By  on December 21, 2006

It's the holidays — the big hurrah of tinsel, tree ornaments and flashing plastic fantastic decor. Park Avenue's lit up, Rockefeller Center's fa-la-la festive and every store window in the city has been transformed into a scene of merch-meets-merriment opulence. But beyond the view of the public — at home or in the atelier — how do designers deck their holiday halls?

It's certainly not boughs of holly over at Betsey Johnson's studio. The decoration du jour is a paper-doll foldout of a curly-haired moppet named Babycakes — her spring runway show invite. "As soon as we thought up the invitation, I said, ‘I hope we have a lot left over because this is the cutest Christmas tree decoration,'" Johnson says. Luckily, there were plenty to spare — enough to cover the towering tree at the designer's Seventh Avenue office. (The tree, incidentally, had to be cut down to fit the 11-foot-high ceilings.)

Johnson's home decor, in contrast, is relatively understated this year: a small pink tree from ABC Carpet & Home. "It's the first time I don't have a real tree," she says, pointing out that she will spend Christmas with family elsewhere, and make a stop at Betseyville, her Mexican villa in Barra de Potosi. "I have a tree-decorating party there with kids from the village," she says. "I love to cut construction paper and make multicolor chains, and I love strung popcorn — all the old-fashioned, time-consuming things."

Johnson's not the only one who takes to the traditional. The scene chez Rachel Roy is straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life." Paper snowflakes, made by her daughter Ava, hang in the windows, and wicker baskets stocked with ornaments fill different parts of the home. Roy heats up red wine with cinnamon sticks — "for the smell as much as the taste" — and sets the television to the Turner Classic Movie channel so its films play quietly in the background. "I'm also a sucker for Christmas music," she notes, "especially when played with a harp."

Essex native Sue Stemp favors a rather British ambience. Her tree is decorated with sweets and English toy crackers. New Zealander Rebecca Taylor, meanwhile, recalls the cross-cultural shock of a southwestern American holiday. "I was surprised when I visited my husband's Texan relatives to see a country Christmas," Taylor says. "There were bundles of cinnamon tied on the backs of chairs with gingham ribbon and patchwork quilt snowmen." Her own yuletide decor, however, veers more toward ethereal chic, with lots of shine in clear crystals and metallics.It's a cleaned-up color sensibility that appeals to a number of designers. "I'm Jewish," says Los Angeles-based Jenni Kayne, "so having a big green-and-red Christmas tree wouldn't really feel right." Instead, hers is silver and white, adorned with glass balls and feathered ornaments from Anthropologie, as well as small handcrafted masks from Tijuana. "I like to keep it simple."

"I've been there, done that," Josie Natori says of the usual Kris Kringle palette. "Now, I'm liking the metallics, the crystals. I'm not doing a traditional Christmas tree. I have glittery pine cones. There are patches of red in berries, but you won't find red ribbons or things like that." Londoner Matthew Williamson, meanwhile, opts for clusters of white fiber-optic trees, some decorated with Murano glass butterflies.

But perhaps no holiday furnishing is as wholeheartedly unconventional as that by the against-the-grain trio at Threeasfour. Adi, Ange and Gabi have installed a gown from their spring 2007 runway as a substitute Christmas tree. And with its shimmering iridescent paillettes and leafy tint, it works. Gabi even jokes about placing the mannequin under one of the studio's four disco balls, "so she's topped with a star." The dress-cum-tree is a novelty that might find favor with Diane von Furstenberg, who has abandoned using real trees. "A few years ago I was in the country, where you can go and choose your own tree," she explains. "When they cut it down, I heard it cry. And from that moment on, I switched to fake ones."

Then there's the twosome from Vena Cava, Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock, who celebrate the festivities à la Tim Burton. "I'm into the idea of a Goth Christmas," says Buhai. "Black spray-painted berries, leaves and bells — everything ordinary about Christmas, except in all black." Mayock baked a batch of holiday cookies for loved ones — in the shape of hands with severed fingers. "Halloween is my favorite holiday," she remarks, "so I like to use Christmas as an excuse to celebrate it again." Perhaps their approach is rooted in delayed youthful rebellion: Both sets of parents are classic yuletide enthusiasts. Buhai's "go crazy decorating with garlands and lights," and Mayock's obsessively collect Santa figurines.For some, the kid factor determines the two camps, traditionalists versus non-conformists. "We always had an aluminum tree," says Chip Foster of Chip & Pepper. "It would sit next to our Eames chair, and we had a thoroughly modern holiday. But now that my son is here — this is his first Christmas — we decided to go a little more traditional. It's like the Christmas section at Target exploded in our living room."

Make that a Kmart eruption for Alexander Wang. He's outfitted his place with the store's blinking plasticized gift boxes, a glittery Martha Stewart wreath, Christmas lights, garlands and, yes, a 10-foot-high revolving inflatable carousel. "You know, it's one month out of the year," Wang says. "I wanted to do something outrageous and go all out."

And why should designers leave their wares to store window displays? At the apartment of Twinkle's Wenlan Chia, the Christmas tree is bedecked with whimsical ghost, unicorn and bird figures — shapes taken directly from the designer's jewelry collection — and large knitted ornaments made from her own line of yarns. "The knittier, the better," she says.

Zac Posen, meanwhile, steps it up a notch by gussying up the tree at his Laight Street atelier with handbags and shoes from his recent spring, cruise and fall lineups. "I thought I would create something that would be all the girls' fantasy," Posen explains. He's even added an extra dose of wit to the wreath surrounding his menorah: It's festooned with his own vintage bowties. After all, he says, "It was a big accessories season for us."

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