Friday, December 17, 2010

Decorating for Christmas: Anything But "Retail Red"

At Darlington House we have a plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson that sits on a column in our drawing room.  It is a modern-day copy of the bust done from life in Paris in 1789 by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), and it is life-sized.

This year when decorating our house for Christmas, Boy tied a wide, dark brown grosgrain ribbon around the bust's neck.  As is seen in the above photograph, it really looks quite marvelous, particularly when contrasted with the white of the bust's plaster and the room's gray walls.

At Darlington House we eschew the use of the color red when decorating for Christmas, at least the bright and rather ugly red seen ubiquitously these days in every mass merchandiser here in the U.S.  I call it "Retail Red."  You will not see any decorations inside our house that are red, or even that have red details to them.  Instead of imposing red in our rooms when decorating for the holidays, we prefer to take our cues from the colors already in the room, and have our decorations be a seamless addition to the spaces.  Not only are such colors less expected than Retail Red, but they are more attractive, contextual, and pleasing to the eye.  They look right.

Even though it's rather late in the game and most of you have likely already finished decorating for Christmas, Reggie suggests that those of you who haven't dispense with the color red in your holiday decorations.  And for those of you who are already decorated to the nines, well, Reggie urges you to take a break from using red decorations next year when it comes time to decorate for Christmas.  Take your color inspiration instead from those already in the room's decor.  He believes that you will enjoy the creative energy it prompts, and that you will find living in a house decorated thusly—without any red decorations—a welcome relief from what is seen everywhere else during the holidays.

Now, imagine our bust of Thomas Jefferson with a bright red bow instead of the brown one shown.  It doesn't look as good, does it?


  1. I like the bow! So dashing! On a recent visit to the Library of Congress, we learned that he was so enamored of that bust that he ordered many and gave dozens away as gifts.
    And I have always felt the same about "retail red". This year I made the mistake of buying paper with red in it and it is clashing with the tree and the rest of our decor. It makes me long for Christmas morning for all the wrong reasons!

  2. Reggie dear, you must've crept into my brain over a week ago when I was shopping for holiday accoutrement. My tree used to be simple white and silver but I was bored to tears with it. As I sat in the store blinded by the retail red (not to mention other frighteningly loud colors), I was gravitating to a more muted palette of greens, browns and orange. I bit the bullet and am loving the new look.


  3. "Retail Red"!

    And more thanks to Boy for showing restraint against the further retail-obligatory chevron scissor clips on the ribbon ends. Ah, Hurrah for a straight edge! Brown, gray, white, ahhhh!

    We too are worn down by holiday visual mass, and love coming home to huge [huge!] wooden and silver bowls filled with clipped greens, magnolia with cedar. The only "ornaments" set in with the greens are clipped from neighborhood crape myrtles, dried brown seed pods left behind from former blossoms.

    Absolutely lovely what you and Boy have done, inside and out. Thank you for sharing these images; for kindred souls such as I, there's much nourishment to be had from your restraint.

  4. I agree with you on the retail red and I'm a great admirer of both Thomas Jefferson and the sculpter Houdon, so I'm glad that you didn't use a bright red bow. Those two talented men deserve better!

  5. I'm afraid you would find my entire house rather vulgar, because the prevailing color in both the library and the living room is a cardinal red. (I like primary colors.)

    In my defense, I avoid mass retail as much as possible. Especially at Christmastime. At least I can say that my vulgarity is entirely my own, and not borrowed!

    I like what you've done with Mr. Jefferson.

  6. Agreed, on all points. And Tom looks swell with his bowtie.

  7. I so agree, although I do like the red for wrapping gifts. I prefer to decorate with silvers and golds -things that reflect light. After all -it is also the winter solstice! That said, I do like the look of red lights on a tree, sort of a retro flavor I think. I know, *gasps* all around!

  8. I happen to love Retail Red--the perfect name, by the way--but not as Christmas decorations. Used everywhere, as in the Red Room, a David Hicks room or DV's Garden-in Hell, that kind of strong color can establish a new baseline, one that allows soft celadon greens or terra cotta pinks to shine, when, in a more subtle scheme, such quiet tones might disappear into the backgtound, but intruded into a handsome room with a pre-existing color scheme, a big honking dose of Retail Red can blow to bits all your careful planning, like a loudmouth jokester uncle doing his Buddy Hackett impression at your candle-lit soiree. Relative or not, you end up sorry you ever invited him.

    That dark brown ribbon, on the other hand, is perfect, especially with the subtle sheen of its ribbing against the plaster's smooth finish.

  9. Certainly your taste is impeccable, but, for me, the holidays require a touch of holly berry here and there. The right red (not necessarily "retail red")adds warmth and energy year round. Christmas decorations without a dash of red would be "seemless" indeed.

  10. Oh dear, Lucy Westie is running around the house these days in the "retail red" Christmas coat Lindaraxa just got for her. Don't let her hear you!!

  11. Narcissus, white lilies, mistletoe, holly, ivy, green (living) tree with small white lights and glass icicles, and candles, lots of candles, of course. All without a hint that there might be "Holiday" plug-ins lurking in outlets all over the house - the house where, the night before Christmas, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!

  12. Dear Mr. Darling,

    I love this post! Retail Red is never to be seen in our household. I perish the thought. The only exception I make to the "no red" rule is a sprig of Holly with its blood-red berries. This crowns our flaming Christmas Pudding on Christmas day.

    Mr. Jefferson looks exquisite in his Christmas attire. I can also envisage an evergreen wreath sitting just so upon his head.

  13. A necktie party for Red Tom!

    (Somewhere the ghost of Alexander Hamilton is smiling.)

  14. Isn't it the best to go untraditional at this time of the traditional calendar?
    For me, it is browns, oranges and perdoit greens.
    La Maison Fou blog

  15. Stephanie: What an interesting fact you have shared about TJ and his bust(s). Thank you. A bit of red in wrapping paper is to be forgiven, as it is transitory, indeed.

    MT: Reggie most assuredly approves of your color choices!

    Flo: The way you describe your house makes it sound to be absolute perfection. We are on the same wave-length.

    Belle: Thank you!

  16. Brown grosgrain in a classic configuration against a classic white form--perfect in its simplicity. Outdone only by the perfect line-up of commenters -- for Reggie to have spurred responses from luminaries Bart, Aesthete, Stefan and Magnaverde all in a row is quite an achievement. Am left a bit breathless -- gives new meaning to the notion of "Million Dollar Quartet." (Apologies to Roy Orbison et al.)

  17. I knew you would make everything right,Reggie. And, Mr. Jefferson, does look appropriately festive. Happy weekend!

  18. I would gladly take your challenge to eschew red in my holiday decorating Reggie, but unfortunately I have quite a bit of it in my home. I like to think of it as more of a chinoiserie red rather than a "retail red", although I may be happily deluded here. I suppose I am fan...That having been said, I love other, less traditional palettes at Christmas too. I think Boy's Thomas Jefferson bow is very dashing.


  19. I haven't done anything yet. I am not sure I have the emotional fortitude to relinquish the red and green and gold of my childhood. My deep apologies:).

  20. Staircase Witch and Magnaverde: Reggie's comments regarding red do not extend to the actual, or physical, decoration of one's rooms. He is, he admits, a fan of red rooms (when well done, of course), and has employed the use of red as one of the colors in decorating one of his own rooms at Darlington House.

    Architect, T&CM, Lindaraxa, and LizaE: Reggie agrees that there are certain instances when it is more than appropriate to employ the color red at Christmas-time, such as those you suggest. There is a place, in particular, for red berries, for instance. He is mostly referring to the ugly red, pre-made bows and such as depressingly found in mass-market retailers everywhere this time of year...

    Blue: Reggie is not surprised to read of your Christmas decorations. Not one bit! They sound lovely.

    Maison Fou: Reggie imagines your decorations are enchanting. The color scheme reminds him of southern magnolia and kumquat branches, both great favorites at Darlington House.

    HHR: Reggie believes that every "rule" has exceptions, as what must most assuredly be the case with your Chinoiserie decorations.

  21. Bart, Aesthete, and Nell: Thank you!

  22. Dearest LPC:
    Strike while the iron is hot! Eradicate the red (wait a minute--isn't that a line from the "Think Pink" number in "Funny Face"?) from this year's Christmas decorations chez LPC-land, I beg of you. Reggie isn't counseling his readers to throw off green and gold, just red. In fact, green and gold are the very colors that we have decorated our dining room at Darlington House this year! Do consider confining your colors to green and gold when you decorate (clock is ticking, m'dear), and it will provide you with a more tasteful and gentle Christmas, and will be a joy fo all to behold! Reggie

  23. Morning! What a handsome bow on such a distinguished beau! As for colors for the Season -- gold, plum (not just for pudding anymore! LOL!) and pewter reign supreme here! Plus this year -- I have dried fruits for gifts of potpourri along with herbs from the garden and pinecones from local sources. I wonder if plums can be dried too?? Wishing you all a most festive Yule! I'll be decking the Yule Log today in anticipation of a small party on the Winter Solstice!

  24. As a former teacher of color theory and mixing, I am of the opinion there is no ugly color, merely the poor use of that color. I agree that pre-made bows of Retail Red are foul but even more loathsome is the dark maroon used by those who think they are superior to Retail Red.

    Of course, TJ is in good taste, no matter the season.

    lovingly, Camilla

  25. LPC: "I am not sure I have the emotional fortitude to relinquish the red and green and gold of my childhood."

    RD: "Do consider confining your colors to green and gold when you decorate (clock is ticking, m'dear), and it will provide you with a more tasteful and gentle Christmas..."

    This is exciting! Two high WASP global brands coming to terms, nay dueling at dawn, over Christmas colors. I for one will stay tuned...wait, while we're talking about Christmas decorations, don't miss Mr. Minimus' latest in which he presents the world's first known wearable twill Advent calendar with enough flaps buttonholes pouches and buttons to delight any east-to-west coast Episcopalian child.

  26. I'm afraid I must give a dissenting opinion in defense of red here. I'm guessing from the evidence that my own taste is both more educated and more edited than most ( I mean this in no egotistical way, for taste is sometimes also no more than opinion), but I like a good dose of bracing vulgarity once in awhile, and at Christmas, this 'good taste' of subdued colors just doesn't apply---in fact to me, it just says 'trying tooooo hard'. I just walked up my street, and many of the handsome old white houses, sitting in the snow, sport wreathes with red ribbons. It could not possibly be more cheerful, and frankly, crisp and attractive. A couple of houses have extremely decorator-y affairs going on, and frankly, it just doesn't cut it. Trying too hard. I love originality, I love variety, and I love imagination, and I love good taste, as long as it isn't used as a self congratulatory pat on one's own back.---and sometimes, even a little vulgarity to shake it up. I'm just not ready for Santa in a brown velvet smoking jacket wearing Belgian loafers. Unless they have red piping.

    1. Hear hear. If there's a time for 'a good dose of bracing vulgarity' it's Christmas!

      (Personally I draw the line at tinsel, ready-made bows, artificial trees and any kind of Christmas-themed fabric ... but if it makes you happy, that's what Christmas is about, after all).

  27. Dear DED:
    Well, to each his own, I suppose . . .

    By the way, this particular Santa's velvet smoking isn't brown (although his grandfather's public school blazer is), nor do any of his Belgians have red piping on them. The only velvet smoking he has is a deep woodsy green (and he adores wearing it this time of year) and the slippers he has with red piping are velvet ones from Stubbs & Wootton, embroidered with red devils holding pitchforks. He can't bring himself to wear his S&Ws during Christmas, given their subject matter, but he looks forward to wearing them the next opportunity he has.


  28. I agree! I do however like red in certain tartans and think they are appropriate for the holidays (in small amounts)... such as tartan grosgrain ribbon used to hang a crystal herringbone cut ornament.

  29. " 'trying tooooo hard'."

    Oh you exasperating high-judging State of Mainers, you! Your phrase reminds me EXACTLY of my late beloved Mother [grandchild of the born and raised SOM-er for whom I am middle named] -- if she said that line once, she said it...well.


    To say someone is "trying too hard" omits the other half of the damning accusation; moreover, it implies a violation of a fixed standard.

    People who put cereal on the table via their labors in the design field had better not recognize any fixed standards. And they had better DIE "trying too hard."

    But I love ya anyway, DED.

  30. Reggie..... I went to Stubbs and Wootton today and they have a 'Jefferson' Classic Loafer and I thought of you.

  31. I could not agree more: using the colors in one's room as a basis for decorations is elegance itself. This year I made a garland of magnolia leaves for the mantel to 'go' with the brownish-orange tile on the surround, and for the first time it looks really lovely. I can't wait to do it again next year.

    Now as to red, I must confess that I have red candles in sconces in the bedroom since the curtains are a Chinese red. As you say: there are exceptions to every rule!

    Love Mr. Tom in the bow tie. Very handsome.

    Wishing you a splendid Holiday Season!


  32. Oh no, no, no, no, Flo. You misunderstand me completely---I love the ribbon on Jefferson. I love natural wreathes. I also love high artifice and glitter on the holidays. I also love things that are outside the box, as well as those within, but what I meant was that I just cannot join the condemnation of red bows and the like at Christmas. And I wasn't aiming the 'trying too hard' remark at our host at all---but rather at a couple of excessively 'good tsste' decorations (Yawwwn) on my own street. Good taste for good taste's sake is no taste at all.

  33. Gregory P: I am sure it is lovely, and the very essence of Christmas.

    Flo: Remind me not to cross swords with you, as I know who the victor would be, without a doubt!

    Ulla: Funny that you should have thought that, as Reggie has his eyes on a pair of the very Jefferson slippers you speak of, in burgandy velvet . . .

    Voice Talk: Yes, as I shall soon reveal, "rules" are meant to be broken, or at least they always have exceptions . . .

    DED: No offense was taken by yours truly, as he figured the charge was aimed elsewhere . . . sort of. He wishes you a Happy Red Bow Christmas!

  34. "Oh no, no, no, no, Flo. You misunderstand me completely"

    Oh I cringe and die. I am so sorry, I DID misunderstand. I was [needlessly] taking up the cause of Boy and me and others who make a living in the design field. We [boohoo] don't even get a moment to rest on laurels than it's time to outdo ourselves again, or else.

    Your description of walking down your road seeing the white houses in the snow with red bows and wreathes got to me in a good way, though. I took that image to bed with me and felt envious of the simplicity and sincerity in those outward expressions of Christmas.

    I wonder if anything holiday colorful has been set about at the South Solon Meeting House, one wonders...

  35. Do I hear a revolt in the palace?

    This is about to surpass the post on the maid's uniforms...what fun!

    I have yanked off all the red in my living room and now feel sooo liberated!

    Thank you dearest for a retail red free Xmas! What's next? Don't tell me the red nose reindeer and the inflatable Santa in the front yard have to come down too...

  36. Reggie,
    I loved this post, your opinions and usual impeccable taste. Just having shopped at Macy's on Friday, this made me laugh as "Retail Red" is most definately their theme this year...and all years.

    Gold and white is always present at our house for the holidays. However, this year after a long absence, red made an appearance in our living room this year. I always call it December red. The offense totals 4 glass finials on the mantle with fresh greens and the tiniest red balls on the main tree. Gold, peackcock blue and brown complete the tree!

    If you were to visit us I would contain you in the foyer and dining room, where neither December red or "Retail Red" are in view from any direction. Oh, and I promise to serve a meal so divine, I think forgivness could be possible!

  37. Reggie --

    I am very sorry to have to report that due to a small mix-up regarding local bribery laws in Yunan Province, the present that DED, Blue, Columnist and I had long planned for you will not be available until next year.

    But I promise, it's worth waiting for. With Columnist's help, a twenty-foot bronze Buddha was procured and has been adapted to the very image of St Nick. Thanks to remote sensor-technology inadvertently discovered by Dilettante, anyone who approaches within twenty feet of your new mechanical Santa will cause the bronze doors of his stomach cavity to fold open, revealing two dozen mechanical elves in a revolving conga line (suggested by Blue on the model of a medieval clock tower destroyed in the bombing of Dresden). Best of all, the elves will be singing "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" (kindly dubbed by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in exchange for a small donation to Romney 2012 made by, well, never mind that part).

    We were hoping to surprise you on Christmas morning -- assuming the base of the device could be safely sunk in concrete overnight in the front yard of Darlington without disturbing you, Boy or the great Pompey himself.

    But now you're just left with our good intentions, which I hope will suffice.

    Merry Christmas!

  38. Dearest Ancient:
    Reggie is almost at a loss for words, he is so overcome by the generosity and creativity of such a gift as you describe. And that it reflects the creative genius of such an august cast as you have assembled leaves him, well, speechless.

    Now that I have recovered from my temporary aphasia, I wish to thank each of you from the bottom of my heart, and to let you know that in return I have made arrangements for a nice long, all-expenses paid stay for each of you the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts commencing on Monday, January 3d. I have asked, I mean instructed, the kind hospitality staff, I mean doctors, to let you stay, I mean keep you, indefinitely, or as long as is required to restore your mental state to one where independent, unsupervised living is once again feasible. I am sure you will have a lovely time there as I understand the food is quite good, and at least one hour is allotted each day to arts and crafts projects.

    In the meantime, I would be most grateful if you would please be so kind as to send me the dimensions of the base of said Bhudda-Claus, so I can arrange with my contractor to have a properly laid stone foundation in place well ahead of its much anticipated arrival. I am sure it will be the talk of the county when it is installed at Darlington!

    Please accept my many thanks and felicitous wishes for you and yours this Christmas. I am your most humble servant,
    Reginald Ambrose Darling

  39. Retail Red! Brilliant. I will now easily remember to avoid it.

  40. Oh no I *like* red for Christmas! Red, green, gold, silver ... and a whole rambunctious mix of colours from homemade and hand-me-down decorations, ranging from old stained-glass angels to their newer pasta cousins, courtesy of one's own small relatives. The worst thing of all, if you ask me, is a theme.

    (But then being British, perhaps hotchpotch is our theme …).


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