How to make a home look like Christmas

The shingle-style Gibson Island home of Erin and Gregory Pitts gets dressed for the holidays in the natural colors of this small island on the Chesapeake Bay.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

In early December, the shingle-style Gibson Island home of Erin and Gregory Pitts gets dressed for the holidays in the natural colors of this small island in the Chesapeake Bay.

"The colors of my home are a reflection of my surroundings," says Erin Paige Pitts, an interior designer with three small children. "Blues from the sky and water, the grays and silver of driftwood, and the natural cream of sand and shells." For Christmas, her house is filled with armloads of fragrant greens and branches she cuts nearby, mixed with shells and blue and silver balls. "Everything in the stores is red and green, but personally, I feel more comfortable with neutrals and blues," she says.

Gibson Island is a private enclave of about 200 homes in Anne Arundel County, connected to the mainland by a causeway guarded by a manned gatehouse. It is also covered in woods. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Pitts and a friend usually load a stack of plastic bins in a car, grab their clippers and gloves, and head off to start their holiday decorating. They cut boughs of hemlock, cedar, magnolia, juniper and boxwood, organizing them in the containers. Then they head back to the Pitts garage, where they start weaving boxwood wreaths.

Both Erin, 38, and Gregory, 43, are in the design business. Erin, a decorator for 15 years, will be named one of the 20 young designers to watch for 2010 in Traditional Home magazine's February/March issue. Gregory's family owns David Edward, a high-end Baltimore furniture manufacturer. They both share a love of classic architecture and comfortable, open family spaces.

The couple and their kids -- Scarlet, 7; Jackson, 5; and Hutton, 3 -- had rented houses on Gibson Island before. Several years ago, they bought a lot with a view of the Magothy River and worked together to design a 4,000-square-foot house for year-round living. They moved there in 2007. The home's three stories include a main floor with a large living-dining-cooking area plus a study and family room. Upstairs are four bedrooms. Downstairs is what Erin calls "kid land," a huge open playroom where Lego bricks rule.

They loaded the design with lots of traditional extras: gray cedar shingles, stone fireplaces, a screened porch, lots of windows and a pair of stunning porches. The main floor has a great room with French doors opening out onto the back porch and a large kitchen with a marble-topped center island. The open plan makes it easy to be together as a family and to entertain.

They chose neutral finishes and classic details: polished nickel fixtures, dark walnut floors and Sunbrella sailcloth slipcovers on the dining chairs. The first floor was painted Benjamin Moore's Decorators White with trim in Benjamin Moore's Super White semi-gloss. A serene pale blue, Borrowed Light by Farrow & Ball, was used on the beadboard backsplash in the kitchen; Ralph Lauren's Journal White was used in the family room.

Aptly, shells play a large part in Erin's decorating, thanks to an incredible treasure she stumbled upon. "One day I saw a note at the post office saying someone on the island was giving away a lifetime collection of shells free to a good home," she says. She showed up and left with stacks of shoeboxes filled with shells. She piles them in bowls with coral and starfish, uses them in table settings and hangs them on her Christmas tree.

The family finds the island a perfect holiday backdrop. She and the kids have begun a tradition of baking peppermint brittle: a recipe that uses matzo slathered in brown sugar and butter and dotted with chocolate morsels and chunks of peppermint. They pack the brittle in red or silver tin sand buckets, tie a ribbon on them, and deliver to neighbors and friends.

A brisk walk on the beach on a blustery Christmas afternoon is another family custom. "This time of year you can find lots of sea glass or crab buoys with a salty look, and driftwood," Erin says.

Her family loves the winter calm, filtered light and festive spirit of the island, where the local garden club hangs fresh greens and red bows on every street sign.

"You are surrounded by stunningly beautiful nature, whether looking out at the bay or the river or the woods," she says. "Instead of sitting in front of PlayStations, my kids can be fishing, crabbing, kayaking, sledding or ice-skating. It's all part of daily life here." It figured into the decision she and Gregory made to not just be summer visitors to Gibson Island. "We decided, 'Why have a second home here? Why not just live where you really want to be all year long?' "

© 2009 The Washington Post Company