Gorgeous decorating from famous historic homes around the country sure to inspire your retail displays.
By contributing editor Patricia Hart McMillan
What can lighting retailers learn from historic house museums? The same thing that I proved time and again as head of display for a large Dallas furniture retailer, window designer for a Lexington Avenue custom rug shop, and showroom designer for Haviland Limoge in New York City. That is: Light is romantic, light romances, and light sells!
Perhaps it’s in our DNA, because we humans are drawn to light as moths are drawn to a flame. Curators and directors of historic house museums are quick to realize that Christmas lights add the sizzle that sells. They know that lights make Christmas the prime season for successful fund-raising during the most wonderful time of the year.
When George W. Vanderbilt welcomed guests to his new North Carolina home, Biltmore, on Christmas Eve 1895, guests entered a house occupying four acres of an 8,000-acre estate. Truly stunning was the 3,000-sq.-ft. banquet hall with its 70’-high ceiling with a spectacular, lavishly decorated 40-foot Christmas tree. Today, Biltmore is a family-owned museum, and the French-style chateau is hub to several thriving enterprises with half a dozen gift shops on the premises alone. There is a winery, an inn, and a host of product licensing programs (including lighting).
“Christmas at Biltmore” has become a holiday tradition, enchanting approximately 250,000 visitors annually with its 100 Christmas trees, each decorated with 32 boxes of Christmas lights. Clearly, as a display principle, less is not more! More is more – and much better for sales.
President Grover Cleveland introduced electric Christmas lights to the White House in the same year (1895) that Biltmore opened its doors. At $1,000 to $2,000 per string, only the wealthy could afford Christmas lights back then! Soon enough, the Victorians – who thought that too much was never enough – embraced the concept of the extravagantly decorated, fully lit Christmas tree with fervor. Many of the historic homes featured in my three new books – Christmas at Historic Houses, Decorating for Christmas at Historic Houses, and Delicious Christmas Decorations at Historic Houses (with co-author Katharine Kaye McMillan) – are from the Victorian era. Operating on the “more is better” principle, all have a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in every room!
Here are some tips that lighting retailers could adapt to their businesses:
Try Psycho-seasonal selling. Even lighting retailers who are not selling Christmas tree lights would benefit from what I call “psycho-seasonal selling.” It’s easily done; just add a lighted Christmas tree to the front window and other store displays.
Victorians, who loved decoration, quickly moved from merely decorating to designing trees with themes – a concept that lends itself readily to a retail store display. For example, tiny American flags – appropriate for today’s new patriotism –appeared on trees in houses from Cape May, N.J. to Newark, Ohio. Toys were fitted into trees in the children’s bedrooms. For girls’ bedrooms, tiny hatboxes adorned the trees. Lighting retailers could easily come up with a theme appropriate to a region or community interest to apply to an in-store Christmas tree. Use that theme to play up a particular marketing or advertising campaign or perhaps tie it into a seasonal charity event for a historic house in your area with cross-promotional marketing.
Highlight a “lamps as gifts” display with a lighted tree. With or without a theme, a lighted Christmas tree – especially in a window – calls dramatic attention to lamps as the ideal Christmas gift. The lamps should range from tiny to table size with Tiffany-style shades or other materials that could add seasonal color. Choose lamps that could work with every style and period décor. As an interior designer, I use them here, there, and everywhere with all furniture styles and periods. Mini Tiffany lamps make magical night lights! Lamps in imaginative animal shapes appeal to the inner child in us all. I remember a delightful turtle-shaped lamp that my grandson, his mother, and I all loved.
Especially wonderful for this season are lamps and sconces with colored globes and shades. Ruby red glass is gorgeous and great for window display. At night, lamps and fixtures with multi-colored Tiffany shades or single-color shades and globes would transform any store window into a cache of jeweled delights.
Outside lights draw customers in. Take a tip from historic houses and light up your exterior. After all, not all lavishly lit Christmas trees are indoors at historic houses. Believe it or not, the city of Boston once banned Christmas for 22 years (1659 to 1681), but by the mid-1800s it finally became fashionable for Bostonians to celebrate Christmas again. By 1912, outdoor Christmas lights began appearing in that city. Historic house museums followed suit, making lavish use of outdoor lights. By day, Waddesdon Manor, once Lord Rothschild’s country home in England and now a museum, looks like a fairy castle. By night, a multitude of lavishly lit trees transformed the house and grounds into a fairy land. [photo: Waddesdon nite]
Lights on any façade – especially active, blinking, or running lights – call attention to captivating window displays and entrances. Restaurants learned long ago that the tiny white “fairy” lights (indoors and out) lent enchantment best left in place year ’round. [photo: Waddesdon kitchen]
Certainly historic homes go over the top when it comes to decorating, however, I hope that these incredible examples will provide you with some creative ideas to adapt to your store.
Patricia Hart McMillan is an interior designer and author of 14 books on interior design and architecture. Her Sun Country Style books inspired two signature furniture collections. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.