28 December 2011

Natural Christmas Decor - Woodland Vignette

The third vignette in a "natural holiday decorating" group I created recently for the Boston Globe g Magazine, was a woodland setting, which is absolutely one of my favorite subjects to play with. There is something about all of nature, but especially woodsy materials, that I just adore. Mosses, twigs and pinecones remind me of glorious walks through forested areas, under canopies of leafy trees, where the mysteries of animal and plant life are all-surrounding and quietly poignant.

When I was little, and then again when my children were little, imagining and building fairy huts and villages was a favorite activity. My kids even wove together little sticks to create fences to encircle fairy homes. I remember the joy in their voices as they would run into the house calling for us to come outside and see what they had built for the fairies in our gardens.

In my decorating, I also love bringing woodsy materials into the house, connecting the outdoor world with the one indoors. A couple of summers ago, I wrote a blog post on one of my favorite table settings of all time, which I did using various mosses as a way to frame my Herend Rothschild Bird china.

For the Globe article, I wanted to incorporate three of my paintings of songbirds in topiaries, which I hung over our dining room sideboard. Additionally, I used some wonderful Italian ceramic pieces designed by The Mane Lion - a footed serving bowl and a pair of candlesticks, all with pheasants on them - and other birds, including cement garden ornaments and several Herend china pieces from Hungary. 

I love the natural colors of these hand painted Herend china birds.

Jaci Conry, who wrote the Globe article, had asked me specifically to incorporate a fruit topiary into the setting, so I decided to make two, since the sideboard in my dining room is formal and some symmetry seemed appropriate. I used two planters I had with rustic birds and vines on them, but instead of making tall topiaries, I kept them low, using dry floral foam cut into dome shapes. I then skewered kumquats on toothpicks and stuck them into the foam, varying the heights as necessary to create nicely rounded domes.

Next, I tucked bits of moss into the holes between the fruits and finally gave the topiaries some interesting color and height variation with small sticks of bittersweet berries, gathered near my home.
The vibrant kumquats and bittersweet complement the oranges and reds in my paintings.

I have always loved birch trees, logs and bark - probably a throwback to my childhood in Minnesota, where we camped in the woods "up North" every summer. I wanted to use birch logs in this setting, so my husband, Jack, made me some great candle holders by cutting logs to varying sizes (3" to 8" high) and hollowing out the tops to create cavities for votive candles.

Using a hot glue gun, I attached different colors and textures of moss to the tops of the candle holders, allowing some of them to drape down over the sides for a more natural look.

Mosses included a number from my own yard, plus some I had purchased at Michael's Crafts. The bluish green moss, above, grows naturally on trees all over Cape Cod, and I have a plentiful supply in my yard.
Before lighting the votive candles, I spray the moss with water, to prevent it from catching on fire. (Of course, one should never leave burning candles unattended in any case!)

I cut lots of greens - holly, arborvitae, cedar, spruce, laurel, etc. - to tuck into the pheasant centerpiece. Here again, I used floral foam, but this time I soaked it with water ahead of time so the greens would stay fresh and alive for a week or more. On the top of the sideboard, I had such fun arranging various greens, birds, pinecones, leaves, mosses, sticks and walnuts.
Finally, I topped off the whole scene with more arborvitae, tucked in above and behind the paintings.
What could be more perfect with this dining room setting than a French buche de Noel cake for dessert? That's what I'll do next year!

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19 December 2011

Natural Christmas Decor - Seashore Vignette

Living on Cape Cod, we are surrounded by seascapes and an abundance of interesting shells. So this year, I decided to create a holiday seaside vignette. This is one of three natural settings I was asked to design for The Boston Globe, although this one didn't make it into the final article. I used a mix of local and more tropical shells, corals, starfish, etc., that I have collected over the years, along with fresh greens cut from my yard, and branches that I painted red to resemble branch coral, using a floral spray from Michael's Crafts.

Inspired by my husband Jack's painting of two turkey wing shells, the setting is on a table in one corner of our living room.
I incorporated strings of pearls, since they come from the ocean, as wells as several carved cinnabar boxes I have, which are coral red. Crab shells and some orangey-peachy hued scallops bring out the colors of the shells in Jack's painting. The red buds visible in the foreground, here, are from our red mountain laurel bushes.
Little votive candle holders wrapped in caning hold tea light candles. I also tucked miniature white Christmas lights in and around the greenery (trying hard to hide the cord). When lit, the entire effect is magical - like a snowy beach.
A favorite garden container made of concrete with cherubim (a Christmas gift from Jack years ago) adds to the Christmas spirit. In it, I placed a tall topiary trellis wrapped with fresh ivy from our yard, and then hung glittery sea urchins and draped it with strands of pearls. (In addition to my own pearl necklaces, I bought inexpensive pearls at Michael's Crafts.) I glued a starfish to the top of the topiary frame.
In the end, I am thrilled with this holiday setting that comes almost completely from nature!
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12 December 2011

Natural Christmas Decor - Glittering Fruit Centerpiece

Some of my winter holiday decorating ideas were featured last week, in the Boston Globe's g magazine, their Arts & Lifestyle section. I had prepared three separate vignettes for the writer and photographer. As it turned out, two of the three were featured in the article. Since the article has now been published, I can blog about these three vignettes, including some background how-to info.

First off, let me say how terrific it was to work again with writer, Jaci Conry. She is a terrific writer, but also so personable and easy to work with. Jaci and I have worked together on several articles in the past, including this Christmas decorating article for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, a few years ago.

In the next couple of days, I'll post on the other projects I did for this year's, as well as that previous article, but for starters, here is how I created the sugared fruit centerpiece:

You must start this project at least 24 hours before you want to display it, as it takes time for the sugar coating to dry properly.

It is important to pick out fruits that are ripe, but not too ripe, as you will want them to last for several days. I always pick out a nice variety of hues, including three colors of grapes (green, red and purple), different pears (red, yellow and green), cumquats, small oranges, apples, lady apples (like oversized crabapples), lemons, limes, persimmons, and pomegranates. Get more than enough to fill your container, as it is nice to have the fruit spilling over onto the table, symbolizing seasonal abundance.

In a small bowl, whisk together one or two egg whites with a little water. The water thins out the albumen and makes it easier to work with. Do not over-whisk the mixture, or it will become frothy, which will detract from your finished product.

With a pastry brush or soft paintbrush, paint the egg white mixture onto the fruits, one by one, then immediately dusting each wet fruit with superfine sugar. This works best by using a sugar shaker, if you have one, a sieve with large holes or just by spooning it gently over the fruits. The idea is to get just a dusting covering the entire piece, but no big globs. Once each piece is covered, place it on a rack to dry overnight. As the egg white evaporates, the sugar crystalizes and dries as a hard shell on the outsides of the fruits.

I use cookie cooling racks placed over sheet pans to catch the excess sugar and drips.
Use lots of grapes as they drape so nicely over the sides of your bowl or urn.
Persimmons are so plentiful at Christmas, and I just love them!

Once the fruits are completely dry, I arrange the centerpiece, adding lemon leaves if I can get them, although other, similar leaves work just as well. The leaves must be thick and not likely to wilt over the course of several days. This year, I also sugared some whole walnuts, which added another dimension to the grouping.
The finished centerpiece looks like it has been lightly dusted with snow!

Here, I used a lovely footed silver bowl, which has repousse birds and grapevines all over it. I paired it with Daum fruit plates from France. The glasses are antique German crystal hocks, also featuring a grapevine pattern. They are filled with a cocktail I invented for the photoshoot - a pomegranate kir, made with pomegranate liqueur and white wine. (To make a pomegranate kir royale, use sparkling wine instead of still.) The silver is Tiffany's Chrysanthemum pattern, and the antique tea napkins are embroidered with "D" - a gift from my mother years ago. The tablecloth is white damask from France.

This project is relatively easy and makes such a beautiful display for a table or sideboard! Once the fruit starts to lose it's freshness, toss out the over-the-hill pieces, and then wash off and reuse the others in cooking. Lemons, apples, persimmons and oranges are most likely to be useable again, while the grapes and pears will probably not outlast the life of centerpiece.

I'd love to see readers's own versions of this holiday project. Email your pictures to me at kate@katedickerson.com. I'll try to highlight some of them in a future post.

Bon appetit!
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Also, check out all of the holiday table settings on Tablescape Thursdays, at Between Naps on the Porch.

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