BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
We asked one of our favorite interior designers, Jenny Brown, for her last-minute holiday decorating tips and how to survive the season as a parent.
If you don’t have loads of time or lots of decorations in your basement to put up, what are good things to use?
I love to use fresh greens and Christmas lights as a quick way to add some festive cheer—throw in some pinecones and berries, and you are in business! My mom visited Winterthur, the museum in an old DuPont estate in Delaware, around Christmas years ago and told me that they had a small sprig of boxwood tied with a little red ribbon in the individual panes of glass on all of the windows, mounted with beeswax. Does anything sound more simple or elegant? I love filling a cachepot with blooming paperwhites in the front hall—such a pretty scent and lovely flower.
We have a collection of carolers that I love. While we used to group them, we recently moved and our new place does not have a good spot for them. Instead, I mix them in with picture frames and garlands on some shelves we have on our stair landing. I tuck in a few greens and other decorations, and I love the effect—it feels collected and cozy, and the family photos draw you in.
Christmas is a time to delight the senses: play music and keep the lights on all day. If you don’t want real greens, there are great fakes out there—you just have to store them. I don’t like buying things just to throw them away later and try not to buy anything for the holidays that I can’t use over and over again. You want to love everything in your home, whether it brings you joy aesthetically or recalls a special memory or person.
What is the best way to bring young children into your holiday decorating plans?
The boys were so excited about Christmas this year and were begging to bring out the boxes of ornaments the day after Halloween! My boys are seven and four, and when it comes to things like decorating or even putting on toppings at a dessert bar, I often tell them, ‘You are the director, I am the operator.’ I put the lights on the trees, and they tell me if there are any holes. I’ll arrange the carolers or nativity scene, and they tell me where to place them.
Usually they lose interest or move on to something else after a few minutes, but I like them to be a part of it and truly value their opinions. And of course they help put the ornaments on the tree! The biggest thing for me is to keep it fun—if it is stressful for me, it will not be fun for them, and I want them to like it as much as I do. Of course, a few ornaments get broken every year, but that is a little lesson for them and me too: be careful, but don’t get too attached!
My mother-in-law bought decorations for my husband throughout his life and gave them to us when we were married. I love seeing ornaments with his initials dating back to the ‘70s and think this is a clever way to build a collection for your child. I was recently at a friend’s house whose dining table was filled with these lovely glittery houses his mother had bought him yearly from an antiques shop that has since closed. I was delighted to see that my friend Molly Flavin is now carrying similar houses at her shop in Lake Forest.
What do you do to really make your home so special for the holidays? Were there family traditions?
I like to play Christmas music that I listened to growing up, like John Denver, The Muppets, and Mannheim Steamroller. I light pine-scented candles and keep the lights on the tree on during the day. Growing up, we used colored lights and even though the lights would work if a bulb was out, that was not the case for my dad when he was young, so he insisted put the bulbs on and take them off every Christmas. I have the fondest memories of sitting on our living room screwing in light bulbs with Christmas music on the record player while my mom made cranberry bread in the kitchen that I would then go deliver to the neighbors.
With my own family, we try and take advantage of all the area has to offer. We always go to Zoo Lights and will go see the holiday train display at the Botanic Garden. We’ve gone on carriage rides and will go see Santa at 900 N. Michigan, but again, try not to put too much pressure on ourselves. I took the boys to Christkindlmarket Market at Daley Plaza this year and while it was fun to see, it was also really crowded, freezing, and my youngest son burned his tongue on hot chocolate (despite their warnings). I am sure we will go back next year, but it was a reminder to manage your own expectations and go with the flow. The best decision was to leave when we realized things were falling apart.
What are some decorating tips you are sharing now?
My biggest tip is to buy what appeals to you and don’t forsake quality for convenience. I love the thrill of the hunt and am always going to dusty antique stores, estate sales, and consignment shops but never feel pressure to buy. I consider it a win if you find something and a win if you don’t.
I’ve had great luck recently at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, a local auction house. Just be aware that there is a charge on top of the hammer price, and it’s easy to get carried away, especially when someone outbids you! I really like to shop local. Not only to support Chicago businesses but also so I can see things in person. I think everyone has been burned buying things online and receiving something completely different from what they expected!
Do you think its best to decorate the whole house, or is it better to stick to special rooms?
When it comes to the holidays, we spread the love throughout the whole house. While the bulk of the decorations are in the main rooms, we will put other items in the boys’ room, like stuffed animals and less fragile decorations.
I recall going to a friend’s house in college and in their powder room, the mom had tied a simple red ribbon to the bottom of the chandelier. It was just a little touch but again so understated and lovely—I still remember being enchanted by it.
Any hints about holiday entertaining?
I have a large silver platter I like to fill with meat and cheese, nuts, dried fruit, veggies, dip, and whatever else appeals to me at the store. I fill in any holes with sprigs of rosemary or basil. There is something for everyone, and it looks great. Sometimes, I will add votives for some extra sparkle. I once opened all of the remaining Halloween candy we had stashed and put the ‘fun-sized’ candies on a silver platter and passed them around. Never underestimate the power of presentation!
I think the best formula for a party is to invite a bunch of people over from all parts of your life and throw them together—I love connecting people. Dim the lights and keep your guests well fed and their glasses full!