STYLE

Ask a Designer: stylish decorating with trees and branches this holiday season

12/03/2014 10:22 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST
For generations, the choice was simple:

1. Strap a live Christmas tree to the roof of your car, wrestle it into a tree stand at home and hope it wouldn't fall over. Or,

2. Put up an artificial tree that was unmistakably fake.

Fortunately, the options have expanded dramatically, from realistic fake trees pre-lit with softly glowing LED lights to environmentally friendly, abstract "trees" made from reclaimed shipping pallets. Options for a real, live tree include "white glove" service that includes delivery and professional set-up.

Here, three interior designers help sort out some options and share advice on stylishly decorating with holiday trees and branches, even in households where Christmas isn't celebrated.

EXQUISITELY ARTIFICIAL

Designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder of Flynnside Out Productions, loves the look and scent of real trees. But he is "hands down, 100 per cent on Team Artificial," thanks to the convenience and range of today's fake trees.

White trees are "excellent for more elegant, sophisticated spaces," Flynn says. He layers on ornaments in shades of white and metallics "for a less-is-more, tone-on-tone look."

Designer Lee Kleinhelter, founder of the Pieces home decor store in Atlanta, agrees. She uses a high-quality, fake white tree in her home because "it feels a little modern, and is a clean slate where I can use interesting objects to accessorize."

If you can't quite imagine your handmade or hand-me-down ornaments on a sleek, white tree, consider getting a real tree for keepsake ornaments and putting a white tree in another location, perhaps near the front door, decked out in monochromatic ornaments. Sarah Fishburne, director of trend and design for The Home Depot, says many Americans now use one fake tree and one real one.

If white isn't your style, Flynn recommends realistic fake green trees with a "woodsy, rustic" look, or fake green trees coated with fake white snow, which are called "flocked" trees.

"Flocked trees add amazing texture and can really tone down the overall greenness of an artificial tree, making it a little softer," he says.

He has created flat, abstract trees out of plywood, covering them with festive fabric secured with brass nail heads. And he has two "trees" made from reclaimed shipping pallets. "To make them," he says, "the pallets were dismantled, painted dark green, then assembled with screws. It's a more sculptural approach, and it doesn't require any decorating whatsoever."

REALLY EASY

Beginning this year, Home Depot is making it simpler to bring home a full-size real tree with "white glove" delivery service, says Fishburne. Choose a tree online and the company will bring it to your home and set it up in the stand for you.

Another way to make real trees more manageable is to buy several small, potted trees in varying sizes, rather than one large one.

"Groupings of trees really make an impact in any space," Flynn says, "and if you're going the untraditional route, or don't have lots of windows to dress up or have an actual fireplace mantel, I think a grouping of trees in one spot creates enough of a focal point and it can stand on its own."

SIMPLE AND SAFE

Pre-lit LED trees save you the time and effort of stringing lights. Some models also resolve any arguments over whether to use white lights or colored ones, says Fishburne; you can buy LED-lit trees that let you switch between them.

LED lights also don't burn as hot as traditional bulbs, so they may be a safer option, especially for rooms where children play and might try to touch the tree. "When I was little," Fishburne says, "we knocked over a lot of trees."

BEST LOCATIONS

Once you've chosen your tree, where should you put it?

"The size and scale of your house can dictate a tall skinny tree by a staircase, or a more round, robust tree in a sunroom visible to the street," Kleinhelter says.

Rather than tucking your tree in a corner, she suggests finding a spot "where you can enjoy the tree on all sides."

If you have a large "showstopper of a front window" that faces the street, Fishburne suggests placing the tree there. "There's something really lovely about coming home to that big tree in the window," she says. It's easy to put tree lights on a timer so they glow on schedule each evening.

Flynn agrees that "if you really want your tree to make an impact inside and outside, sticking with a room toward the front of the home is the way to go." But for maximum enjoyment, he says, "it's also wise to make sure it's just as much of a focal point from adjacent rooms as it is inside the space and from outside of the house."

NON-CHRISTMAS TREES

All three designers mentioned that it can be beautiful to use undecorated trees or branches to celebrate the season, whether or not you celebrate Christmas.

"Woodsy trees just really evoke a feeling of coziness and wintry weather, so trees don't necessarily have to be associated with an actual holiday or religion," Flynn says. "It's more about the warmth of gathering with friends and family during the colder months."

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