December without phony frost Home: New York duo advocate a natural style of Christmas decorating.


Shiny green paper, corpulent red bows: It's an unwritten law that poinsettias must be garishly dressed for Christmas. Indeed, this over-wrapped plant is so intrusively cheerful -- the botanical equivalent of a shopping-mall Santa -- that it looks perennially fake.

And that's the real problem with Christmas, according to Tom Pritchard and Billy Jarecki, who own the Pure Madderlake flower shop in New York. It's not too commercial, they say. It's too unnatural. If we could get through December without foil, without plastic, without phony frost and "bizarrely blinking trees," they suggest, we might actually touch the heart of the holiday.

Pritchard and Jarecki found themselves stranded one winter with no ornaments, tinsel or twinkling lights -- which was just as well, as they had no electricity, either. They were vacationing in southwestern France, in "the most savage, splendid natural setting we'd ever encountered," the designers write in their third and newest book, "Natural Christmas" (Clarkson N. Potter, $22.50).

And that was where they shopped, so to speak -- foraging greenery from the forest floor, harvesting a "dashing little tree" from the side of a stream and decorating their house in the mountains with candles and fruit.

Simplicity became their new tradition, and because of it, this book lacks the gorgeous extravagance of its predecessor, "Martha Stewart's Christmas" ($18.95), which Clarkson N. Potter first published seven years ago. Stewart's book is equal parts inspiration and exhaustion, right down to its recipe for weaving 11 greens into a single wreath, and gold-leafing half the roof of a gingerbread house. (The other half got copper-leafed.)

"Natural Christmas" is about understatement and ease. At first, it's startling. Wreaths have a free-form appearance, as if someone had forgotten to tuck in the ends of the greens. No stars top the trees, and the trees themselves have airy gaps between their branches. Indeed, they're almost gawky, but there's a reason.

"Just as a long-stemmed florist's rose says little of the garden," they write, "so, too, a cookie-cutter tree tells no tales of the woods and wilds." Their own favorite was a tree they describe as "scrawny," and deservedly so. A full-page photograph reveals its decorations: candles that stood none too straight in their clip-on holders, clementines strung from waxed butcher's string and plenty of bare, lanky branches, so the tree's own bristle of green became the room's ultimate, and natural, adornment.

This isn't a diatribe against ornaments and lights. But ornaments in this book tend to be antique, and lights tend to be unblinking white points, like tiny stars. Candles flicker on every surface, and branches of white azalea are used as centerpieces. The flowers are as frothy and white as fresh snow.

As for poinsettias, the authors say, they are so familiar that we have long stopped seeing their elegant architecture: the cluster of yellow flowers no bigger than berries, embraced by a spray of spiky, scarlet leaves.

To highlight this odd anatomy and bright coloration, Pritchard and Jarecki snip off a few stems and group them in small-necked vases.

And in this minimalist context, we see poinsettias as if for the first time -- much as this unpretentious book shows us a slightly unkempt beauty that makes Christmas seem new again.

Candles everywhere

Candlepower is key to a natural holiday. Scatter votives along windowsills; let a convocation of tall tapers dominate the dinner table. Pritchard and Jarecki shop flea markets for old Christmas-tree stands, which are just the right size to hold fat pillar candles.

For a city apartment, choose the largest tree you can fit through the doorway and let it dominate the room. Decorate only with the most evocative flora, like coral-leafed barberry or red nerine lilies that smell like chocolate.

"Keep the hot glue gun in a drawer," the authors advise; shun gold-sprayed garlands, and turn your back on tinsel: "Nature is the goal."

If natural decorating appeals at Christmas, make it a way of life. Two lovely books on the subject are Tricia Foley's "The Natural Home: Living the Simple Life" (Crown Publishing Group, $22.50), and "Decorating Naturally: White, Cream and Natural Materials in Your Home" by Julia Bird (Random House Value Publishing, $19.99). Not surprisingly, both promote a seemingly artless attention to detail and a color scheme that embraces every hue of off-white.

Also not surprisingly, there's a technical side to the environmentally friendly house. "Your Natural Home: The Complete Sourcebook and Design Manual for Creating a Healthy, Beautiful, and Environmentally Sensitive House" by Janet Marinelli and Paul Bierman-Lytle (Little, Brown and Co., $21.95) lists suppliers of salvaged wood, nontoxic paint, even natural caulk for chemically sensitive homeowners.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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