Home is Where the Hearth Is

Gather ’round six professionally decorated holiday hearths

BY Marimar McNaughton

Photography by Allison Potter. Styled by Dana Cook, Wendi Fayad & Judy Watford
Photography by Allison Potter. Styled by Dana Cook, Wendi Fayad & Judy Watford

It has often been said and stated and even written into stone: the kitchen is the heart of the home. And yet with a sprinkle of inspiration, a pinch of imagination and a nose for nostalgia, it’s possible to take a short journey back in time and see that it is the hearth — once the focal point of the kitchen — that truly represents a home’s heart.

So gather ’round these holiday hearths and we’ll tell you the stories of how they came to be the hearts of these homes.

Oh, Holy Nights

“Raleigh Series,” an abstract painting by artist Joseph M. DiGiulio, is the inspiration for this mantelpiece design (photo above). The primal, bold canvas gathers homeowners Dr. and Mrs. Walter Gajewski and their family and friends ’round the hearth at all times of the year, but especially during their celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas.

“With the painting as a backdrop, we were able to incorporate blue delphinium and monstera leaves, paired with longleaf pine boughs and red ilex berries,” says Dana Cook of Julia’s Florist. Shiny black pots marry the hearth’s black granite floor, bringing the color up to mantel height. Filled with red roses spiked with pine needles, the aromatic blend stirs the sense of smell. The arrangements enliven the all-white mantelpiece, detailed with dentil molding and painted brick surround, and echo the sharp contrasts found in DiGiulio’s painting.

The Design Challenge: Julia’s Florist design manager Wendi Fayad met with Mrs. Gajewski and discussed the colors and textures that would be incorporated into the design. The result? Fayad felt “less was more” and mirrored the homeowners’ personal design aesthetic.

Fayad carried her impressions back to Cook and together they rose to the occasion.

“It was fun to work with the tall space on either side of the mantel,” Cook says.

Because the Gajewskis celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, the traditional Hanukkah palette of silver, blue and white is reflected in the choice of tall, linear silver vases and silver and white ornaments. The homeowner added her collection of holiday trees on the built-in bookshelves.

“The homeowner was agreeable to any design ideas, which made the project more exciting,” Cook says. “The colors created by the wood-burning fireplace matched perfectly with the overall look.”

Angels We Have Heard

Mark Roberts angel inspired Judy Watford to design the mantle in the home she shares with her husband, Glen Watford.

Allison Potter

“I have been looking for a beautiful angel for a long time and this serene face spoke to me,” she says.

The Watfords, who celebrate Christmas with their five children and three grandchildren, recently remodeled their Wilmington home, adding a large dining table and family gathering spaces with two living areas adjoining an expanded kitchen.

“The mantel is the focal point for our formal living space,” Watford says.

Made from wormy ambrosia maple, it crowns a corrugated Calcutta marble hearthstone.

“I love the juxtaposition of rustic woods paired with crystals and glass,” Watford says. “The elegance of the sconces stands out more with the simple lines of the mantel.”

Earning her degree at the age of 50, Watford has been the designer and procurement specialist at home goods store Paysage at Lumina Station since 2013.

The Design Challenge: When creating mantels or staircase designs, one of the hardest problems is coaxing the greenery and ornaments to behave in place and without harming the surfaces, Watford says. Her decorative style blends live and faux materials.

“I feel that if you play with the two, there are unlimited possibilities and it brings different textures to the mix,” she adds. “I have a very large collection of greenery and Christmas sprays. Every year I find something interesting and new that I want to start with, and I always incorporate what I already have from my collection.”

To bring focus to the angel, she selected light green eucalyptus, dark cedar, Douglas fir and gold accent sprays. She grounded the assembly with boxwood topiaries.

“Design has many facets especially working with Christmas décor,” she says. “It is a puzzle that I love to solve. The end result is beauty!”

Here Comes Santa Claus

Over the river and through the woods, evergreen trees thrive in the maritime forest indigenous to the Cape Fear region. While it’s possible to forage for native juniper and cedar boughs, the Douglas fir used to decorate this mantel likely traveled, like Santa, from more northern climates to shimmy down the chimney.

Allison Potter

The live evergreens, when layered with baby eucalyptus, silver dollar eucalyptus and gold tinted grevillea, provide the perfect ingredients for this design inspired by the warmth of Ron and Kathleen Abrams’ home.

“From the moment you step across the threshold, Christmas is everywhere,” says Dana Cook of Julia’s Florist.

The Design Challenge: Kathleen Abrams, an interior designer for McKenzie Baker Interiors, decorates her holiday home with traditional reds and greens, nativity scenes and nutcrackers. “She gave us free will to decorate her mantel for her Christmas celebration. We wanted to simplify the arrangements with natural materials,” Cook says.

With design manager Wendi Fayad, she chose high petal count Mondial roses in a soft ivory color. Inspired by the maritime print, the design team added a string of white starfish linked with strands of copper wire and showcased the installation with white twinkle lights.

“We also incorporated her personal collection of gold and silver Christmas trees into the array,” Cook says. “Our final touch was the wide gold ribbon woven for light reflection and a dramatic impact.”

The base of the hearth is grounded with a vase of magnolia stems and a throw pillow, fire tools, and a ginger jar from Abrams’ collection. The fireplace is a central gathering area in the family room where the furnishings are arranged in a U-shape and the stockings are hung by the chimney with care.

All Is Bright

Inspired by the Lowcountry coastal style of Don and Sandy Spiers’ home, Julia’s Florist design manager Wendi Fayad was influenced by the blending of natural elements, family pieces, books, beautiful art, and a palette of mixed metals sprinkled throughout the interior.

Allison Potter

“The gold leaf frame on the mantel painting invited us to incorporate a mixture of metals in the design,” says Dana Cook of Julia’s Florist.

The Design Challenge: “Sandy wanted to use her garland, so we were able to add both real and faux elements into the design. We created four separate vignettes,” Cook says.

A copper toned vase was filled with sprayed and natural lotus pods, gold and silver birch twigs, tinted and natural thistle, tinted and natural grevillea, juniper, cedar branches and magnolia leaves.

At the opposite end, “We used a freshwater vase with magnolia stems and natural grevillea and tinted birch twigs,” Cook says. “We also incorporated a silver vase with a handmade moss holiday tree wrapped in copper-wire twinkle lights. The wooden candle pillars also belong to Sandy. When designing the mantel, we felt it was important to keep the strong pillar lines to frame the slightly asymmetric design.”

At the hearth level, the design team plucked the homeowners’ sturdy black carriage lantern from another part of the home and paired it with candles, handmade moss pomanders, and an arrangement of magnolia leaves. Combining the dried natural pods, twigs and grasses with tinted elements, the reuse of the same foliage strengthens the overall design as much as the reiterative use of metals found in copper and silver elements on the mantel.

For the homeowner’s antique ornaments, the designers altered the length of the ribbons for added interest.

“The white pinecone lights belong to the homeowners too. We wanted more sparkle, so we added the copper-wire twinkle lights,” Cook says.

The hearth is the centerpiece of a casual family room palette blending light textiles with silver and gold accent pieces. The painting “I Need A Sweet Tea” by Ann Hair reflects the artist’s fascination with the brilliant light she finds in her coastal Carolina surroundings.

All Is Calm

From the family room, open to the kitchen, the Spiers set a second stage around their outdoor fireplace.

Allison Potter

A potted poinsettia was appointed with glass balls, driftwood trees, a lantern, and a star to create this timeless vignette featuring traditional greens and a flourish of red roses.

The Design Challenge: Creating a weather-resistant focal point led to the choice of a hand-formed evergreen wreath simply decorated with red tinted curly willow, red pheasant feathers, and red ribbon.

“Fresh wreaths such as this will last for several weeks outside in the cool weather,” says Dana Cook of Julia’s Florist. “Red roses do very well outdoors during the cooler months, too.”

Frosted red vases were selected because they are easily carried into the homeowner’s greenhouse if the temperatures dip below freezing. Traditional winter evergreen arrangements anchor the red brick patio hearth with a blend of Douglas fir, cedar, juniper, myrtle, magnolia and pine.

When the kindling is lit, the Spiers family cozies ’round this heartwarming extension of their Lowcountry home.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Allison Potter

Marty and Cathy Shelton’s courtyard provides the backdrop for this transformation by Dana Cook and Wendi Fayad of Julia’s Florist. The duo elected a do-it-yourself kit approach around the distressed white stone fireplace that is the inspiration for their design.

“We wanted to create something pretty in keeping with the same feel as the stone fireplace,” Cook says.

The design team potted white phalaenopsis orchid plants with curly willow sticks tinted gray and echoed with the selection of tin and concrete containers. The large concrete container also holds white dendrobium orchids.

“To enhance the DIY simplicity, we draped fresh juniper with berries and long cedar branches around the potted orchids,” Cook says. “Try this yourself. This simple yet elegant approach is easy to assemble.”

Do it yourself

Deck the Halls

Set aside some time to plan, and express yourself by accessorizing the fireplace from top to bottom. Approach the creation of your vignette as if you are designing a picture wall — that special backdrop where friends and family pose for snapshots.

Judy Watford of Paysage advises that your first idea for a design project most likely will not become the end result. Be open to change throughout the process, and consider using these insider do-it-yourself designer tips from Watford, Dana Cook and Wendi Fayad.

1. Fill a short glass vase with wettable design foam and water. Arrange nine short-stemmed roses in three rows, then line the edge of the vase with plucked pine needles. After all the needles are in place, give them an even haircut. 

2. Gather longleaf pine boughs to make your own garland. Trim the bough into individual sections to create little “brooms.” Unspool a length of heavy floral wire. Using a finer wire, tie each little piece to the continuous wire. The tree sap makes for sticky fingers, but this project will produce beautiful results. Want to get rid of the pitch on your hands? Cover your sappy hands with baby oil and wipe dry with paper towels.

3. The rustic wooden box was filled with wettable floral foam into which 27 red roses and live cedar greens were inserted. The arrangement, accented with red curly willow added for additional height and interest, survived outdoors, with watering, for more than four weeks. 

4. Try spicing up a favorite faux garland or wreath by spray painting or flocking dried twig branches, magnolia leaves, pine cones or pods with gold, silver, copper, platinum or white. 

5. Three separate dishes filled with wettable foam were used to create this mantelpiece. The roses and greens were inserted to create a natural, simple, casual look. The lights, starfish and ribbon were placed after the pieces were installed. 

6. A mirror should be positioned to reflect light and something in the room that gives beauty back.

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