During the six holiday seasons florist Laura Dowling devoted to staging magical White House displays, it never looked a lot like Christmas in her own home. There just wasn’t time. Her Old Town Alexandria house would usually get only a simple wreath on the front door.
Dowling, who served as the White House chief floral designer from 2009 to 2015, was in charge of monumental holiday installations that were viewed by more than 100,000 visitors annually. The displays might include upward of 55 Christmas trees and thousands of ornaments, put up by hundreds of volunteers. Everything had to look fresh for about five weeks. “Nothing prepared me for what it was like, with all the logistics, details and demands,” Dowling says. “Each year, by the time we had finished our decorating process, I felt like I’d pretty much had enough of Christmas.”
Dowling had opened her own flower design studio specializing in French-style bouquets in 2002, after a career in government and public policy. She left the White House job in 2015, setting off a flurry of speculation. “I was brought in to make change, and I did,” Dowling says. “It was time to start thinking about what I would do next.” What that has been is lecturing, teaching classes and writing a book, “Floral Diplomacy at the White House,” which has just been published.
And now Christmas is back at full volume at her place. She has arranged flowers and greens in almost every room of the antiques-filled circa-1800 house she shares with husband Bob Weinhagen, senior legislative counsel for the House of Representatives. Dowling’s loose, garden style of designing has always been to use lots of natural materials in unexpected ways. She can take a bag of lemons from Trader Joe’s and a few magnolia leaves and quickly transform them into a gorgeous arrangement.
Wreaths are an important part of her holiday look; she’s had time this year to put together a number as gifts for friends. As for her own front door, it’s a changing panorama throughout the season. “This year, I started out with a potato-and-crab-apple wreath in late November, then made a lime-and-berry version, and am closing out the holiday season with a festive large-scale wreath made from gilded fingerling potatoes, crab apples, berries and variegated holly,” Dowling says.
Dowling showed us DIY ideas for five areas of the house that you can still dress up in time for Christmas.
“I like the idea of putting a dramatic display of flowers, plants or greenery in the entrance as a way to set a festive ambiance,” Dowling says. “Flowers are the easiest and quickest way to create a holiday or seasonal mood; they add color and scent to make guests feel welcomed and lift the spirits.”
This year’s entry bouquet is an antique etched-glass vase with a mix of seasonal flowers and winter greenery. “Boughs of fragrant cedar, pine, eucalyptus, nandina and trailing ivy provide a textural backdrop for the colorful Christmas blooms,” Dowling says. The flowers include red amaryllis, variegated spider amaryllis, burgundy and red roses, red lilies and gloriosa lilies. The bouquet is reflected in the large oval mirror and picks up the yellow ocher and red tones in the vintage French toile slipcovers in the parlor.
Putting a wreath on your door sets a festive tone, Dowling says. Even if you don’t have the time or space for a tree, you can still do this one thing. The wreath form is not only elegant and timeless — it also conveys special holiday meaning. The shape represents eternity and serves as a reminder of the unending circle of life, she says. Wreaths of all sizes and materials can also be displayed over mantels, in windows and even on backs of chairs. This year, she included a fresh lime wreath propped up on her hearth. “The limes and crab apples add a pop of Christmas color,” Dowling says.
Her mantel features a magnolia-leaf-and-paper garland inspired by the hand-carved Greek key patterns. Dowling cut 14 panels (each 12 inches by 8 inches) from brown paper grocery bags and stapled several together for extra thickness. To create a strong graphic presentation, she alternated the design of scalloped magnolia leaves with a checkerboard motif made from folded green aspidistra leaves and gold paper, using a hot-glue gun to attach the leaves and paper and adding a moss border. The panels were stapled to red satin ribbon to create a garland.
The kissing ball is a tradition that started in England during the Middle Ages, Dowling says. Small orbs of interlocking greenery were hung over the doors as a sign of welcome and goodwill. Later, in the Victorian era, kissing balls were decorated with herbs and small flowers.
“I think kissing balls look great as a window decoration. The round form made of fruit and greenery, tied with ribbons or natural greens, catches the light in the window,” she says. She made hers by taking a floral foam ball covered in netting (a four- or six-inch ball is perfect), soaking it in water, and covering it in white pine and cedar. She stuck lemons into the ball with wood picks, wired in crab apples and added some trailing ivy as a final touch.
Creating beautiful floral displays for a dining room or coffee table is part of the fun of the holidays. Consider using a nontraditional color palette that is more wintry than Christmasy. For her Alexandria friend Cindy Conner’s dining room table, Dowling made three arrangements. There’s a large one in the middle, and the two smaller ones on either side are held in mirrored cube vases filled with peach-hued amaryllis, ranunculus and roses mixed with cedar and pine. The peach tones complement Conner’s upholstered dining chairs and napkins. The mirrored containers coordinate with the silver chargers and reflect candlelight as well as what Conner calls her “vintage Target” glitter snowflakes that she lays at each place setting.