Before the lights on the tree, before the stockings on the mantel, there's the wreath on the door -- the first welcome sign of the holidays.
Or is there? If the prospect of doing the same old thing (standard greenery, big red bow) for the umpteenth year leaves you cheerless, how about opening the door to change?
Our search for alternatives to the ubiquitous green wreath/red bow led us to three people with some design-savvy approaches to decorating for the holidays. Two are professional floral designers; one is an antiques dealer and collector. All agreed the front door was the perfect place to try new variations on familiar themes. "Traditional colors are great, but you can still have fun," says David Millspaugh, of Ultra Violet Flowers in the District of Columbia.
We gave them each an outside limit of $100 to spend on materials -- admittedly a lot, but we figured it would pay dividends in neat ideas the rest of us could adapt to our own budgets. As it turned out, depending on what you have in your yard or on your shelves, replicating what they did might not cost much more than a few cans of snow spray.
Then, we stood back and watched as they rose to the creative challenge.
Double doors like those found on many historic houses present an opportunity. Like identical twins, people tend to dress them the same.
But Millspaugh, lead designer at the Ultra Violet shop in Georgetown, decided to tweak the notion of perfect symmetry.
To decorate a town house in the shadow of the Supreme Court, he took his cue from Christmas red and green, but gave the palette a fresh look by edging into orange and chartreuse. "I like to be funky enough to inspire, but not so weird you'll want to look the other way," he says.
Millspaugh constructed a garland of reddish berries glittering on leafless branches to frame 10-foot doors at the top of a steep cast-iron staircase. Sprays of more berries and fruit were added to each door, and a pair of striking chartreuse planters mounded with apples and tangerines placed to stand sentry in front. For fun, he lined the lintel with more fruit.
Sticking to a few good colors, he says, is part of his design focus. "I don't like 12 kinds of berries, so I limited myself to just a few."
To make the garland, he used similar -- but not identical -- materials on either side of the doors. One half of the garland was made up of short branches of scarlet nandina wired together into a rope. The other half had paired sprigs of western pepperberry and deciduous winterberry, which have berries of a truer red. Because his client had said no nails in the doors, Millspaugh wired the sprays of fruit and berries to the door knockers. A few nails around the edge of the frame were all it took to anchor the garland.
Millspaugh says making each half slightly different created tension and balance -- "that yin and yang thing."
The green planters were a case in point. The one on the nandina side was mounded with tangerines; the pepperberry side was bright with Red Delicious apples.
To give the appearance of an abundance of fruit without buying out the grocery store, Millspaugh slipped an empty box into each large pot; on top of that he added floral Oasis foam brick shaved into a mound; over this, a single layer of fruit was speared in place. Finally, green moss was tucked between the fruits to make a verdant nest. "With luck," he says, "they'll last at least two weeks. Pomegranates might be hardier." (He found the pots at Smith & Hawken for $200 apiece, but he says terra cotta would be fine.)
Millspaugh says it took him about six hours to assemble and attach the various materials. For a less labor-intensive endeavor, you could wire branches of berries into a ready-made rope of pine greenery.
If you stick with just berries, though, aim for clusters no more than a hand-and-a-half's width, he says. Unlike greenery, which should be generous, "berries are heavy so err on the side of skimpy." Plus, he said, an all-berry garland "could end up weighing hundreds of pounds" -- no fun when you're at the top of a ladder trying to drape your handiwork over a door.
"I wouldn't be much of a designer if I couldn't make the most of what I've got to work with," said Bethesda, Md., floral designer Suzann Stotlemyer. Staging formal events -- especially weddings -- is Stotlemyer's specialty. But every year for the past 15, she has been called by the same Washington couple to decorate the front portico of their four-square colonial.
This year's design also offered a great excuse to clean up the yard: She started by rummaging around her clients' property in search of fallen twigs and branches, mostly from mock orange bushes and wild cherry trees. These would be the basis for a sparkling bower around a big front door flanked on either side by a vertical strip of windows.
After she had a selection of branches large and small, she disinfected every one in a bath of diluted bleach. She tied them in bunches of five or six and spritzed them with spray-on flocking called "Holiday Snow." Then she painted the tips with Elmer's Glue so that crystalline snowflakes -- actually a product called "Soft Snow Twinkle Flakes" -- would stick.
"I'm after an ice and snow effect," she said as she worked. The bigger branches -- some as large as six inches around -- were anchored in place -- wired to nails that had been hammered across the lintel and and on both sides of the door frame.
To this she added the glittery twig clusters she had lashed together with florist's wire. Finally, twinkling white lights were woven through the arch of branches to create "an entrance that felt like a snowy hiding place."
All told, she used 2,100 Merry Brite icicle lights. "Icicle lights are the only ones with white wires," she said. "Green wires don't look snowy enough -- they're too obtrusive."
Stotlemyer said this is one of the "easiest but messiest" Christmas door extravaganzas she has ever done. "Kids would love it -- getting their hands in all that glue." Because it made use of so many natural materials straight from the yard, it is also relatively inexpensive and "doesn't look like a florist did it." Six-ounce bags of snowflakes gathered from CVS and Michael's were $3.99 each. A package of lights was about the same price.
Glistening in the early winter twilight, the effect was ethereal -- like a frost-rimed forest. "Who would have dreamed you could do all this with sticks and a bit of glitter?" she said.
Alexandria, Va., antiques dealer Wayne Fisher likes the look of a traditional wreath form, embellished with a few favorite things to add individuality to store-bought greenery.
The owner of Wayne Fisher's American Design also collects Americana -- mostly folk art, including toys. And every year he showcases some of his treasures on a wreath. One year he used tiny antique chairs.
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