Even the Tree Has a Stylist
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CAMPION PLATT, an architect known for designing swanky spaces like Manhattan's MercBar, renovated the Upper West Side town house owned by his publicist, R. Couri Hay, this year. And as a special favor, later this week he plans to decorate Mr. Hay's Christmas tree for him. There will be lavender tinsel, one garland of signed Warhol dollar bills and another made from celebrity photographs Mr. Hay snipped from magazines during the year -- images of his "favorite scandals and beauties," Mr. Platt said, including Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan and Carla Bruni. A video installation showing moody black-and-white Manhattan holiday images, which is also Mr. Platt's firm's Christmas greeting, will be playing continuously on Mr. Hay's flat-screen television. To be sure, Mr. Platt is doing a bit of cross-pollinating by planting his name on Mr. Hay's festivities, but he is also making sure that the decorations for Mr. Hay's annual Christmas party are on a par with the interior architecture.
For those who regularly avail themselves of the services of decorators and designers, the holiday decorations may be part of the service contract. In some cases, like Mr. Platt's efforts for Mr. Hay, it's brand protection for the designers, as well as an assist to a friend. That is why Rick Garofalo performed a holiday zhoosh in the Chelsea studio of his friend and client Penelope Zabolotney, helping prep "her cocoon of pale," as Mr. Garofalo described the taupe-and-white space he decorated for Ms. Zabolotney, a design director at Coach, for the all-white Christmas party she gives every December. There was a fluffy white artificial tree pocked with silvery ornaments, and cylindrical vases filled with white feathers and calla lilies. For the party last year, Mr. Garofalo even made white cocktails to match.
For clients with three or four homes, what many would consider a holiday perk may be more of a necessity. Consider the needs of a European couple with a young family -- 4-year-old twin boys -- who live abroad but maintain a house in Connecticut and a penthouse on the Upper East Side, which they like to visit at Christmas. For six years, their decorator, Scott Salvator, has shouldered the Manhattan portion of the holiday preparations for them, ordering the 12-foot Douglas fir, the ropes of pine garlands, the Noble pine wreaths. Mr. Salvator also arranges for the building's superintendent and the housekeeper to help unearth the family of nutcrackers that he bought, and the ribbons and ornaments he has collected, from the storage bin in the basement, so that he and his associates can swag the place like a Victorian engraving, a task he completed last Saturday, just hours before the family arrived. (The tree is due Thursday.)
"This just goes to the notion that an interior designer is a full-service provider," Mr. Salvator said. "As opposed to being someone who just shops. You are creating a lifestyle."
On Friday, he spent seven hours in Manhattan's flower district on 28th Street, searching for "a few things to fill in," he said. He spent Saturday fluffing the penthouse. A holiday fully designed by this decorator might cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 -- at first, the cost of decorating the penthouse for the holidays was in the tens of thousands while Mr. Salvator was still accumulating the elements -- but he would rather you didn't call him. His holiday fluffing is meted out to just two very special clients, neither of whom live in New York, and it wears him out.
He recalled one particularly arduous Christmas he orchestrated in the Hamptons: the long drive out in a painter's van on Dec. 24, when he crouched in the back with a hair dryer aimed at the still-wet faux-marble top of a wall console a carpenter was waiting to install. When Mr. Salvator and his partner, Michael Zabriskie, arrived, they parked a few streets away from the house, in case the objects of all this fluffing -- the chief executive "of a major corporation" and his family -- arrived and saw the van.
"We trimmed the tree, put the logs in the fire and candles everywhere, throughout which time Michael was eating, without meaning to, all the Christmas cookies the housekeeper had prepared, so she had to make more," Mr. Salvator said.
At dusk, "as the family came in the front door, we snuck out the back, walking through other people's properties to find our van. We didn't want the family to see us and feel guilty that we were there till the last hour. It's like good dancing -- the trick is to not make it look hard."
This year, Robin Bell, a Connecticut designer, is producing a camouflage-print Christmas for three generations of a Midwestern family (eight adults and four children) who spend the holiday together at their rambling, shingle-style farmhouse in Salisbury, Conn. The other day, Ms. Bell was knee-deep in props, sorting out the gifts she would be tucking into the camouflage-print tote bags she had bought to use in lieu of stockings, the totes being a family tradition she thought up for them a few years ago.
She ticked off the elements: "Camouflage braces and bow ties for the men; boudoir pillows. I'm looking for camo-print shams. I'm looking for fleece blankets. There will be thermal underwear in gray with monograms, travel umbrellas and flashlights."
She plans to wrap presents in white vellum and brown kraft paper, and tie them up with twine. Extra paper and twine will be delivered to the house, so the clients can wrap their own gifts following her template, she said.
"We're doing the tree Saturday" -- with only white lights and no ornaments, Ms. Bell's signature -- and "we go heavily armed with glue guns. There's lots of boxwood. When people have more than one house, they want to arrive and hit the ground running."
Ms. Bell is down to two outsourced Christmases, she said. "One year I did six, and that was really too much. Salisbury is the most exhausting."
How much does she charge?
"Not enough, according to my husband."
James Hunter, a project designer for Paul Wiseman, a San Francisco-based decorator whose work shows up frequently in Architectural Digest, had a budget of $5,000 to decorate a 1920s house the firm had recently completed in Hillsborough, near San Francisco. A money manager and his family of five moved in last August, and a week ago the wife asked for a fluff for a holiday party. Mr. Hunter deployed magnolia and pine garlands, gold ribbons and candles, and even some wrapped presents, "to give it some glamour," he said.
"Holiday fluffing is a complimentary service," he added. "It makes the client look good, and it makes our decorating look good."
His boss, Mr. Wiseman, cautioned that this sort of service is rare, for good reason. He remembered the year he complained to a client that her tree wasn't quite up to snuff, taste-wise. "It was a really beautiful house" -- it had, in fact, appeared in Architectural Digest -- "and she always had the tree done, but it always looked like the work of a department store," Mr. Wiseman said. "Which I told her. She grabbed me by the collar and said, 'O.K., sucker, you do it!' I went through all my ornaments and all of hers, and I thought it might take a morning. Two days later, I was done. That was three or four years ago, and I have not decorated my own tree, or any tree, since."
Indeed, many decorators wince at the prospect. "It sounds like hell," Darren Henault said. "I can barely get it together to decorate my own."
Or as Jeffrey Bilhuber put it: "It's something I would prefer not to think about, let alone do. It's just not my job."
It is the job, however, of florists like Connie Plaissay, the principal of Plaza Florists on East 69th Street, who handles Christmas for many on the Upper East Side, including the St. James Church on Madison Avenue, with gusto and great good humor. "I love Christmas," he said.
Mr. Plaissay's is an indoor-outdoor service: window boxes filled with boxwood and pine; garlands of pine and magnolia up and down a town house's stairs and mantels; trees for each floor, which he has handpicked early in the growing season in northwestern Pennsylvania and delivers, sets up and trims, in some cases with ornaments from his store. One Park Avenue triplex he decorates every year for about $30,000 takes two days and six people to complete.
This year, Mr. Plaissay is working with celadon green, aubergine and gunmetal glass balls, and satin ribbons in lavender and peach, chocolate brown and burgundy. Business fell off 35 percent last year, he said, because of the economy, but as of last week, his orders were exceeding last year's.
"We started before Thanksgiving," he said, "because so many people said they were leaving town before Christmas."
Malcolm Kutner, a Manhattan designer, also started before Thanksgiving to help a German client decorate her second home, a 20,000-square-foot triplex loft, for both holidays. "It's very themed and schemed -- very funky with pine garlands and gourds that we spray-paint in silver and gold," Mr. Kutner said. "It's very collaborative; she gives me a shopping list of what she wants to work with, and I make it happen."
The most famous outsourced Christmas, of course, is at the White House, where the holiday decorating was overseen this year by Laura Dowling, its chief floral designer, and installed by hundreds of volunteers, as HGTV viewers saw in a program Sunday evening. The star is the Blue Room Christmas tree, decorated this year in ornaments designed by students at the Savannah College of Art and Design in natural materials, in service to Michelle Obama's theme of "Simple Gifts."
No mention was made of last year's decorations, which were partially styled by Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York. Tinselgate, as Mr. Doonan described it, erupted when a conservative blogger noted that one Blue Room tree ornament showed a photograph of Mao Zedong, and another a photograph of a drag queen named Hedda Lettuce. "White House Commie-Chic Xmas," read one blog post.
But there was no socialist plot: The Blue Room tree's theme last year was monuments, and the ornaments were put together by civic groups all over the country. The Mao ornament came from Pittsburgh, a nod to that city's famous son and monument, Andy Warhol. And Ms. Lettuce had been helping out in a gay seniors' center, where she decoupaged her green-wigged photo onto an ornament.
Mr. Doonan, who spoofs pop culture every year in his Christmas windows for Barneys, said the White House is the only other holiday zhoosh he has been persuaded to do. "By the time December rolls around, I am tinseled out," he said. "The Obamas were, for obvious reasons, the exception. It was the apotheosis of my career as a holiday elf." Mr. Doonan has largely recovered.
Phoebe Howard, however, a Southern decorator based in Jacksonville, Fla., who got into the design business by way of her Christmas decorating, still shudders at her efforts. Fourteen years ago, she was, as she put it, a housewife with four children looking for some extra cash to plump up her own holiday extravaganza. "I'd tell my kids, 'This is going to be the best Christmas ever!' " she said. "And then worry I wouldn't be able to pull it off."
She and a friend charged a flat rate of $300 for a soup-to-nuts service: setting up the tree, hanging garlands and wreaths, placing paperwhites in strategic locations.
"I didn't do the tree, though I'd put the lights on and set the ornaments by the tree," Ms. Howard said. "I'd tell them to have some forced family fun later on. I think so many people don't want to do the holiday decorations. It would be one thing if your husband and your children would be involved. They say they will, but they mostly scatter, and I think most women feel strapped by it all. Right now, there's a tree lying on my back porch, and every day I say I'm going to drag it in, and then every day I say I'm going to do it tomorrow."
Recently, a decorating client called Ms. Howard and asked her if she would do Christmas for her, for old times' sake. Ms. Howard's reply?
"I told her I'd rather pump her gas."
First Published December 15, 2010 11:51 pm