How to decorate a Christmas Tree: An Interview with Sam Hull

How to decorate a Christmas Tree: An Interview with Sam Hull

Christmas Tree Decoration and Design

It’s Thanksgiving week, and what better topic for the holidays than Christmas Tree decorating and design? Traditionally, it’s the day after Thanksgiving that most people put up their tree. Technically, the tree is put up on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, or the beginning of Advent. In 2022, that would be Sunday, November 27th, but a few “cheat” days are well deserved for those who eschewed holiday gatherings over the past couple of years.

We grabbed a little time with Sam to talk about tree decoration. As a seven-time Holiday Décor Award Winner and the former Creative Director for the Providence Festival of Trees, Sam knows how to adjust design elements based on the tree that is to be designed.

Question: So, we are talking tree design today, and I want to start by asking about some of the designs we see on Instagram or in holiday magazines. It seems like there are a couple of styles of trees that are common.

Sam: Yes, that’s right. You often see trees that are very tightly contained.

Full Christmas Tree

The tree shape is a vertical cone, and when natural, those trees are shaped during their growth cycle to become very full. The tree looks tightly packed with branches and needles so much so that you can’t see the internal trunk of the tree. Often these trees are frosted, and then ornaments, bows, lights and decor sit on the outside of the tree with few or no ornaments on internal branches.

The other type of tree, and the type of design we often work from, you’ll often see it called a “New England” style tree.

New England Style Christmas Tree

The branches are more open, and you can see the trunk of the tree from the outside. This type of tree gives you more depth and an opportunity to hang ornaments at various distances from the outside of the tree. It provides a sense of authenticity and looks more like the trees you’ll see in classic Christmas photos and film.

Question: That’s a great distinction. Do you have a favorite kind of tree?

Sam: When you design for an event like the Providence Festival of Trees you adapt to what you have. All of those trees are grown and harvested, and you create the design in collaboration with the tree. One time I had a tree with only seven branches. I had to throw out everything I had in my head and say, “Ok, what am I going to do with this tree?”

Polar Christmas

Question: When faced with the tree you are about to design, where do you start?

Sam: The first thing I think about is light. Where am I going to put the light? You see a lot of trees where people have strung lights from branch to branch. To really get a lot of light coming from your tree starting with that approach adds a lot of visible wire and makes the tree very busy and fast-paced.

I like to start at the top and wrap lights around the trunk, then, as I encounter branches I wrap closely around the branch to the tip - a couple times around on the way to the tip of the branch and a couple of times on the way back. then I go around the trunk to the next branch.

Wrap lights tightly around the branch of your Christmas Tree

I work my way down the tree, adding strands of lights as I go. At the base, I plug it in so I can see what I’ve got. I always use two sizes of bulbs if all the lights are one color or I may mix a color set of lights around the tree trunk and use white on the branches themselves if I have a themed tree planned.

Question: What about those thicker, more full trees you mentioned?

Sam: With those, the lights would be completely obscured if we wrap the trunk, so to get backlight, you can work a set of lights into the tree so they are a couple of inches inside the outer needles. That can provide backlight, and you can arrange it so some of the lights are at the same depth as the outside needles so the whole three is bathed in light.

Question: What do you do after lighting the tree?

Sam: I’m always thinking about the light - how is it reflected, bounced, or transformed? So, next, especially on a New England-style tree, I think about what I can place closest to the trunk that can reflect light outward. Shiny ornaments are great for that. We offer the rhinestone snowflake collection made up of Glint, Gleam, Glimmer and Glow ornaments. These are metal and rhinestone, and they are all about reflecting and modifying light.

Use reflective ornaments toward the center of the tree

If this type of ornament is hung on the outside of a tree and it’s backlit, you might be more likely to see a silhouette of the ornament, but when placed between the mid branch and trunk, these ornaments catch the light and enhance it, reflecting outward toward the viewer and other ornaments as well.

Question: What other types of ornaments work well in this area?

Sam: I like tinsel, glass, metal and anything reflective. Things like the Daphnis, Lapetus, and Narvi can also work because they all have reflective qualities as well as translucent or semi-translucent qualities, but I don’t overfill the middle of the tree.

I also want to hang supporting ornaments, smaller ornaments or those that work in relation to the main featured ornaments that I’m going to put on the tree. These go in the next layer of ornaments from the central ornaments.

When you are adding smaller ornaments or those made with wool, paper, and similar light-absorbing materials, you want these items to be bathed in light from all sides. That’s why they work well in the mid-layer of the tree.

Hand Crafted Paper Ornaments

I like to use the Woodland Bell, Snowball, and Red Wool Bobbins in this area along with the full line of paper ornaments.

Question: How do you work with things like color and ornament selection?

Sam: There are a couple of approaches you can take. One is minimalism. With this approach,

you limit the number of styles of ornament as well as color. With this approach, you will also use a single color of light, or just white light to create a greater sense of unity and simplicity. A monochromatic tree is always seen as highly designed.

Another approach is high variety. In this case, once you are done adding your lights and light reflecting ornaments, each ornament should stand-alone. You might use a variety of materials as well - wool, paper, glass, metal, wood, crystal, and more. This is like the “collector’s tree” where people select particular one-off or custom ornaments and build their collection over time.

A third approach is to create a themed tree. With this approach, everything is oriented toward the theme - toys, a classic Christmas, Santa’s workshop, Polar bears, or a company brand. In this approach. the ornaments, colors, and the whole tree need to relate to the theme and any other elements added to the overall design that might be adjacent to the tree.

Question: I’ve heard you talk about “featured ornaments.” What do you look for in a featured ornament and where do you place them?

Sam: All of the placements we’ve talked about are leading up to the featured ornaments. These are usually the largest, most detailed, or most prominently placed ornaments on the tree. These go near the end of the branches, but in far enough that they are well secured by your ornament hooks.

Our ornament hooks are designed to hold the ornament in place without sliding or rotating. Our unique, angled design and the thickness of the metal on the hook add to the stability, even with our largest ornaments.

Pixen Christmas Hook with Bee Ornament

I want the eye to be led to these ornaments, so they don’t obscure the supporting ornaments but are supported by them. When you work your way from the center out you can think early on about where these will go on the branch so that the supporting ornaments are above, below, or around the place you want to feature.

When designers decorate a tightly grown tree the featured ornaments often go on first. They protrude off the tree and so designers think about how the eye is led from one grouping of featured ornaments to the next. You might have some at the top left, another group at the middle to the right and another toward the bottom left. With this approach, there is one viewing area from which the tree looks the best. It uses dimensional design but approaches it like a graphic, two-dimensional creation.

With a loosely grown tree, you create dimensionally, so not all the featured ornaments hang on the outside. As you walk around the tree, I want you to find little discoveries and nice moments as ornaments relate to one another in space.

We have several large, iconic ornaments such as our three-sided Contessa, Contessa Gilded, and Duchess ornaments, the rain in silver and gold, the Fascinator, and our new line of ornaments that everyone is loving right now featuring enameled bees. Any of these work as individual features on part of the tree or as a collection, with groupings of the same design.

Question: How would you describe your preferences?

I like a balanced approach to tree decoration. I want ornaments to relate to one another in color and form without creating an overly busy design. My tree at home each year falls in a balance between minimalism and variety, but always featuring crystals of some sort.

Question: What are the finishing touches that make a tree “just right?”

Sam: Well, we’ve mostly been talking about the ornaments and to finish the collection on the tree, I like to use light modifying ornaments like crystal which can give different light effects from an aurora borealis look to splitting light into the colors of the rainbow. I also like glass tassels because they catch the light from behind them. These types of ornaments can go on the outermost branches of the tree. Some designers like to add another couple of strands of lights to the outer part of the tree, draping them from branch to branch, but watch out for overdoing it with too many draped wires.

The other things are the tree topper and tree skirt. These round out the design and create a sense of completeness to the tree.

For tree toppers, I either like glass, such as our Imperial Tree Topper or a metal and glass design. The Imperial topper has a classic, old-world quality to it with refined glasswork and patterning. Designs like Ravenna, Snowflake, and Star tree toppers use shaped metal wire, glass beads, and rhinestones to create a bright, standout atop your tree without adding any additional electric light to the tree. They catch the light and enhance it for a subtle and mysterious quality. I am not a fan of light-up toppers as they tend to be plastic, and who wants a plastic crown for the holidays?

Tree Toppers

At the base, I stay away from these metal circles and thrown fabric panels. I prefer a traditional tree skirt. The dimensional wooden bases, metal circles and that lot take up space that can be used for presents, and they remove the separation between the base of the tree and the ground.

I like a 60-inch diameter tree skirt for a standard 7-foot tree. That gives you plenty of space for presents, and it establishes the space within which you are viewing the tree.  Imagine a column coming up from the tree skirt and minimize items behind that column as much as possible to provide a viewing area free from other things.

Tree Skirt

Our tree skirts range from the all-white Fallen Snow skirt to the Woodland that is hand decorated with holly designs to the Royal Tree Skirt and Grand Duchess at the top of the line which features thick velvet and hand-sewn rhinestones that provide the quality and thickness to bring a luxurious classic Christmas feel. The Claus tree skirt provides a classic red and white and is reminiscent of the wool coat and hat worn by Santa himself.

Question: Any last thoughts for our Christmas tree decorating friends out there?

Sam: Yes. The most important thing in your design is that it brings you and your family joy. It should be fun to decorate. It’s the centerpiece of your home until you take it down. Be safe, of course - keep it away from lit fireplaces, and candles, and don’t use frayed or damaged strands of light, and have fun with your tree design.

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