by Juliet Johnson // photo by Nick Johnson
Do you ever wonder what a professional window designer's house looks like at Christmas? You know, those "visual merchandising" folks who decorate stores, malls, condo lobbies, restaurants and whose every friend says, "Ooh, I want you to do that for me." Or perhaps it's like the shoemaker's child, who doesn't actually have any nice shoes of his own.
Professional Christmas decorator Greg McMillan spent 22 years at Belk in the display department, designing and installing windows, cases, end-aisles, vignettes and the merchandise that sits atop mirrored storage cases. By the time he retired, he oversaw the display of 70 stores throughout the Southeast. He’s accustomed to decorating for the holidays, to be sure, but no matter how hard he braces for impact, the time crunch is always manic. From store managers who wanted to go from Halloween at close to Christmas by the next day’s opening to clients who want their lights up the day after Thanksgiving, the rush of the season is something to which McMillan has become accustomed. His own house is where he tests out new ideas and where he can show others what is possible. Plus, McMillan loves to entertain, merrily hosting friends, choir parties and family non-stop—once all his clients are taken care of, of course.
His front door offers an enthusiastic welcome; the only nod to his former life at Belk are the bold bells. Thick, lush greenery frames the transom, festooned with red baubles and gold ribbon. It’s lavish, but nothing too showy for the Mandarin neighborhood Greg, wife Virginia and their two children have called home for 15 years.
Step over the threshold and it’s hard to know where to look first. The vibrance is electrifying; one can’t help but smile as a familiar tingle grows within—that wonderful joy that only comes at Christmas.
The formal living room is an elegant classic. Small sprays of greenery with vintage ribbon draw the eye from antique to charming antique. Strands of gold beads connect crystal bowls of traditional balls and the simplest of all his swags drapes across the window with a single cherub playing in a gold rope. In fact, every room McMillan decorates starts with a ribbon.
“The ribbon informs the color palette,” he says. “Never skimp on your greens and ribbon.”
He will then expand on a theme with baubles and florals and beads, layering on until time or fatigue wins out. There is no “too much” when it comes to holiday dècor for McMillan, who will travel as far north as Atlanta and west to Panama City to decorate for some clients.
“A great display evolves, depending upon what you have to work with. Restaurants will often have an ethnic flavor which is fun to push into festal fever, or they will have a novelty theme. But it’s always about layers on top of good greens and great ribbon.” McMillan is fanatical about greenery and garlands. They have to last—in some cases as long as six winter weeks and then spend summer in a hot attic so that they may be fluffed up the following year.
With his private clients, McMillan takes an inventory of what they have, often identifying collections people weren’t even aware of. When grouped together, angels, cherubs and cupids become meaningful in new ways. Nutcrackers do well on a mantel, monitoring the proceedings, cast- ing a stern eye on anyone sneaking in to peel back a corner of gift wrap. Santa Clauses have greater impact in clusters, perhaps on a staircase. One of McMillan’s favorite clients has a still-growing collection of more than 80 Santas. “It’s fun to see the new recruits...velvet and real fur, we have all sorts to display. But they need to be segregated. Angels and Santas need to be a distance apart for the effect to make sense.”
Back at his own house, the McMillan dining room is as formal as the living room, and set for a feast. Silver gleams, crystal glistens, and candles abound. The chandelier is dressed to the max, a celestial ball exploding in ribbon, flowers and lush greenery. Faux snapdragons add height, scale and tie in the warm terra cotta-plastered walls offset by smooth white columns. The Italian theme is complemented by a vast golden bowl overflowing with “still life” and a mirror covered in moss, vines, a magnificent bow and trail- ing ribbons. Everything the mirror frames is another breathtaking tableau.
The crèche, opposite, sits on the hall table surrounded by generations of McMillan family baby photos, and a framed Christening gown. Their crèche is from Virginia's side of the family, proudly plastic so that children can play with it freely. For McMillan, collections deepen the provenance of the individual items—putting them in perspective and connecting each sentiment to a larger message.
In the kitchen and family room, casual, festive exuberance reigns. Mostly vintage toys are sweetly woven in, as is an adorable regiment of nutcrackers. Ribbons here are mostly orange, peach and coral—a nod to the warm tones of Florida’s First Coast. But the star of the room is, of course, the giant tree, which sits in the heart of the home.
McMillan says that one should always ornament his or her tree with the lights off (otherwise, the tree will have too much negative space). Ironically, McMillan doesn’t decorate his own tree—instead offering the job to Virginia. She puts all the heirloom ornaments on the perimeter, while a sappy, family favorite like ‘Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ plays in the background. Like a true decorator, he goes back in after her—not to move things, but to add another layer, this time baubles into the deeper recesses of the tree.
The kitchen is a riot of cheerful greens and reds. (In fact, McMillan is an apples over pears guy and is traditional about his colors. Red and green. Black was his worst directive—“That was a bad year, as was the year we painted car tires all sorts of lurid fluorescent colors for a goofy promotion called Holiday Attire.”) The table is set for Christmas breakfast. Another sumptuous garland frames the door to the screened-in porch, with florid garden beyond. The kitchen windows look out onto a climbing Cape Honeysuckle vine that matches the holiday dècor perfectly.
Some of McMillan’s clients like to decorate alongside him, but most let him get on with the job on his own. When it comes to clients’ Christmas trees, he tends to leave much of the work up to them (aside from the lights and bows). Like at his own home, ornaments offer tender memories of a family’s history, and a tradition he doesn’t want to take from anyone. Just like Virginia McMillan, who takes special care each year to hang their daughter’s original red leather booties among the magnificent ribbons on her own tree. This shoemaker’s family has shoes, indeed.