Designers share festive home decor tips on how to create the perfect holiday atmosphere

South African Janet Manning has been living in Dubai for 20 years, but each year makes an annual trek to the United States to stock up on Christmas items

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , DEC 05  – 2017:- Decoration items for Christmas celebration on display for sale at the villa of Janet Manning , interior decorator in Umm Suquiem 3 in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) Story by Hala Khalaf

I know I'm at the right place as soon as I spot a villa gate decorated with a lush green garland and glittery red bows, and Santa Claus and reindeer figurines. And just beyond the gate, the threshold of Janet Manning's home, in an unassuming street in Umm Suqueim 3, is copious with glitzy decor. 

An Arabian Nights theme is clearly in place, but with a purple tree, shiny gold ornaments, scores of beads tumbling out of a wooden chest and painted camels sporting Santa hats. Stepping through the front door, I have to pause for a minute and get my bearings: the smell of cinnamon and vanilla is strong and welcoming, and the Christmas tree that greets me upon entering is breathtaking. I’ve arrived at Dubai’s version of a veritable Christmas wonderland.

A freelance interior designer who specialises in holiday decorating, Manning does decor for Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and the like, but nothing is on the same scale as her Christmas designs. The South African has been living in Dubai for 20 years, but each year makes an annual trek to the United States to stock up on items from Dallas. “I fell in love with the way they celebrate and decorate for all the holidays there,” she says.

Ever since, Manning has been hosting annual Christmas showcases at her home, filling it with beautifully decorated trees, and scores of wreaths, centrepieces and garlands, all of which she makes throughout the year. Clients stop by to stock up on Christmas decor or buy fully decorated trees that Manning will come by and install for them, as well as providing advice on how to inject the festive feel of Christmas into home decor, covering everything from table settings to tree placement.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , DEC 05  – 2017:- Janet Manning , interior decorator with the decoration items for Christmas celebration which are on display for sale at her villa in Umm Suquiem 3 in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) Story by Hala Khalaf

Her wreaths range from Dh300 to Dh500; a 12-foot tree with hundreds of lights and ornaments can cost up to Dh12,000; and everything from wreath hangers to smaller centrepieces can be found in her winter wonderland. Here are some ways in which you can achieve that festive feel in your own home.

Think outside the box

Decorating for Christmas is all about creativity, and Manning has that in spades. She hunts the stores of Al Satwa and Al Karama all year long for interesting items that she can turn into ornaments or decor. Golden camels become napkin rings; clear Arabic coffee cups, made of glass and painted in intricate Arabesque designs, can be jazzed up and turned into holders for tea lights or hung as ornaments on trees.

Add some string or ribbon to souvenirs to create a UAE-themed Christmas tree. “Look and see what you have,” says Manning. “Create arrangements in unusual platters or containers, place a cuddly reindeer in a centrepiece, and fill a vase with sparkly ornaments.”

Don’t skimp on lighting

"It's really important to have the right lighting on your tree; a lot of people don't put on as many lights as they should and then wonder why their tree doesn't look good or look full," says Rima Dardenne, owner of Irony Home. She is also a Christmas designer, with years of experience decorating the larger-than-life trees found in hotel lobbies all over the world. Dardenne is the one responsible for the Burj Al Arab tree each year, and this week put the finishing touches on a 28-foot tree in the Five Palm Jumeirah Dubai hotel, as well as a tree in Al Qasr.

Both Dardenne and Manning agree on a tried-and-tested formula for tree lighting: you need 100 lights for every foot of the tree. “That means, for a
seven-foot tree, you need at least 700 lights,” says Dardenne. Aim for warm lights with a yellowish tint for the indoors, and keep the white lights for your outdoor decor, she says. “It makes the tree cozier that way.”

Bigger is better

“People think that if they have a small tree, they have to stick to small ornaments,” says Dardenne. Absolutely not; always aim for a mix of large and small. “You need at least 20 ornaments per tree foot,” she says. Manning adds: “Layer the larger ornaments inside your tree as well, it fills it up.”

Medy Navani, founder of Dubai-based architecture and interior design practice Design Haus Medy, advises to go for the biggest tree that your living room can accommodate. “It’s the main feature,” he points out. “I always find my best trees in small shops in Satwa.”

More is more

Although the trend in interior decor tends to sway towards a more minimal aesthetic these days, this does not apply to Christmas, insists Manning. Navani completely agrees. He says that when it comes to Christmas trees, he usually “over lights and over decorates them, and it’s magical and beautiful”.

However, leave enough space for the presents under the tree, advises Navani. “If you do Christmas, do it right. The more the better, get the right smell, the right sound, focus on the aesthetic throughout the entire house and not just in the living room. Give the entire home a feeling of Christmas.”

Repurpose your decorations

A wreath can be hung on a front door one year, then on a mirror inside the next year, then as a centrepiece on a coffee table or dining table with a candle in the middle a third year. Swags, which are corner hangings that come in different sizes, can be hung on doors, or on the corners of paintings or frames, or on an empty wall.

You don’t have to repeat the exact same thing every year, advises Manning. Place your garland on a banister, then over an archway, then draped over a console. Get creative, she says.

Decorate for all the senses

Navani says when decorating, you have to aim for the right combination. "I love Christmas and I always take the time to decorate the home extra-special," he says. "It needs to smell right when you step in, the warm smell of cookies and vanilla, ginger and cinnamon. We also need to have some background Christmas music, it's a must. There need to be little flickering lights on the Christmas tree and all the other lights off. Create warmth through the house with a combination of cushions." He is also a fan of texture and says that a sprinkling of fur throws and cushions are perfect touches for creating that Christmas warmth.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , DEC 05  – 2017:- Camels for Christmas decoration on display for sale at the villa of Janet Manning , interior decorator in Umm Suquiem 3 in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) Story by Hala Khalaf

Theme or no theme?

For Navani, one colour scheme throughout the house presents a classic look. "Opt for one metallic colour, like silver or gold, and combine it with one other colour: maybe champagne, red, black or a dark royal blue." For Dardenne, themes are not easy to adhere to, especially when there are children bringing home ornaments they made in school. "For the home, I believe anything goes," she says. However, if you are a fan of following trends, both Dardenne and Manning agree that velvet and winter white are big when it comes to Christmas this year.

Turn off your overhead lights

Candles are a must, insists Navani. The lower the lighting source gets, the cozier the room, so switch off your lights at this time of year and light up scented candles. "Orange and cinnamon is one of my favourites," says Navani. 

“I stock up at Bath and Body Works for scented Christmas candles,” adds Manning. “I want people to walk in and tell me my home smells like Christmas.”

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