This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of San Diego Magazine.
’Twas some time before Christmas and all through the Garretts’ Tudor house, a slew of handmade decorations were carefully strewn about—streamers crafted from old children’s books hugging the tree, the names "Conrad" and "Henry" strung together from a deck of French playing cards, and "Merry Christmas" hand painted on scraps of chocolate advertisements, which Mom and Dad had kept from their honeymoon 14 years ago.
"There’s a story told in most of my accessories and especially in my Christmas tree," says Alexis, owner and lead interior designer of Alexis Garrett Design. She and her husband, Ross, and sons Henry, 11, and Conrad, 8, cut down the 10-foot tree themselves on a friend’s farm in Julian and hauled it back to Encinitas.
"I love doing really big, wild trees, and decorate it to be magical and fun. See the tinsel? How it reflects on the walls? I want my kids to come in and remember this as a being a big, sparkly tree, filled with ornaments I’ve collected since I was a girl. I like trees to be sentimental."
This will mark the Garretts’ fifth year celebrating the holidays in this home.
Flash back to 2014: They weren’t looking to move, and were perfectly content with a 1,500-square-foot tract home in Cardiff. But when a friend alerted them to the half-acre property, they couldn’t resist and made a swift purchase.
"When we bought it, it was really dilapidated. But I would never want a done house; I want a project, especially being an interior designer. There was potential," Alexis says, and with a smile, "I felt that with some paint and Bondo, it would get done."
Before the paint and Bondo putty, though, they gutted the kitchen. They also rebuilt the fireplace—it was falling over, Alexis says.
On this day, it’s sturdy as ever with two gray stockings hung by the chimney with care, and a spread of candlesticks and pine cones give another oh-so-subtle nod to the season.
"This is how I do it—minimalist and driven by foliage," Alexis says of her holiday decorating. "My boys think I’m so bah humbug, because I don’t have a lot of stuff."
The tree is always the centerpiece, of course. From there come the tabletops. Alexis and her friend Tam Ashworth placed a bunch of red flower bulbs in amber bottles on the dining room table (which Alexis scooped up for $200 at an estate sale). There’s more festive flora in the breakfast nook off the kitchen, where pine cones and pomegranates are placed on a round table from Restoration Hardware, surrounded by wicker chairs from Serena & Lily. A hefty strand of cedar pine garland frames a shelf full of milk glass, which Alexis has collected since she was a kid.
"I would get Victoria Magazine when I was little. I loved antiques. I was always going to garage sales and thrift stores," she says. "I was the little girl that would move my whole room around. I would shop for my sheets when I was in junior high. Who does that? My dad would ask, ‘What are we going to do with your room?’ and I’d say, ‘I want a seersucker overstuffed chair.’ Why did I know that stuff?"
Part of the reason is that she grew up around remodeling and renovations, having lived in 14 homes in San Diego before she even went off to college. She and Ross knew each other at Torrey Pines High School, but didn’t start dating until long after. Alexis got her true start in design working for Solana Beach interior designer Kelly Kaplan, who instilled in her an appreciation for French decor. But the antiquing and handmade decorations are Alexis’s own ingenuity.
Take her admitted obsession with upcycling old sheets. She’ll rip them into strands and drape them like streamers, fashion them into bows or, during the holidays, use them to hang her wreaths. She’ll also use newspaper as placemats, and she’s kept the linens from her wedding all these years, just to put out as hand towels in the bathroom when they’re entertaining guests—which they do quite often.
Ross, who’s president of the surfing news company Surfline, calls the house the "outpost of adventure," because it’s where all of their friends and family congregate.
"We think of it as everyone is out on their adventures and this is where you come back and share your stories and reconnect," he says. "Holidays are the best time for the outpost of adventure."
Not to mention the house has no shortage of adventurous amenities. In the backyard, there’s a half pipe, a zip line, a chicken coop, an archery target, and a fire pit. "It’s like summer camp," Alexis adds. And in a lot of ways, the house is like an old cabin.
Constructed entirely of redwood—believed to be cut from sequoias in the Northwest and floated down to San Diego in the late 1800s—the house has no insulation and not all of the doors line up with their frame, so it gets pretty drafty. (The boys sometimes sit on the floor heaters in the morning to warm up.)
Standing on his toes, Ross pulls down a small painting. A message on it begins, "Dear Pauline …" It’s addressed to Pauline Oliveros, one of the former homeowners, a composer who cofounded the Department of Music at UC San Diego and pioneered the field of electronic music. She ran an artists’ retreat out of this home from the ’60s through the ’80s, Ross explains, and every homeowner thereafter opted to leave those mementos in place.
"It’s not just our decision," Ross says, carefully putting the painting back. "Any of those people could have gotten rid of all this, and they all kept it. We look at this house like we’re lucky enough to take care of it for as long as we’re able. It’s a super-special place with a lot of heritage, and we’d like to keep that going."
In fact, they’ve taken the duty so earnestly that they’ve done little to no modernizing, keeping the feeling of the home true to how it was originally built, as a summer house by a gentleman from LA in the ’20s.
The gate to their property is manual, not automated. They have no microwave, cable TV—or TVs, period. Instead, they have family movie nights using a projector and a screen that retracts into the living room ceiling. Also, there’s only one itsy-bitsy shower, and that’s off of Henry’s room. The parents have just a bathtub.
"We do bath showers. There’s a handheld shower head," Alexis says with a laugh, because she knows others might find it strange. Truth is, she and Ross have always lived this way, even in their first home together. "It’s just how we do it."
Ross adds: "There’s a certain amount of touching, feeling, and being active with your world that gets eliminated with automation. At home, sometimes those conveniences take you out of intention."
Low-tech living pays off a lot during the holidays, when they fill their days with old-school entertainment like playing board games, crafting ornaments, and reading books like The Night Before Christmas.
And come the time Santa’s sliding down the chimney, all of the Garretts’ holiday traditions will be on display: gingerbread houses the boys have made, cannoli set out for St. Nick (cooked every year with the help of Alexis’s grandma), popcorn strung together and hanging on the tree. But nothing will be over-the-top.
"My philosophy is, the simpler the better," Alexis says, and appends a somewhat surprising piece of advice: "Enjoy the season and don’t have it be all about the decor. Work with what you have … with what tells a story."