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The Secrets Behind Subtle Holiday Decor

Designer Jennifer Van Galder shows us the deck-the-halls way at this seaside home


To create this version of a holiday Cape Cod cocktail, add a sprig of rosemary and some cranberries.

With fresh interiors, updated appliances, and a renovated kitchen, this gorgeous house by the sea is primed to entertain. And of course, there is no better time to host large gatherings of family and friends than the holidays.

This was what the owner envisioned when she bought the house from its original owner, local architect Larry Pappas, in summer 2016. She is first to admit the home already had great bones and is quick to give credit where it’s due.

The homeowner commissioned the artful swimming fish along the entry stairwell based on a museum installation she saw in Prague.

“I’m very thankful for the work he did on this house. He was very thoughtful about the details,” she says, noting the barrel ceilings, hidden lighting, small round windows, standing seam roof, and other subtle features. “I love how they make sense, but are a little unexpected.”

She worked with North County designer Jennifer Van Galder to create a soft, neutral backdrop for her colorful modern collection.

The dining room, with a Steven Shell table and chairs and an area rug by Aja Rugs

This delicate balance of design and art is evident from the moment you step in the door. Guests are greeted by a school of recycled-wood trout swimming up the entry stairwell. The owner spotted a similar installation at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art while on vacation in Prague.

“I fell in love with them,” she recalls.

Left: “Add lots and lots of greenery married with dried and fresh flowers, produce, and even food.” | Right: “For holiday entertaining, let the food make the statement and keep the decor elegant and simple.”

She contacted the artist, Marek Schovánek, and asked him to create 15 fish for her. She also hired local art preparator Nicholas Quint to professionally hang them.

The stairwell sets the tone for the holiday decor to come, with two swags of Australian pine, cedar, and Dusty Miller bush (for a touch of silver). Van Galder chose orange berries instead of traditional red, to complement the other orange accents found throughout the house.

“Painted furniture is fun because it acts as a foil to all the wood.”

“Holiday decor should enhance the existing decor of a home, not rob and steal from it,” she advises.

The second level contains the kitchen, dining, and formal and casual living areas, taking advantage of the home’s spectacular views. Van Galder gave the kitchen a face-lift with new cabinetry, subway tile, and soapstone countertops. The exposed hinges and latched closures on the hardware are “a trend that’s very strong right now,” she says. “It harkens back to olden days.”

A festive gathering of subcontractors and craftsmen who worked on the house: Michael Sarkin of WDS Designer Natural Shades, Dean Moore of DW Moore contracting, Nathan Holland of Evans Woodworking, and Keith Palmateer of Fairwind painters

She collaborated with the homeowner to rethink the kitchen layout, adding a beverage center with two refrigerated drawers in the back corner. During parties, “it’s an area to access drinks and not disturb the chef,” she explains.

An interior window with muntin bars divides the kitchen from the dining and living rooms. The unique architectural detail ensures someone standing in the kitchen can still see out through the front of the house to the water.

A beverage center with refrigerated drawers

The adjacent dining room is slightly elevated, so it, too, has a view. A round table by Steven Shell anchors the space. Van Galder discovered the London-born furniture maker’s line at a design show. “His pieces are classic with fun little details that separate them,” she describes. For example, the chair legs have a ball detail that gives them a traditional look with a contemporary twist.

She wisely used the same chairs in the kitchen but with a farmhouse-style table. The chairs can float and work in either space to accommodate extra people.

“Decorate unusual vessels, vases, bowls, and elements that are already in place, e.g. by hanging a swag of greens from a chandelier or sconce.”

Cozy, comfortable sofas also provide ample seating. In the casual great room, Van Galder used a Jane Churchill cotton twill fabric in willow denim. The blue color is a nod to the property’s coastal location. In the more formal room, the designer added a custom embroidered trim along the bottom of the sofa to match the Lee Jofa fabric accent pillows. “It’s a fun tape detail,” she says.

But the most interesting sofa option is the one on the outside deck. Part of the new Ocean Collection by Summer Classics, it features nautical-chic rope detailing on the sides. (Van Galder was the first designer to place an order!)

The formal living room, with a polished marble fireplace surround and custom chenille sofas.

To spread holiday cheer throughout the main level, they used a mix of mercury glass and tiered silver candles, and more swags of greenery and berries. Holiday music playing on the surround sound, mulled wine cooking on the stove, and a decadent cheese board arrayed just so on the countertop serve as festive finishing touches.

But every good hostess knows the most essential entertaining detail of all is the company you keep. In a house like this, with bright open spaces, ocean views, and fully stocked beverage drawers, friends and family will surely come by the busload. ’Tis the season!

“Holiday decor should be fun, festive, and creative, with a touch of whimsy. ”

About the Designer

Jennifer Van Galder heads Van Galder Design for Living, a full-service studio and showroom in Del Mar’s Flower Hill Promenade. They host regular events and curate a shop with coffee table books, candles, and other giftables. Over the years, she has worked with clients all over San Diego, including large-scale projects like Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa.


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