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Decking the Halls

Some interior design firms go into holiday overdrive helping their clients prepare for the winter season — and creating a unique revenue stream in the process.

Suzanne Morrissey
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Shayla Copas holiday design
Designer Shayla Copas took home first place in the holiday design category of the Interior Design Society’s 2017 Designer of the Year awards. Her award-winning look, shown here, mixed jewel tones into a traditional red-and-gold Christmas scheme.

It may be the season to be jolly, but not all homeowners delight in untangling tree lights. For those clients, some interior designers have found a new calling in relieving this holiday stress. The result is a natural offshoot of their year-round business and another layer to their portfolio of work. 

Whether a client wants to breathe easy and let a professional completely take over the decorating process or collaborate with them on mixing new looks with well-loved family treasures, the rewarding work can begin as early as October. After that, designers in this field prep themselves for an intense few weeks of installation. Though most designers refer to their work as holiday decorating, they find that most clients ask for Christmas displays.

Interior designer Shayla Copas of Shayla Copas Interiors in Little Rock, AR, offers her full holiday decorating service to clients with whom she already has relationships. “The first thing I do is sit down with the client and ask them what their ideal holiday will look like,” she says. “Holidays are a time to get outside of the box with color or theme. Some people are willing to go whimsical when they aren’t the rest of the year. It’s a magical time of year.” Clients may also feel friskier with color at holiday time — and a neutral home might find itself adorned in brighter tones for the season. 

With her clients, Angie Morse of The Room Stylers in Portland, OR, likes to spend time hearing their stories, and with the holidays, she says, there always seems to be more stories. “I embrace family memories no matter how hokey, because truly the essence of the holidays is family and friends, and memories of the past or creating new memories,” she says. “Listening is a key part of the process. You’re in their homes, and it’s so personal. I have fantastic homeowners who have their own collections and trees, many have been passed down through the generations.”

With a little ingenuity and a willingness to go beyond traditional holiday designs, interior designers can flex their creative muscles through holiday design and find new opportunities for revenue growth in the process.

Signature Styles 

Morse, who had a career as a graphic designer before training in interior design, says her go-to holiday decorating trick is working with natural items like curly willow or mossy branches and adding them to trees. Doing so gives her trees loads of appealing texture. “I’m the tree stuffer!” she says, laughing, “if it’s not earthy enough, I’ll make it earthy.”

Anne Runde of Anne Runde Interiors in Portland, OR, says natural greens are her trick for putting any space in the holiday spirit: “If you can get cedar, fir and pine, it doesn’t matter what your accent color is. Once you layer that into a room, you immediately have a holiday feel.” She also likes putting greenery and naturals like sticks and seedpods into unusual containers, digging through the china cabinets and garages of her clients to get that piece to create a stunning display. Her most unusual container choice? “A chamber pot! Fill it with holly and people just say, ‘What a gorgeous ceramic container!’”

Copas, who began her career in the silk flower wholesale industry, often goes for the greens as well. Her must-have element for her rooms? “I love a full garland! I will get a full artificial garland and add live cedar branches so you get that authentic Christmas tree smell,” she says, adding, “I do not like a wimpy garland.” Her faux/live hybrid just needs to be misted once a week to keep its Christmas good looks. She also uses glass to ensure plenty of shine and reflective sparkle. “Plastic tends not to look as authentic, and it just doesn’t have the glisten,” Copas says, advising that designers new to the holiday world buy an overage of 20 percent on glass ornaments because breakage will always happen when ornaments are boxed and reused year after year. Most importantly, Copas makes sure her trees have dimension and depth by hanging ornaments from deep inside the branches to the outer edges. 

Linda Baker holiday design
For her team’s holiday design, Linda Baker of the Baker Design Group Interior Design, tied for first runner up in the 2017 Designer of the Year awards from the Interior Design Society. She makes sure that her clients understand the scale of their rooms so designs make the most elegant and sophisticated statement. 

Linda Baker of the Baker Design Group Interior Design in Dallas advises clients on scale. “A lot of times clients want a larger tree than their ceiling height can really allow,” she says, “That’s when I bring out the tape measure.” Once a tree is selected, she packs it full of orb ornaments and layers with texture, “so it looks interesting and more like a floral piece or a piece of art.” 

Designers admit Christmas lights can be their biggest challenge. “It’s wonderful that so many trees come with lights, but I’m going to tell you, don’t ever hold your breath that it’s all going to work,” says Karen Sacksteder of Sacksteder’s Interiors in Cincinnati and New Trenton, IN. Missing or burned-out bulbs along the pre-lit strand can mean starting over or finding replacements in the middle of a project.

Runde makes sure that all the lighting around the room is part of the work she does for clients. “A lot of people entertain at night over the holidays, and in winter, it is dark, of course, so lighting is important,” she explains. She examines how her decorations will be lit at night and may introduce lanterns, candles and LED lights, even a new lamp that spreads a pleasing pool of light on a certain display once the sun goes down.

Dream Team

Morse and Runde have their own design firms in Portland, but a chance meeting at a design class brought them together for their dream gig: For 11 years, they have teamed up to create award-winning Christmas looks for Portland’s famous Pittock Mansion. 

Almost 20,000 visitors stroll through the mansion during the holidays to see the French Renaissance-style château, built in 1909, bedecked for the holiday. “Oregon is the Christmas tree capital of the world, and we’re so fond of our natural trees, but at the mansion you have to use artificial so they can last through the season and you don’t introduce any insects into the historic home,” Morse says. 

Pittock Mansion music room holiday decor
Oregon designers Angie Morse and Anne Runde collaborated on the music room holiday decor at Portland’s historic Pittock Mansion.  “Adding a bit of whimsy or the unexpected is always fun for us,” Morse says, noting that in this design, they wired musical instruments into the trees. 

The duo has created elegant looks for the library, smoking room and music room, among others. “Adding a bit of whimsy or the unexpected is always fun for us,” Angie says. In the last few years as oversized ornaments came into play, Morse and Runde took it one step further, actually wiring full-sized instruments into the trees for the mansion’s music room. “You could really do this in your own home with any collection,” Morse notes. “If you have a nutcracker collection, use wire to make a nutcracker tree!”

Morse and Runde tied for first runners up in the Interior Design Society’s 2017 Designer of the Year holiday design category. Their winning room, the richly wood-paneled Pittock Library, featured their signature touches from nature, including ferns, moss balls and a stand of tree branches. 

Jingle Bucks

Holiday decor is a $27 billion industry in the United States. According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual October survey, holiday shoppers plan to spend 4.1 percent more than they did last year, and this includes holiday decor. “Confidence is near an all-time high, unemployment is the lowest we’ve seen in decades, and take-home wages are up,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay says. “All of that is reflected in consumers’ buying plans. Retailers expect strong demand this year.”

Like all design jobs, the cost to the client for holiday decorating can vary greatly depending on the size of the project. Laura Graziano of Laura Graziano Staging and Interiors in Braintree, MA, says her work can run between $250 and $2,000. “It depends on how much or how little the client wants done. Looking through their existing decorations is important and seeing what can be reused and revamped,” she says, “Then new purchases can be made to complement the existing decorations or take on a whole new look.” 

Sacksteder charges an hourly rate of $75 for her team’s holiday handiwork, and having been in the industry for quite a while, she can give clients a fairly firm idea of how many hours a job will take. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years, it’s not like we take a long time to tie a bow,” she jokes. She also extends her holiday decorating work by doing seasonal trees. “I may do a fall tree with white pumpkins and hedge apples, and then swap those items out for pine, birch and ornaments for Christmas,” she says.

Runde doesn’t charge clients for the holiday consultations, but will bill an hourly fee for shopping, sourcing and installation, plus the cost of materials. Jill Morrissey, who did holiday installations for designer Lisa Lynn Knight of Lisa Lynn Designs in Louisville, KY, says that once clients make the initial investment in the trees and garland, they can use it for years. “You’re just paying for labor and some embellishments after that,” she says. “Some people like to add an area on each year, like a mantel or a staircase they didn’t have the budget to do the year before.” 

The Take Down

Soon after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, all those holiday items start to come down, and most designers help their clients pack them away. 

“We teach them how to organize so it’s easier for them to store and easier for us to put it up the next year,” says Copas. Morse and her team take a photo inventory of everything used, which gives them a reference point when planning the following year’s jolly decor. “Clients want their Christmas design to look a little different each year, and having that inventory helps us know what we need to embellish,” she adds. 

Embellishing is the name of the game for ongoing holiday decor work. After making an initial purchase for a designed holiday look, most homeowners want to get the most bang for their buck by reusing the major pieces. Copas says sprucing up the main design is not difficult. “Let’s say a client loves an emerald green, red and gold scheme for one year. The next year we may add blue or purple or change out the metallic for silver.” Different species of fresh greenery and dried natural elements are also part of any refresh scheme.

Get on the Sleigh

For those interested in expanding their business into holiday decorating, our designers all recommend starting with existing clients: It’s easiest to build on those relationships. “No matter where you live you can open your home for hot cocoa or cookies with existing clients,” advises Runde. “It’s a chance for them to see what you’ve done in your own holiday decorating.” If that’s not viable, she also suggests spending time volunteering decorating services at a hospital or local historic home. “Send photos of your work to your client base with a note saying how much you enjoyed the projects, letting them know you are available if they need any help in their own homes or businesses.”

Graziano, who began her career designing for department stores, agrees: “Volunteer to help with any holiday decorating for nonprofit groups. It helps you show off your talent all while doing a good deed.” Holiday decorating was a natural fit to her firm’s work. “It’s a nice addition to my business,” she says. “Design and staging work can often slow down during the holidays when people are concentrating on their families and events, so holiday decorating assistance is a great way to keep revenue coming in.”

When Sacksteder does magnificent trees for restaurants or other public spaces, she uses a little trick to extend the publicity for her business. “I love thinking about how many families are going to be taking a photo in front of our tree. It’s a memory point for them,” she says. “Then I realized I should have a few ornaments made with our company logo and hang them on the tree for a free advertisement.” 

Copas warns that burnout can be a factor, advising not to get carried away to the point the work spoils your own family time during the holiday season. “I always preach do not do every job that comes through the door. Only do the ones that are a good match for you,” she says. “You’ll be happy, and your clients will be happy.”

“I hardly do any decorating in our own home,” Morse admits. But her house and car always show the evidence of her jolly holiday work for others. “There’s always glitter everywhere. My husband says, ‘Glitter season is upon us!’”

Kerry Spears of Kerry Spears Interiors in Gainesville, FL, suggests being mindful of the timelines. “A lot of wholesale holiday decor companies are backordered as early as September, so it’s important to start early,” she says. “A lot of clients don’t think about Christmas during the summer months, so it’s key to pay attention to these timelines for them.” Other designers echoed that warning, noting that most clients book soon after the holidays for the following year so their designers can be scouting new looks at the late winter and spring industry shows. 

“My advice for designers hoping to expand their business into the holiday market?” Sacksteder shares. “Be an elf, enjoy it, it’s not always about money. It’s a service and you get to know your clients.” 

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