Deck the halls, walls, floors . . .

Some of Ireland’s top designers share their Christmas decorating likes – and dislikes

Retro Christmas: would you go for a traditional look? Illustration: iStock/Getty

Retro Christmas: would you go for a traditional look? Illustration: iStock/Getty

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White or coloured lights? Real or artificial trees?

Where do some of the nation’s top design talent stand when it comes to decking the halls with holly, debating the merits of white or coloured lights and arguing the pros and cons of real trees?

Bronwyn Thomson of MiraMira: “My taste errs on the macabre side, a Satanic-looking head from a trip to Hawaii, what look to be severed dolls’ heads, a crazy Santa riding a fish.”

It’s Kitschmas

Bronwyn Thomson
Owner of the eclectic gift store MiraMira, on Sandymount Strand, Dublin 4
“I’m from South Africa originally and the festive season with its fake snow and Santa in big funny coat just doesn’t make sense in the heat. As a kid, you don’t question it, now I wonder why Santa wasn’t wearing a pair of togs and sporting sunnies. As kids, we didn’t have a hot dinner but rather cold ham and cold turkey.

“I have been collecting hand-blown glass baubles for about 10 years but my taste errs on the macabre side, a Satanic-looking head from a trip to Hawaii, what look to be severed dolls’ heads, a crazy Santa riding a fish. I have narwhals and whales, motifs you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Christmas but when you throw a bit of glitter on them and add gold twine, they become festive. I buy new ones every year and unwrapping them each year is like a trip down memory lane. In fact, my partner, designer Paki Smith, and I gift each other decorations each year and it has become quite competitive between us as to who gets the most outlandish one.

“The first time he walked into my shop he admired these Ghanian dolls that I had all over the premises I knew then that we were a match made in heaven. They used to creep out all the staff.

“We share our small house in Ringsend with our seven-year old daughter, Lucy, who also gets new baubles every year. Last year, I gave her a king penguin with a baby penguin at his feet. There rest of the family comprises of Bruiser the dog and a year ago Midge the cat joined us and he went mental when he first saw the Christmas tree. I think he thought it was a gift to him and started climbing it, so much so that the precious glass baubles didn’t make it onto the tree last year. This year they’ll hang from the top boughs only.” miramira.ie

Declan O'Donnell of ODKM Architects: "Every year I insist on a real tree that usually ends up being too big for the room. But we give over a whole night to decorating it to the sounds of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.”

Get real with the tree

Declan O’Donnell
Principal, ODKM Architects, Dublin 2
“This is my first Christmas as a married man but I remain a bit of a traditionalist. My wife, Jude Byrne, and I have been together for seven years but we’re going to our respective families this December 25th. We rent in Kilmainham and a big bone of contention between us is that every year I insist on a real tree that usually ends up being too big for the room. But we give over a whole night to decorating it to the sounds of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. I usually put on a Val Doonican-worthy turtleneck and croon along, specially to Dean Martin’s Silver Bells – the croonier it is the better.

“We bake mince pies from scratch. Jude was the 1999 home economics champion at her school, Rolestown, just outside Swords.

“I am fussy. There’s never any tinsel or flashing lights. There might be a bit of holly on pictures, but nothing tacky.

“I know it isn’t décor per se but for me it isn’t Christmas without the movie series Home Alone. It’s all about the tarantula on the face of evil robber Marv Merchants, played by Daniel Stern. When I hear him scream, I know Christmas has come.

“On Christmas morning, I usually shave in a moustache, don a flowery apron and dickie bow, to do cooking duty for the 15 or 16 people there. My mother hates it so the banter between us is a bit of craic.

“A massive part of our day is about the food. I usually order a turkey from Glenasmole Farm, and land down at my sister’s house in Mullingar with the colossal bird and oodles of goose fat.

“The decorative magic happens at my sister’s. Hers is a beautifully decorated home – American in style, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Home Alone movie. She still has a formal sitting room with golden sofas, open fireplace and a big tree tipping the ceiling. The place is utter chaos with the volume cranked up to 11. On Christmases past. I have had to lock myself in a darkened room to decompress from it all.” odkmarchitects.com

David Craig, of Scriba and Dublin Design Studio, with Cammie: “I welcome any opportunity to have Christmas lights around the house. But they have to be white – I hate the coloured ones – and the smaller the better.”

Minimalist Michaelmas

David Craig
Scriba designer and architect at Dublin Design Studio, Dublin 3
“I am one of those minimalist people. I like a natural backdrop that lets the important stuff shine. I like to start off with white and build in lots of greenery, decorating the tree in white and silver and all the decorations, souvenirs of our holidays together, like a glass globe bought in Sorrento, Italy, a tree I was given from Canada. All are wrapped in white paper to keep them safe during the year. Unwrapping them unwraps Christmas and makes the tree our own.

“Growing up, my father regularly redesigned our Christmas tree. He would chop branches off the back and rewire them to the front to make it seem fuller than it originally was. I haven’t resorted to that kind of cosmetic procedure yet but one of my favourite decorations for my tree is a paper snowflake that he gave me.

“I’ve begun sketching out Christmas decorations for this year’s tree that I am planning to have 3D printed, using Scriba, a stylus that my company Dublin Design Studio has finally put into production.

“It is made in Wexford at Cartamundi, the manufacturing wing of games company Hasbro, in the same place that they make big Christmas games like Connect 4 and Monopoly. When we were down, we were surrounded by pallet-loads of Monopoly money, tens of millions of notes that were piled high up to our chins.

“My fiancee, Sarah Roche-Kelly, and I welcomed our daughter, Cameron – Cammie for short – last Christmas, and that has changed everything. In the past, we would have gone to Scotland to see my family but with Cammie’s arrival and another baby on the way, we’re staying put this year.

“I welcome any opportunity to have Christmas lights around the house. But they have to be white – I am a white lights guy, I hate the coloured ones – and the smaller the better. These create a background soft-focus effect, an aesthetic quality that is referred to as bokeh in Japan.” getscriba.com; dublindesignstudio.com

Mark Geraghty, production and set designer: “I don’t ever put our natural tree up before December 16th. I water it and spritz it, as I would on set, to keep it moist. I plug out the lights before I do this. You’ll get an extra week out of the tree this way.”

The Rockwell maximalist

Mark Geraghty
Production and set designer on TV shows like Vikings and Ripper Street and almost every Irish film from My Left Foot to Calvary
“Christmas is very personal. I was brought up traditionally, with a real Christmas tree and a Victorian look. Flashing lights, tinsel and coloured lights were all no-nos. We weren’t allowed out of bed until all the fires were lit – it used to drive us mad but it was a big deal and those memories last a lifetime. You may not recall a Monday in July but you always remember a great Christmas.

“For me, it is also about the smell of a real pine tree and the puddings and cakes marinating for months in whiskey or brandy before the big day.

“With two kids age four and 10, I like to stick to what I refer to as look that is a bit Norman Rockwell. I like to put a motorised train set, one of the bigger ones that run on wide tracks, around the base of the tree so that you have movement. Try and get one that also chirrups as it circumnavigates it as it adds an aural element to the setting.

“With the festive season so commercialised and long, it is very hard for a natural tree to survive so I incorporate a few tips from being on set to get it to last into the new year. I don’t ever put it up before December 16th. I water it and spritz it, as I would on set, to keep it moist. I plug out the lights before I do this. You’ll get an extra week out of the tree this way.

“I try and do a bit of foraging with the kids too. We gather real holly but you’ll find it in a lot of the smaller garden centres. Little sprigs over pictures can look really beautiful. And I get them to help me make a Yuletide log. I cut a small branch down to size, drill a hole in it and stick a candle at its centre. On the TV show Vikings, the Yule log is simply brought into the great hall and burnt over several days. There is no chocolate, no Santy, no cotton wool. There’s none of that. The Vikings just drink and eat fish.

“While not overly religious, I also put up a small timber crib with timber figurines every year. We lived in the Czech Republic for seven years and the festive season is more natural than glitzy. The Christmas markets were fantastic places for finds. Beech Vista Garden Centre on the M50 has a Christmas shop 12 months of the year. It has one of the best décor selections in Ireland.” beechvista.com

Agata Stoinska of D-Light Studios: “In Poland our celebrations take place on Christmas Eve, when we sit down to a meal on a table laid with some hay, to symbolise the baby Jesus’s humble beginnings in a manger.”

Pole position

Agata Stoinska
Photographer and director of venue D-Light Studios
“I am Polish. I have no kids or a husband so I go home to my sister’s house, which is in a forest close to Warsaw. The whole family is crazy about her three-year-old son Jan, the eldest grandson on both sides of the family.

“Before I go home to Poland, I host a Christmas dinner with my friends, who are like family to me, at D-Light Studio, a former woollen mill with bare stone walls, set just off North Strand that can hired out and is also a venue. We’re big into candles so the place is lit ambiently and there’s always a big fresh tree that Stace Gill, who with Agata, publish Blow Photo magazine, is charged with sourcing. She even gives it a name. The tree stays up until the end of January. Everyone that is invited, and it can be up to 40 people, brings a traditional dish from their country.

“In Poland, our celebrations take place on Christmas Eve when we sit down to a meal together on a table laid with some hay to symbolise the baby Jesus’ humble beginnings in a manger. The tree features decorations that go back to when my grandmother was alive, things that she made. My nephew’s gingerbread decorations, made with his mother, my sister Barbara, carry on a tradition that she and I did as kids with our mother. The table is strewn with dried fruit garlands. We serve 12 dishes, the dozen represents the 12 apostles and the traditions are all very Catholic.

“Mistletoe is another big tradition. Every time you pass under it you’re supposed to kiss whomever is in your vicinity. It can get very busy.” d-lightstudios.com

Angela Brady of Brady Mallalieu: “In our house we do very little decorations-wise. I generally make a bunch of fuseglass lanterns for the table, which I later give away as presents.”

The dissenter

Angela Brady
London-based architect, principal at Brady Mallalieu, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects
“I don’t even talk about Christmas before November. It is over-rated and is meant to be a time for family and friends and contemplation, and a bit of carol singing if you come across it – I resent the material overload of ‘stuff’.

“In our house we do very little decorations-wise. I generally make a bunch of fuseglass lanterns for the table, which I later give away as presents (see website). I use green leaf clippings from the garden and reuse the old fairy lights on a real tree we purchase at an exorbitant price. I would prefer a live one in a box on wheels!

“I hate junk and throw away wasteful stuff that has a bad impact on our environment. All that plastic use-once junk should be banned. Our kids are not allowed to spend money on stuff and stupid presents that no one wants – so they paint us a picture. My parents loved the paintings we gave them, so we carry on this tradition of spending time in making something with love and affection.” angelabradydesigns.co.uk; bradymallalieu.com

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