The Queen of Christmas
WRITTEN BY: GENESIS GONZALEZ | PHOTOGRAPHED BY: FRANK ISHMAN
The sleigh bells are ringing, the snow is glistening and once more, the excitement and joy of the holiday season is upon us. For us Southern Californians, the snow glistening may be in short supply this year, but who says Christmas has to come in one color? The season to decorate and share some Christmas cheer is in full swing, and every color from red and green to hot pink—yes hot pink—is in style as Christmas is about to turn up the fun. Let’s celebrate with family and friends, dance and sing to our favorite carols, share stories around the fireplace and of course, let’s not forget about the eggnog. But before we dance the night away, we must bring out the holiday décor; everything from a life size Santa Claus to an endless supply of garland and the Christmas wreath, for no party is complete without a few finishing touches. And who better to share a thing or two about Christmas décor than the holiday queen herself, designer Leanne Michael. She has the magic touch to turn any house into a one- of-a-kind winter wonderland and will make this holiday season one to remember.
When it comes to holiday décor, where do we begin? What do we need? How much is too much? Sometimes we find ourselves more tangled and knotted than our Christmas lights when it comes to getting started on our holiday décor. Lucky for us, Michael has celebrated and decorated for many Christmases, and each year, it just keeps getting better and better. This designer lives, breathes and decorates for the holiday. In fact, she dreams of fun and imaginative new themes to share with her clients, which usually arise at the early hour of 3am. There is no rest for the imagination as Christmas brings excitement and wonderful opportunities for her. Nothing is too small or too grand as her goal is to create the perfect and most heartwarming home for everybody.
Christmas may come once a year, but for Michael, the other 364 days are filled with one mission and one mission only: to shop! She takes the meaning of “shop till you drop” literally. From one antique store to the next, she is on the hunt to find the most unique, distinct, and out of the ordinary décor that will have her clients saying, “This is amazing!” And it doesn’t stop there. Even online shopping proves to be a great advantage for this holiday designer as she searches for the “hidden” gems that truly bring to life just about any Christmas party. From a Texas style ranch with a crown of antlers to top a tree, to taxidermy owls and peacocks with their beautiful green and blue feathers and even pineapples all placed precisely in a Christmas tree, these “hidden” gems truly make a statement.
Her eye for detail and precision keeps her on her toes as nothing is left unturned. With every ribbon perfectly fashioned into a bow, every ornament neatly and precisely placed on a well-lit tree, and garland wrapped around the mantle so effortlessly, Michael has taken holiday decorating to a true art form. This holiday season, let’s go all out and have some fun when it comes to our holiday decor. It’s okay to break tradition and add a little more spice. Did someone say hot pink? As Michael exclaims, “There are no rules at Christmas!” As we pour ourselves a glass of eggnog and welcome our family and friends to our holiday escape, let’s remember to cherish each moment, create new memories, and just have fun! After all, this is sunny California, and this Christmas forecast is sure to be a bright one!
Q: How did you get started in the business of holiday décor?
Leanne Michael: I had a beautiful store in Rancho Santa Fe that was called Bella Fiore. We were the source for many, many years for all things floral, home décor and holiday. So for me, it transitioned rather easily to go into interior design and other aspects of what I do, but holiday has always been a huge, huge staple for us. We’ve been able to decorate some tremendous projects, from things that are very small and quaint to the very large and elaborate. I decorate houses for Christmas between Santa Barbara and San Diego. We’ve done some incredible things like the Antique Toy Story for Bill and Melinda Gates and also for Verna Harrah, who just passed away. Every area of the house we did in a different antique toy story theme, so they would walk through the house and just feel the joy. When you see the light in children’s eyes, when they see what you’ve done, it just warms my heart, and that’s really what keeps me going. Most interior designers don’t do Christmas, but because of where it came from for us and how it all started and evolved, I will never stop doing Christmas. It is what I get so excited for all year round.
Q: After looking at a few of your designs, I noticed a Christmas wreath adorned with a pair of ice skates. Is there any limit to the creativity that comes for holiday décor or can anything go?
LM: Those skates I found on Craigslist. I use my sources to my best advantage. When I come up with an idea of something, I pull out all the stops. I shop eBay. I shop Craigslist. I call my clients and ask them what they have hidden in storage. Last year, I decorated a beautiful ranch in Texas, and we literally went to all of the antique stores and found all of these old apothecary jars that looked like they were just dug up out of the ground. We did a whole cabinet of curiosity, with a vintage type of look for that Christmas tree. That Christmas tree was 20-feet tall, so we had a lot to fill. There was taxidermy in there. There were old antlers and all kinds of interesting, crazy little features—even old vintage tea tins and tobacco tins. It really gave it that down-home Texas kind of ranch style, and it was brilliant. It turned out so fantastic. If you look at those photographs on my website, you’ll see there is a great big taxidermy buffalo head. I’m not a huge taxidermy fan, but the client is, so I had to kind of conform. I had to bite my tongue because I’m this huge animal lover, and it breaks my heart to see that, but that’s part of doing what we do.
Q: When it comes to finding the unique and “hidden treasures” for your clients, where do you look to?
LM: Well, that is my favorite thing to do, and that’s what separates me from a lot of other interior designers. Most of us really do prefer to order from catalogs, buying mass produced products. For me, that’s not how I do it. I love to shop, and I love to treasure hunt. I really do hunt and search. I search through the most amazing consignment stores and high-end antique stores all the way from San Diego to Santa Barbara. I’ve got my favorites. To me, I don’t feel a home should look like a showroom. I think a home should feel very well collected, warm, loved and comfortable. I feel like you find that by sourcing through vintage, consignment, resale and antique. Of course, I do custom but there’s something to be said about finding a beautiful, old antique commode.
Q: Where does the inspiration come from for the various themes you incorporate for each client?
LM: Out of my crazy, wild mind at 3am. I will meet with a client and I will sit down and figure out who they are and what they’re about and get a feel for the home. Oftentimes, I will sit there, and I’ll spit out a bunch of great ideas, but then inevitably, I’ll come home and at 3am, which is my bewitching hour, I’ll be sitting in my bed and think, what if we did this and what if we did that? Then by 7am, I can’t wait to call the client. They always go for it, and it probably has a lot to do with my enthusiasm. My clients trust me. They know they’re going to be in good hands and they know I’m going to come up with something really special and unique just for them, because I don’t duplicate.
Q: Speaking of creating unique themes for each client, how do you make sure nothing is duplicated and everything is unique?
LM: It all comes down to how I source and what I source for. For instance, with Bill and Melinda, we did their antique toy story to feel a little newer. With them, we did trucks and trains and baby dolls and teddy bears and things like that, because they have children. Whereas for Verna, I really pushed for a true antique. I found one of those monkeys with the cymbal, those mechanical monkeys that you see from way back when…the eyes flash. I went bananas when I found one. I was like “Oh My God, there it is!” I literally had it shipped in from Australia and then I had an old vintage pedal car brought in from England. I find unusual things and bring them in from all over, and that’s the beauty of finding things on eBay.
Q: If you could describe your designs in three words, what would those be?
LM: Memorable. Well collected. Inspiring. I remember all my Christmases as a child. I remember sitting and painting pine cones with my mother and gluing all the little things onto the shelves and putting glitter on them and making bows. We did all that together. Christmas to me should be a memorable experience, whether you’re partaking in the actual designing of the decorations yourself as a family unit, or you’re hiring somebody to come in like myself to present and to make it into something really incredible and special for your friends and your family. That is something that they’re going to remember for generations to come. Christmas is such an incredible time of year where it really speaks to our inner soul. Christmas is not just all about the flash and the glitter and the grandeur; it’s about celebrating and really embracing our family and our friends and showing how much we appreciate them. Whether it’s a religious holiday for some or more of a commercial holiday for others, it matters not. It’s still a celebration that is memorable. It’s very exciting and very heartwarming for me to be a part of that process.
Q: When does preparation begin for holiday décor?
LM: March! Unfortunately in California, people seem to wait for the last minute to do everything, so the phone calls really start happening in November, which is too late, because if we really want to save a client a good amount of money, it is much better to be proactive and get us on task in March. Then we’re able to source. Obviously there is a process, but meeting with the client, coming up with the theme and the idea, determining what their budget is and then coming up with a birthing plan is important.
Q: We all know Christmas is associated with green and red. Have you incorporated other colors into your designs? If so, is this considered breaking the rules at Christmas?
LM: There are no rules at Christmas! I feel very strongly about this, especially since we are in California. We don’t have snow on the ground. We have 85-degree weather on Christmas day. I’m an East Coast girl, so I come from snow, but in California there’s no limitation to your imagination on what you can do. I picked pieces of bougainvillea from my garden and embellished all of my mantle and garlands with it, and that’s a bright, fun, hot pink. And why not? There’s no limitation.
Q: How would you go about designing for a winter wonderland theme?
LM: I’ll give you an example. We did a snazzy home a few years back where we made it feel very Aspen-like. They have a home in Aspen, and they were not able to spend Christmas that year in Aspen so I decided to bring it to them. What we did was a whole collection of all different sizes of Christmas trees throughout the house. We put up these fabulous trees and instead of lighting them with individual white lights, I decided to flood them with blue gel lights. The moon was shining in on that room, so it felt very Aspen-like, and then of course I laid the fake snow underneath the tree, which was fantastic. With the blue lights hitting it, you could see how the fake snow just glistened. Of course, we had interesting deer there as well. We brought in the whole winter wonderland feeling. There were seven trees in the room total, but it felt like you were outdoors. It was so cool.
Q: What do you hope your clients appreciate and enjoy the most when seeing your holiday décor?
LM: It comes down to the feeling. We as human beings will relate our memories to scent and visual. I’m sure it has happened to you where you’ve walked into a room and smelled something, and it brings you back to your grandmother’s cooking. It transcends us into very valuable and warm feelings of love and complete joy. So if I’m able to be a part of that in some small or grand way through my designs, that to me is priceless. I love when my clients come back to me and say, “I remember this year when you did this one for us, and I remember that year when you did that one for us.” I’ve been doing this for over 30 years now, and it really warms my heart. I do try to make every year slightly different for them even if we’re using all the same decorations year after year. The application is different. I try to change it up a bit, or I take a color away and add another color.
Q: What sense of feeling overcomes you seeing your final décor come together?
LM: Well, I’m a perfectionist, so for me it can always be better. I always photograph as we are working and then I go back and I study my photographs. My clients never see the imperfections that I see. For me, it’s always a challenge. Having that discerning eye is a blessing and a curse all at the same time. The clients don’t see where something could have been done differently. But for me, it’s always a process of continual learning and inspiration. I will look at my photos at the end of the season and immediately start thinking about how I can make that look that much better for that same client the following year.
Q: Is there a staple piece that defines your designs?
LM: Well people can tell that my trees and my décor are pretty identifiable, and I’m finding this to be really true in a lot of aspects. I’ve become a Christmas snob, and so has my staff. It really is terrible, because I never want to judge anybody else’s work. I’m really very kind, and I truly believe that everybody has their artistic freedom, but there are certain things that I will not stand for. The first thing is poor choice of ribbon and the second is that the string that you hang your ornaments from should not be seen. When you put that string on the branch, you then twist it and wrap it around the branch a couple of times, and that ornament should be flush. It should never be hanging freely. Those little hooks? We don’t use those. Those are a big no-no. Everything is flush to the tree. That’s when you separate the professionals from the amateurs. And I see it happen a lot in my industry, where other professionals are not hand finishing their work, and that’s really important. I am very precise about the finished look. Every ribbon has to be fishtailed on the end. Every branch has to be fluffed the right way. Every ornament has to be flushed to the branch. We hide our cords, and we pay close attention. When you look at one of our designs, you know that’s a Leanne Michael tree.
Q: For many, decorating during the holidays can be a little overwhelming. Not everyone can afford to go all out. Is there a simple thing that anyone can incorporate when it comes to decorating?
LM: I think that everyone should have a wreath. Everyone has a door, so you might as well have a wreath on it. I think your wreath is your welcoming and so that sets the tone. Even if you don’t have a big door (say you live in a smaller apartment complex or condominium), you can have a smaller wreath or flag or even just some nice green tied with a really beautiful ribbon embellishment and a couple of pretty things hanging from it. That’s all you need for your door. That’s your welcome. And then when you come inside, choose one or two little areas. Typically, we put garland around the mantle, and it creates that defined area. You can define the same type of area on a mirror. Choose beautiful ribbon. That will make all the difference in the world. If you’re buying really cheap, inexpensive ribbon, it transcends, and that’s the message that you’re sending. If you’re going to splurge on any one thing, make it be your ribbon. All of your ornaments can be a collection. I prefer to use glass, but if you have a home of children or pets or something like that, then there are great reproduction ornaments out there now that look like glass but aren’t. But you can never get away from your ribbon aspect. If you look at my photographs and my portfolio, you’ll see that on every tree the ribbon embellishment is probably the most prominent and what is most important on that tree.
Q: My mom tends to get carried away when it comes to holiday décor. She loves to put just about everything out. Can there ever be too much Christmas décor?
LM: That’s an excellent question! I’ll tell you what, it comes down to really good editing. Let me put it to you this way. When you think about interior design in general, like when I’m putting together a room, not everything can be the star. You have to have a supporting staff. And it’s the same thing with Christmas. Your tree and your mantle should be your stars. When you have too much stuff around those areas, you’ve then taken away the individuality, so editing is really important. That’s not to say you can’t have every single item of Christmas imaginable in your environment, but do them in little vignettes. Create little stories. To me, there’s nothing worse than walking into a home that looks like you just threw up Christmas everywhere. Your eye doesn’t know where to rest. It’s actually more detrimental than good. Creating little vignettes throughout the house I feel is the way to go if you have an extensive collection of Christmas.
Q: Christmas is a busy season for you. In addition to working with your clients, is there anything you’re looking forward to this holiday season?
LM: For me, it is all about my clients. I do take a week of Christmas off to myself, but oftentimes I’ll have clients that will want me to come out and decorate their tabletops for them, which sings to my heart. I love to decorate a table! My relatives are in New Jersey, and they always try to get me to come home for Christmas and it’s like, you know what? I can’t. This is what I look forward to all year round. I get to live vicariously through my clients during the holiday, so for the simple fact that I get to design different Christmas stories all throughout the season, it is so exciting and so fun for me. It’s like celebrating 25 different Christmases. My staff has been with me for 15 and 16 years, and they look forward to it in the same way that I do. We are so lucky to be able to do what we do. We love to be here for our clients. Christmas day is of course a very sacred day within my family. We’re Catholic, so we take that day to celebrate and to be with our family and do what we can and since the majority of my family is on the East Coast, I tend to celebrate my Christmas here in California with my closest friends. But the day after Christmas, we’re right back in the thick of it because we have houses to take down. It never stops! Typically, from the 27th on, we’re back in those homes, and we’re taking everything down and packing it up and making it perfect for us to take back out the following year. Our Christmas season is really dedicated to our clientele.
Q: Do you have time to decorate your own house?
LM: If I’m entertaining, absolutely! I go all out. If it’s my turn to have everybody over at my house for Christmas without a doubt my home looks like Martha Stewart’s three times over. But typically it’s tiring for us, so I don’t always put up a tree every year. I always have a fabulous wreath that goes on my door, however, and all of my windows have just a very simple, fresh floral wreath or a fresh little pine wreath with a fabulous ribbon embellishment.
Q: After celebrating the holiday, when is the proper time to put the holiday décor away?
LM: Well, if you’re following the religious aspect that is the second week of January. But for contemporary or for somebody who is not following that aspect, it’s still the second week of January!
Q: If you had to choose between eggnog and fruitcake, what would you chose?
LM: Eggnog…with lots of liquor in it!
Q: Lastly, have you ever shopped on Christmas Eve for last minute gifts?
LM: Absolutely! That’s the only day I get to shop. Unless I’m shopping for my friends and family in the summer months for Christmas, which I often do, but Christmas Eve is fun for me. I get to go out and actually experience the holiday with everybody else…fight for a parking space like normal folks. I love it!
LEANNE MICHAEL | LUXE Lifestyle Design
858.761.6287 | www.leannemichael.com