I have had the privilege of watching the pros do it and am going to share with you a few techniques to bring into your own home.
Decorating the White House for the first time in 2011 was a magical experience for me. I applied for the privilege in the summer of that year and was notified by the Social Office in the fall that of my acceptance.
I had spent a great amount of time decorating the homes of some of my favorite clients through the years and I thought I knew a lot. The scale is certainly grander than most homes, but the techniques are the same.
Decorating the White House is a seven-day event and the first three days are spent at an off-site location where the teams are assembling all of the items for each space. The last few days are spent at the White House with the puppies running around and the staff going about their business.
While at the off-site location, homemade pieces are created and traditional ornaments are glued and prepared. The same ornaments are used year after year. They actually remove the strings from most of the ornaments, glue the cap to the ornament and restring them using craft wire.
This is the first recommendation to bring into your home. Consider using a craft wire cut into 8-inch lengths and stringing it through the hole on the top of each ornament. This will allow you to get it exactly where you want it to fall on a tree or garland and also do what we did at the White House, which was to wrap three ornaments together. Instead of placing them under the branches they were placed on the top of the branch and wrapped with the wire.
Last year, I was honored to be asked back to decorate the White House and was assigned to the prestigious Blue Room. Apparently this is a coveted position, but decorating a 32-foot tree is no easy task.
My team was made up of nine people and some were assigned a section of the tree while others were the eyes on the ground ensuring a consistent look.
We began decorating each tree by reaching in deep and placing the ornaments that are to be used in the background and layering one by one until everything had its place. The garland was one of the last items to be placed and it was made up of hand-embroidered state pendants and photos of service personnel homecomings.
The tree skirt used in 2011 was actually hand-sewn with the buttons of service personnel uniforms. The volunteers spend thousands of hours bringing meaningful decorations that represent people from all over the country.
This year I am a member of the decorating team at the Newport Mansions, which was next on my bucket list after the White House. I got the gig using contacts I made decorating the model home for the Rhode Island Home Show and my experience at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This is fun and much more low key than the White House experience. If you have the chance to get to the mansions this year for the holidays, you will see a lot of changes.
I have decorated the mantel and tree in the Elms Great Hall. The tree is artificial but the result is stunning. We started with large gold leaves that were hung deep into the tree and then hundreds of dried hydrangea were inserted inside the tree to fill in and block the light from shining through. If you are fortunate enough to have a hydrangea plant in your yard, give this a try; it really looked beautiful and the result is quite spectacular.
The mantel is adorned with 12 topiary trees of various heights, some real and others not. Those plastic hooks that mount to the wall and can be removed by pulling the tab are used at the mansions and can easily be covered with an ornament or ribbon. Decorations used there are selected by a historian and curator.
I will be decorating the Billiard Room this week and was asked to bring along ribbons and items that I would like to use. No pressure.
It will be done with a strong masculine flair. I am thinking bronze ribbons and an animal head (fake, of course.) Stop by The Breakers to see the finished piece after Thanksgiving.
Consider putting colors together that are not a match. Here are a few images that show you how the mantels were done in the White House and will hopefully inspire you.
The Red Room with the portrait of Dolly Madison is displayed with all different shades of red on the mantel. The Green Room was a stunning display of plums, pinks, gold and green. Here they used that technique I mentioned of clustering the ornaments and stringing them together with wire and then applying them onto the garland. Bows are sometimes placed in the center and streamers worked in, and in some rooms bows are only used along the sides and are left to dangle.
Nice ribbon can be found everywhere - The Dollar Tree, Target, HomeGoods, or even craft shops and hardware stores. Do not let making bows intimidate you. Last year, I made the bows for the Oval Office as well as all of the wreaths outside. By the 50th one, the novelty had worn off but instructions are easy to find online.
I create loops and pinch the center, layering one over the other until you cannot hold another. Then take a 12- to 15-inch piece of wire and wrap tightly. You can add the streamers by using another wire behind and in no time you will get the hang of it.
Garlands over a door or mantel are a real way to bring drama and can be adorned with holiday cards from last year. Or use children's ornaments intermingled with small drawings from the school year or even candy.
Consider looking online for inspiration or in a catalog for images that you like and try something new. You can try something different each year without buying new things just by separating colors or bringing in some new element. Most of the ornaments used at the White House and the Newport Mansions are used year after year and are combined with different colors to create a unique look.
Pine cones are an easy and low-cost element and can be sprayed with paint. Consider dried fruit slices to add to a garland or dried flowers. Bring natural elements in from outside, but be careful about fire safety.
I hope that you find these images helpful and they inspire you to bring a little White House or Newport Mansions into your own home.