Photo Gallery: Designers’ Holiday Decorating Tips
Steal ideas from 10 of our favourite designers!
Designer Sloan Mauran enjoys the team effort of holiday decorating: “Since I have a home office, we’re really like more of a family when the holidays approach. We have an office decorating blitz day along with Christmas carol playing and a yule log cake. Many hands make light work and it turns what could be a tedious decorating chore into a fun activity for everyone.”
“Over the years, I have tried many different tree themes. One year it was homemade cookies tied on with ribbons (way too much work). So the next year was all different sized silver balls. Then the next was red satin ribbons tied to the branches. But since having my daughter, I have stuck to more of a homespun theme for my tree — she loves the nostalgia of opening the boxes of ornaments and remembering all our past Christmases. We also always add a photo ornament for each year to see how much she’s grown. One benefit of a homespun aesthetic is that children’s homemade ornaments tie in quite nicely,” she says.
“I love a simple, oversized magnolia wreath on the front door — it’s both classic and contemporary,” says Mauran. “It costs more but lasts longer — I leave mine up all winter.”
“Sometimes I spend more on the presentation than on the gift!” says Mauran. “I pair gorgeous paper and beautiful silk ribbon with an ornament and sprig of evergreen or holly berries. I believe the presentation is just as important as the gift and shows the love and care that went into it. Another modern option is to wrap gifts in colourful tissue paper and then a layer of clear cellophane like florists use — it looks polished and elegant.”
1. Sight: Most people are standing up at cocktail parties, so focus the decorating at eye level and above, otherwise it can get lost. Think of tablescapes and vignettes. Group similar items together — volume and repetition create impact (a tray full of votive candles has more graphic impact than a bunch scattered around the room, for instance).
2. Sound: There are so many great new contemporary compilations of holiday music to get you in the spirit. Go buy some new ones and you can forgo the old standards.
3. Smell: Your sense of smell is the most powerful of the five senses. Make sure to pick up some scented candles to infuse the air with cinnamon, cloves and evergreen.
4. Touch: I love to add sparkle for the holidays. Decorations don’t have to be traditional — I pull out sparkly beaded pillows and white fur ones. They add beautiful physical and visual texture.
5. Taste: A festive theme drink is always on my list for holiday parties. If you have time, offer two types: one sparkly and fruity and the other martini-based and savoury. People have wine and beer all the time, so try something different. Champagne with a splash of Chambord and a fresh blackberry to garnish is always elegant and delicious.
“Even though it’s a crazy time of year, we go to Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall to have the kids’ photo taken with Santa,” says Toronto designer Anne Hepfer. “The nostalgia of a child believing in Santa brings tears to my eyes. We stand in line and they ask all kinds of questions about Santa. The only reason I’m in this photo is because they wouldn’t have their photo taken without me in it! I then frame the photo and display it in the living room for the holiday season.”
A winter flower, paperwhites are a great way to bring some greenery indoors come Christmas. “I always decorate with paperwhites for the holidays,” says Hepfer. “I love the delicate white flowers, and they make the house smell amazing. I stake them with bamboo and raffia to create a fence so that they don’t fall over when they get really tall. Water daily.”
Hepfer keeps hers up all year for the kids to enjoy: “All of the holiday cards we receive go up on a giant bulletin board in our playroom and they stay up all year long. The kids love looking at photos of their friends and relatives — a lot of whom are in the U.S. and abroad.”
“We decorate the tree together as a family with the ornaments that we’ve collected over the years,” says Hepfer. “Each ornament has a special meaning or memory. My most sentimental ornament is a Christopher Radko “Brave Heart” which commemorates September 11, 2001. I was living in New York City on that tragic day. I wire on any breakable ornaments to the tree, that way if a child, pet or person accidentally bumps the tree, we don’t have any casualties!”
“Birch bark logs are always timeless,” says Toronto designer Sharon Mimran. “You can stack them in piles on tabletops as accents, stack them in the fireplace, make wreaths out of them, or just use the bark around the house for accents.” Decorating with logs is an easy way to add rustic charm to any space. If you’re not lucky enough to find a fallen tree or branches to repurpose, check out your local nursery or garden centre in late fall, or keep an eye out for ads selling firewood.
Designer Philip Mitchell doesn’t cheap out on faux flowers for the holidays — he can’t resist the fresh scents of pine and fresh flowers. “My partner Mark and I generally entertain a great deal and there’s something wonderful about fresh greens/flowers throughout our home and office,” he says. “Though it’s more expensive and a little more work to maintain the scent and texture of fresh pine, flowers and magnolia leaves, they definitely complete our holiday decorating. We lean towards mostly green and red flowers (like these amaryllis) during the holidays — being traditionalists at heart.”
“We display nutcrackers that Mark started collecting a number of years ago — gifts from friends and family and others we have purchased on trips abroad,” says Mitchell. “It’s always nice to be able to enjoy this display and the sentiment attached to it during the holidays.”
“We like to add fresh wreaths to all of our exterior windows,” says Mitchell. “It has an enormous impact on passersby, as well as any holiday guests we have.”
“We have always planted an abundance of holly bushes in our gardens,” says Mitchell. “That way we have plenty to cut from when the holiday season rolls around, as well as having some lovely red accents with those berries in our garden.”
“There is almost always a wood burning fire going in our house throughout the month of December,” says Mitchell. “It’s so wonderfully inviting and brings such a sense of warmth to our living room for us and our guests. It cuts down on the heating bills, as well.”
Browse a gallery of Philip Mitchell’s design work.
“In many homes, the staircase takes centre stage when guests enter the foyer,” says Toronto designer and TV host Candice Olson. “This can be the perfect showcase for some truly inspired holiday decor. Instead of using the traditional garland, try out some new ideas. Hang wreaths at regularly spaced intervals, loop metallic tulle or netting with clear lights and accent with swags of fresh greenery, or if your stairs are wide enough, place small potted poinsettias or mini Christmas trees on each tread. If you receive lots of holiday greeting cards but don’t know how to display them, try pinning the cards to a decorative ribbon running the length of the banister. With just a little imagination, your staircase will shine with holiday inspiration!”
“Tablescapes are creative groupings of items placed together on mantels, occasional tables, coffee tables or shelves,” explains Olson. “To create your own inspired holiday tablescape, gather together a light source (lamp or candles), a botanical element (flowers, plants, fruit), and a hard lined accent piece (photo frame or book). The main inspiration for your vignette could be a favourite holiday figurine or ornament. It’s easy to add a festive touch by using holiday fabrics, seasonal plants or decorated candlesticks. Be sure to mix up textures and choose items of varying heights to create more visual interest in your tablescape. If you’re decorating a surface that gets a lot of use, for example a coffee table, make sure your tablescape occupies no more than one third of the available space.“
“When we bought and renovated our house on Vancouver’s Trinity Street in the summer/fall of 2003, we had no idea about Trinity’s reputation for amazing Christmas lights and displays,” says designer Shelley Penner. “It only dawned on me when I was putting up our lights outside the first year. I noticed one of the strings of lights I had was no longer working, and within minutes, our neighbour across the street (a.k.a. the Trinity Street Christmas lights organizer) kindly offered a string she was not using to ensure our display was balanced. For the first few years I took on the task of tastefully decorating the outside of our house. I believe it was the second year that I purchased three very cute reindeer made out of tree limbs and branches. Our next-door neighbour, who is always building something, took it upon himself to help the reindeer multiply. So we ended up with about 20 reindeer between our front yards. We then came up with the “deer in the headlights” concept, which this photo doesn’t illustrate well. It snowed in Vancouver that year and didn’t melt right away. So at night we would turn on what looked like headlights on the deer and they would cast the most wonderful shadows.”
Toronto designers Christine Ralphs and Michelle Lloyd of Lloyd Ralphs Design swap the usual red and green for unexpected colour and pattern combinations: “The holidays are a great time to indulge in personal projects, and gift wrapping is the perfect outlet for creative expression!” Ralphs says. “I’m always inspired by fashion, so incorporating the season’s trends in my gift wrapping is my favourite theme. This year, leopard is key. Leopard paper with black ribbon is classic, but for the real news of the season, pair leopard-print wrapping paper with Hermès orange and hot pink ribbon, or leopard-print paper with Yves Klein blue and kelly green. Python print is another hot trend, whether it’s a neutral python print with flesh-coloured ribbon or a python print in red or kelly green. Look no further than the runways for holiday inspiration!”
See a gallery of interiors by Lloyd Ralphs Design.
“Forget the perfect colour-matched tree and let the kids have a go at it,” says Jennifer Reid, Toronto designer, mom of four, and star of W Network’s Making House. “Take time to string popcorn while watching a Christmas movie and carve out an hour each Sunday to craft an ornament for the tree. I can’t wait to see the mismatched colourful tree my kids create this year!”
“This year my focus is going to be on natural elements — cedar boughs, berries, pine cones, pomegranates; anything in nature. They smell and look great!” says Reid.
It’s Christmas tradition in many families to cram a dozen people into a space that normally seats four. This year, embrace the chaos and set a charming, mix-and-match table. Toronto designer Sarah Richardson remembers a year the dining table featured a mix of silver cutlery from her mother-in-law, antique Limogoes plates from her own mother, dinner plates from her grandmother, and placemats made from an Irish linen runner. “I think what’s important is not getting too caught up in having a perfectly matched setting for 12 people,” says Richardson. “I can’t imagine anything looking tickety-boo because then it has no reflection of history.”
See more of Sarah’s design work.
Designer Jennifer Worts boosts her curb appeal for the holidays with lush greenery: “I love mixed and varied greens swagged around the front door, and I fill my urns out front with heaps of dogwood, greens and white lights,” she says.
“We’ve had 10-foot trees in the past, and no matter what the manufacturer says about the stand, I always use heavy-duty fishing line to anchor the tree to two walls!” warns Worts. “Old habits die hard — growing up we had cats and dogs and inevitably one (or two!) cats would end up in the tree and boom, the tree would fall over. We don’t have cats now, but our tree is usually overflowing with decorations of all kinds and it gives me peace of mind (whether real or imagined!) to know that our retriever or children are less likely to knock it over.”
See photos and videos of Jennifer Worts’ designs.
Keep a few small presents stashed away to avoid being caught empty-handed when receiving surprise guests with presents. “Extra ornaments, chocolates, candles and other small items can be grouped together for a charming, impromptu gift,” says decorator and television host Debbie Travis.