-colored wrapping paper for a client’s tree. Shiny silver ornaments can be softened to a pearl color by spraying them with white frost paint found at hardware stores.



Blame the ancients for our compulsion to display doodads. They lured tree spirits inside for the winter with shrubs and branches adorned with stones, metals and cloth.

In the future, even if living rooms float in space, there will still be a place for natural trimmings. Throughout time, real plants and flowers have been a part of religious and cultural celebrations.

If all you do is put up a fresh wreath on the front door, you’re still announcing, “We’re participating in the season,” Cunningham says. It can be made with layers of eucalyptus, magnolia or olive leaves, or green and red chili peppers.

But Los Angeles interior designer Peter Dunham couldn’t imagine the holidays without a tree — “the bigger the better.” He places a live pine inside an urn, tub or other shapely container, and allows the top of the roots to show. Keep it natural. No “scrunched-up glittery fabric to hide an ugly stand or gather dead needles,” he says.

Trained jasmine or orange trees are pretty substitutes for pines. They come with a post-Christmas benefit for the minimalist: No hauling needed, since they can be planted in the yard.

Skip the customary forest of poinsettias clumped in corners around the house, and instead fill a sleek vase with orchids, Stephanotis or French tulips, Dunham says. Arrangements shouldn’t be florist perfect, but charmingly random, as in nature.

Flirtatious amaryllis blooms are the main attraction at West Hollywood interior designer Joe Nye’s house. In mid-November, he put a dozen in a 16-inch clay saucer, “the kind you put under a pot,” and covered them in pea gravel. He has them timed to bloom at the holidays, but bulbs about to bloom are also available at nurseries. For a client, Nye placed paperwhite narcissus in a clay pot at the front door. Their fragrance can be overpowering, so he is selective about where he puts them.

For a singular note of nature, Rheinstein prunes her orange and kumquat trees for the holidays. She puts the snipped stems, with fruit and leaves attached, in a basket or silver bowl, and adds California bay leaf branches. Los Angeles interior designer David Desmond builds a pyramid of clove-studded oranges on a square, black-lacquered tray. Designers also suggest collecting apple-green pomegranates, artichokes and lemons in a cachepot or wrapping a sprig of holly or Douglas fir around cream or ivory napkins.



Too much holiday decorating turns handsome homes into dank “Father Christmas grottoes,” frets British designer Sir Terence Conran. Counter a heavy holiday look by pulling back draperies to let in the sunshine or moonlight, he says. At night, dim lamps and use anti-glare bulbs in soft pastels of pink or blue to cast a soft glow on the room and make everyone look better to boot.

Candles, an acknowledged seasonal workhorse, can take the place of high-maintenance and often fussy floral arrangements, says HGTV’s Cunningham. For the biggest dramatic effect, group candles together in one spot.

For one dining room makeover on the show, Cunningham’s sole decoration was a latté-scented table centerpiece. She put layers of coffee beans inside a glass hurricane candleholder and set vanilla candles into the beans.

“It looks and smells yummy,” she says.

Cunningham prefers alabaster-colored candles to white or yellow ones, and mottled surfaces to smooth waxed ones because they provide a more contemporary and relaxed feel. For the same reason, she allows tapers to tilt instead of making them stand rigidly vertical. She also varies the sizes and shapes, and pre-lights the wicks, employing a bit of stage management, so the candles don’t look as if they were just pulled out of the box.

If the entry serves as your design epicenter, a single silver carriage lantern or heirloom chandelier can beckon guests inside with a touch of class. If a staircase is a focal point, call attention to the architecture by outlining the rail with dots of small but intense LED lights in red or the more modern ice blue or gray.



Aromas set the mood, says Kai Loebach of Los Angeles’ Kai’s European Catering and Event Design. He installs scent machines and chocolate fountains as “aphrodisiacs” at his celebrity-attended parties. “You can do with less if you have the right aromas,” he says. “They make your home enticing and instantly play to guests’ imaginations.”

An apple, pear or blackberry pie or anything with cinnamon, raisins and brown sugar bubbling in the oven, he says, stirs up memories of past holidays, and is far more effective than a mantel full of lighted New England houses. Even easier, simmer a pot of pumpkin spice or deep-red mulled wine on the stove. Rose Champagne or cranberry martinis in a clear punchbowl can also add color accents to the table.

“Guests will walk into your house and they won’t notice anything else if they smell something great,” he says.



Anything attractive and watertight can be put to good use. A sea-grass basket can hold the tree. Or a mix of Japanese bronze, glazed pottery and plain terra cotta can be grouped on a tabletop. Designer Dunham says one vessel could hold flowers, another moss balls and another remain empty.

Caterer Loebach uses a sheet-metal tray as a centerpiece for his dining room table throughout the season. He puts burgundy Lady’s Slipper orchids inside, and when they wilt, he replaces them with pine cones or cranberries.

For serving pieces, Hollywood caterer Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary says she avoids stress during this busy time by relying on what she already owns. “Pull out all of your dishes, and figure out how you want to use them this year,” she says.

“It’s OK to combine family heirlooms like colorful Depression glass and pedestal cake stands with contemporary serving pieces.”

Try choosing one favorite ornament and placing it inside a tall, glass cylinder or large, beaten-copper bowl, says Eric Cortina, an ornament designer with Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar.

And revel. The boldest statement can be the simplest.


Photo locations were provided by Sunset & Vine apartments and caterer Kai Loebach.