It wasn’t a good match for his mother’s restrained and stately holiday display. But young Jeff loved the tinsel tannenbaum so much, he surrendered his allowance to buy it—and decorated the tree in the basement.
“I still have it and I would bring it out again in a minute if I had just the right place to display it,” he says.
West has been developing his innate talent for melding beauty and whimsy for decades, starting with the May Co., where he created visual vignettes that delighted department store shoppers. Most recently, he is the owner of Jeff West Home in Rehoboth Beach, where patrons will find elegant and relaxed furniture and accessories, as well as highly personalized design services.
At the vacation cottage in Lewes that he shares with his partner, Henry Cox, West approaches decorating for the holidays with the same traditionally hip approach he takes to everyday design.
He starts with the palette that already defines the social spaces of the cottage interior, the soft and fresh blues, greens and cream of sea glass, dune grass and sand, accented with muted gold and silver.
“For me, it’s color, always color,” he says. “Christmas doesn’t have to be all bright reds and greens.”
The tree—this year, it’s a small fresh fir—is decked out in cascading streamers of pale green silk. Large ornaments are fanciful and one of a kind, including a hand-painted wooden bunny and other animals West designed for the Kellogg Collection, an upscale home and interior design retailer in metro Washington, D.C. Miniature mermaids bob on branches beside dried starfish embellished with rhinestones and seed pearls.
(Hint: When taking down the tree, put the ornaments from the inside of the tree at the top of the box. “Pack in reverse,” West advises.)
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The packages under the tree are decorations, too, in a profusion of patterns ranging from crisp houndstooth plaid to romantic toile done up in pinks and greens and wrapped with wide ribbons, laurel leaves and silk amaryllis.
Vintage metallic balls are interspersed throughout the cottage, woven into garlands of dried hydrangeas, tucked into baskets and nestled in greenery. West has been adding to his collection for years, picking up mismatched sets and, occasionally, entire boxes of balls at flea markets and antique shops.
“You never know where or when you will find something wonderful,” he says. “And when you do, you should just buy it because you will regret it if you don’t.”
More than 10 years ago, when West and Cox bought the cottage, the first floor felt dark and cramped. To visually expand the space and increase the flow of natural light, a first-floor bedroom was converted to a cozy den that is open to a front parlor.
A chimney enabled West to add a fireplace, which is defined by a Georgian-style mantel with reeded and dentil detailing that he had stored for years in the hope it would someday find a home. He added more architectural details, juxtaposing tongue-in-groove ceilings reminiscent of a summer porch with regal crown moldings. Built-in cupboards provide display space for collections of import porcelain and blue-and-white china above and storage for dishes and serving pieces below.
West also used visual tricks of the trade to make the room feel larger. The coffee table, made from an antique Regency bench, is wide enough to accommodate drinks but doesn’t eat up floor space. Striped silk curtains in blue, beige and cream are hung floor to ceiling, subliminally adding height to the space. “I decided to turn the stripes sideways, just to give it a twist,” he says.
A club chair is slightly underscaled and upholstered in a subtly striated silk and linen blend. The tailored skirt is trimmed with pickled wood pendants that quietly raise the sophistication quotient. A clean-lined, cream-colored sofa is accented with sumptuous pillows embellished with fringe.
West devoted considerable hours and energy to finding or designing the right pieces for the cottage. In the long haul, it saved him time and expense, “I’ve learned to buy good things the first time,” he says. “Don’t buy things to fill in for the time being because they will only end up in a yard sale in three years.”
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That also applies to collections. For years, West has been gathering silver baby cups, as well as porringers, shallow bowls with pierced handles that were originally designed to serve gruel or pottage.
(Hint: Silver requires polishing but if you keep your collection small and don’t mind the maintenance, it will add luster to a room. “Tending to pretty things is part of the deal, but it doesn’t take long,” West says.)
In the dining room, four chairs with open-framed backs and seats upholstered in cream and blue zebra-stripe fabric surround a circular table.
For intimate holiday dinners, West sets a small bouquet of ivory-colored rosebuds in a silver vase at each place setting. He arranges his collection of snowy Staffordshire dog figurines on the dining table, playfully interspersing among the Waterford crystal and the linen napkins. There’s a small gift, fancifully wrapped like a jewel box, for each guest.
Outside, behind the cottage, formal gardens laid out like open-air rooms expand the entertaining space during warmer months. “The day we bought the house, Jeff went up on the second floor, looked out and saw this vision for the gardens,” Cox recalls. “It’s perfect for the property.”
In front, the cottage is framed with manicured boxwood hedges, a ready source of yule greenery. Miniature boxwoods, rugged enough to withstand winter, are planted in the window boxes. Boxwood adds color, texture and a bit of sheen to wreaths and other arrangements, with the added plus of being hardy and long lasting. “Even when it dries, it looks pretty good—and there are no needles,” West says.
He mixes boxwood with fir, pine and other greens for a festive blend of shapes and scents. Citrus fruits—lemons, oranges and clementines—provide an instant jolt of color. West combines dried oranges with hydrangeas and pine to fashion garlands he drapes over the mantel.
Instead of a wreath, West decorates the door with a basket filled with more hydrangeas and pine cones. “It looks very rustic and natural,” he says. “And decorating the door is a great way to tell guests that you are happy to see them.”
• Red and green aren’t the only Christmas colors. There is a bounty of hues to explore at holiday time. Consider glimmering gold and shimmering silver, various shades of blue and, of course, snowy white. Or reinterpret red and green as pink and celadon.
• Approach greenery like it’s a tossed salad. The mix is more interesting if you blend several kinds of greens. Options include fir, Scotch pine, boxwood and magnolia leaves.
• Don’t stand on tradition. Instead of a traditional tree stand, experiment with various platforms and containers. Jeff West anchored his tree in a big, blue-and-white jardiniere. A vintage quilt is a creative alternative to a tree skirt.
• Inspire yourself. Look for decorating ideas in magazines. Don’t forget the charming vignettes designed by the pros for shop windows and displays.