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Local Designers Deck The Halls

by Val Reilly

For Bay Area designers, and their clients, the holiday season presents an opportunity to set the scene for the most celebratory and social time of the year. However, the abundance of the season can also present the biggest design challenges, as kitsch and clutter hop out of the storage boxes and jockey for position next to precious family heirlooms and sentimental tradition.

Four of these San Francisco tastemakers may not be coming down the chimney, but they do come bearing gifts: great suggestions on how to showcase time-worn items in modern ways and celebrate old traditions with innovation and surprises—with presents in more places than just under the tree, wrapped in shiny paper.

Martha Angus has more than 20 years of experience designing homes for high-end clients such as Ralph Lauren, the Lauder family (as in Estee), and Silicon Valley executives. She says seasonal decorating for them is “timed to be a few days before clients host their first holiday party, so the greenery is at its freshest and smells heavenly. We tend to focus on our Bay Area clients for holiday décor, but we’ve also just done the Traditional Home Holiday House in New York City, where we installed a big pile of faux snow. It looks amazing! We’ve also created custom-designed wreaths that can become an accessory year round—like the one we heard there was a bidding war for at last year’s Jingle and Mingle, a wonderful local event that benefits Children of Shelters!”

For the holidays, Martha says she likes to combine natural elements with a bright sparkle of silver and pops of slightly unexpected color. “Instead of traditional red or green, we might use hot pink, fuchsia, aqua blue, teal, or chartreuse.” For a tabletop, she suggests that “small clusters of narcissus in silver julep cups, with a little chartreuse moss at the base to cover the soil, will give a lovely pop of vibrant green while providing that finishing touch.”

Kendall Wilkinson, six-time contributing designer to the San Francisco Decorator Showcase and highly regarded West Coast designer, also enjoys combining eye-catching elements and mixing it up a bit every year. “Historically, I have loved the look of mercury glass for the holidays. Whether in boxes, frames, ornaments, or candlesticks, it adds a lovely glimmer and has a slightly pastoral quality that is nice for the holidays. However, this year I will also be showcasing a more modern take in my store and for clients, opting for hues of dark sangria red, stone grays, and pops of gold and cream. Rather than traditional glimmer, I will add holiday sparkle through chic midcentury lighting and modern accessories.”

Jeffry Weisman, president at Fisher Weisman Interior Design and noted curator of tasteful yet creative luxury, understands the need to celebrate the season with some trinkets, but warns, “You don’t want to look like a department store. Don’t have stuff in every room. I don’t want to walk into the powder room and see more hollies and Santas. For me, the kitschy part of the collected ornaments is charming, but you have to use it in a way where you don’t make it tacky.”

For example, Jeffry suggests using ornaments in different ways than hanging them from the branch of a tree. “Use them as table decorations or hang them in monofilament in the corner of a room. Put them somewhere where you can actually see them out of the context of a tree. My art professor at Stanford, Matt Kahn, does these amazing things at Christmas at his Eichler house in Palo Alto with monofilament, where he’ll create a constellation of ornaments above a cocktail table or in a corner of a room, and it’s magical. You really see these things—even if they are not really modern in their design—in a kind of modern way that I think is great.”

Admired as one of the finest purveyors of traditional residential architecture in San Francisco and beyond, Andrew Skurman finds his holiday muse internationally. “Every year it’s a Parisian performance as my wife, Francoise, and I are always there for the holidays,” he says. “The main decorations are antique crystal hangings made for chandeliers, which we bought at the Clignancourt flea market, and iridescent crystal balls.”

In a nod to his traditional aesthetic, Andrew says, “The most beautiful visual aspect of Christmas is the tree itself.” The branches of his Blue Spruce are adorned with “a few golden ornaments that make the deep cream color of the apartment sing, and a large star on top,” but the rest is thoughtfully reinvented with an architect’s appreciation for lines and angles. “In order to not overpower the tree, we put a circle of lights at the bottom only. This creates an interesting dual lighting effect, not only accentuating the circular bottom of the tree, but it also highlights the colorful presents nested below.”

Illuminating the beauty of the season—whether by playing up sparkling silver and crystal, embracing aromatic natural elements and deep hues, or transforming the potentially tacky into tasteful—is what festive holiday décor is all about. As Martha says, “Have fun and don’t play it safe. It is time to celebrate!”

     Val Reilly is a freelance writer, reporter, and public speaker. She is currently an on-air host for and contributes to several online and print media. For the past ten years, she has lived atop Nob Hill and, when not sitting at her writing perch there, she enjoys summers on the lake and winters on the mountain, in Tahoe.


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