Devilled eggs, train sets and Racing Demon: how our Top 100 interior designers spend the festive season

Discover who from our Top 100 loves a puzzle, who’s building a model railway, who cooks in wellies and who goes out looking for wild pigs by torch light…
Andrew Montgomery

Christmas is imminent – and with it comes perhaps the greatest gift of all: the seasonal shutdown that sees ten blissful days of no phone calls, and no emails.  Of course, it doesn’t apply to all – and we are ever grateful to those who keep the country running – but what is universal is that everybody needs a complete break from time to time, and for many of us, that time is now.  But creativity and the eternal quest for beauty don’t necessarily switch off – so how do interior designers spend Christmas and New Year, and those decadently empty days that stretch between the two?

Seasonal decorating

Nicky Halsam standing in the sitting room of his house in Gloucestershire.

Simon Upton

Firstly, for anyone who hasn’t yet got around to decking their halls, know you’re in good company.  “There’s something rather annoying about decorations being up for ages anyway,” says Nicky Haslam, “and I like just-picked ivy and holly.”  He finds it in his garden, or in the lanes around his Gloucestershire house, and combines it with “dead oak, that russet oak that hast still got leaves on it,” and arranges it “anywhere it’s going to improve the general look of things.”

Red and white ticking abound in Robert Kime's sitting room in his intricately decorated flat.

Simon Upton

Edward Bulmer adds mistletoe to the mix at his Queen Anne country house, Susie Atkinson “dried hops”, Martin Brudnizki goes for “ribbons on everything” and Benedict Foley and Daniel Slowik embrace “a cross between Ye Medieval Greene Man, Polish Folk Art, and 50s Hollywood – I can never resist a Marlene reference!” says Benedict.  Emma Burns, Managing Director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, swags tables with “metres of Ian Mankin’s red and white ticking” and builds “mini banks of moss with paper whites and hyacinths” down the centre, before scattering chocolate coins, clementines, and walnuts that she’s sprayed gold.

Chef-ing and cocktail-making

Cookery in Colour: A picture encyclopedia for every occasion, edited by Marguerite Patten

Getting a turkey at short notice can be a serious problem, so Benedict and Daniel are joining forces with their neighbours for Christmas dinner. They’ll be contributing “retro canapés – devilled eggs or anything from Marguerite Patten’s Cookery in Colour”  - while possibly wearing wellies for cooking.  “Quite often we’re surrounded by flood waters on our little island and occasionally it joins us in the kitchen; luckily we’re pretty hardy,” says Benedict.

Susie Atkinson makes a “festive sausage wreath,” adding “if you know, you know.” (Do you know?)  Emma Burns declares herself “transfixed by Yotam Ottolenghi talking to Andi Oliver on BBC Radio 4’s One Dish, and the sound of glorious vegetarian dishes he includes in his Christmas – mouth-watering rice and saffron jewelled with pomegranates, slow roasted aubergine melting into a manganese mess,” and is aiming to “up my game from my standard Boxing Day ham and baked potato.”

Pandora Taylor explains that the menu for her family Christmas will be “Italian themed” with everyone taking care of different courses, while her brother “who is a wine snob” runs a wine tasting, “which will definitely be competitive!” Sarah Vanrenen mentions “pizza competition nights.” Susan Deliss is planning “a streusel cake” with the mincemeat she buys in Istanbul on textile research trips. And Henriette von Stockhausen of VSP Interiors has the perfect idea for anybody who doesn’t want to spend all their time in the kitchen – her family always have a fondue for New Year's, so “no one has to do too much work.”

A decidedly retro Christmas celebration circa the 1970s, featuring old-school canapés (a favourite of Benedict and Daniel's) and beef fondue (perhaps to be served at Henriette's New Year's celebration.

ClassicStock/Getty Images

Oh – and along with their retro canapés, Daniel and Benedict enjoy “a liberal dose of cocktail umbrellas every hour on the hour – after all, it’s all about putting the spirits into Christmas!”

Throwing and going to parties

Stephanie posing in her Victorian terrace in north London.

Jake Curtis

Stephanie Barba Mendoza will be in Mexico this year, “going to the pre-Christmas parties called ‘posadas’ where we drink a hot punch made from seasonal fruits, cinnamon and rum, hit a piñata until it breaks, and light firecrackers while singing Mexican carols.” (Gosh that sounds fun.) Gavin Houghton will be travelling to his house Tangier immediately after Christmas, and “we try to fly into a party,” he says.  “Veere Grenney usually throws a great Boxing Day party – and we’ll give one – or more - at some point.”

Celebrations are happening here in Britain, too: the days betwixt and between are consummate host Nicky Haslam’s favourite time for throwing a last-minute soirée, “no-one has plans then, if they’re not going away.” He serves cocktails, “pretty pastel-coloured fairy cakes I buy at the Coop,” mince pies and Christmas cake. Mary Graham of Salvesen Graham’s mother’s birthday falls on Boxing Day, “the dining room will have had a quick design update to include birthday balloons, streamers and paper chains.” And Olivia Outred, who shares the parenting of her three-year old with her ex – a situation with which many will be familiar – will be making sure that on the days that Matilda is away she’s got lots of dinners and treats, “partly because I like to keep myself entertained as I miss her, and partly because as a single mum I never get to the chance to go out, so I make up for it all at once.”

A Christmas scheme featuring paper stars, garland and plenty of colourful baubles – perfect for Olivia's Christmas celebration with her daughter, Matilda.

Paul Raeside

Into this section too falls the soundtracks: both Gavin and Nicky favour 1930s jazz, “I like the crackly sound of the gramophone,” says Gavin, while Nicky urges us to look up the American jazz singer Lee Wiley, “it was extraordinary how enchanting she was.” Brandon Schubert has got a record player and selection of old Christmas records, Martin Brudnizki elects for John Rutter through his speakers, and Emma Burns has “Michael Bublé and the Pogues on repeat.”

Diversifying their creativity

Francis Sultana confesses that in his London flat – the most glamorous set in Albany - he is undertaking the no-longer-secret “building of a model railway; my long-term plan is a Bavarian mountain setting, as I like my German models!” Gavin Houghton will be sketching and painting, and Emma Burns will be busy with gingerbread house kits: “we ruthlessly compete the make the best decorated building – and shouts of ‘burny, burny, hot, hot!’ ring out as the sauce pan of sugar solution that acts as the glue is passed around.”

The living room in Francis Sultana's London flat, decorated for Christmas.

Paul Massey

A beautifully-laid tablescape, all dressed for Christmas, also in Francis' London flat.

Paul Massey

Edward Bulmer, meanwhile, “will be playing with the presents I have given the children which are secretly what I want for myself – so glass cutting all the bottles of wine Emma has drunk into summer glasses and improving my photos with the iPhoto lens set.” And Sarah Vanrenen has “a stock of things I’ve bought from the Hobby Craft shop that I will attempt to become immersed in. One year I made the whole family cotton shopping bags with their names stamped on them which are still used – this year I’ve got a mould-making kit, so let’s see what happens!” William Smalley is the midst of writing a book and so “will be spending the quiet days between Christmas and New Year by the fire, quietly editing text and selecting photos.  At least, that is what I’m telling everyone.  It’s possible I’ll be gorging on The Crown . . .”

Following traditions

Answers regarding carol services, Midnight Mass and more came flooding in, so much so that there is little point in listing the interior designers who intend to attend a service or three, some of them having the good fortune to live next to one or other of the most picturesque churches in rural Britain.

A Christmas service held at Truro Cathedral, in Cornwall.

Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

Emma Burns’s village in Oxfordshire “has a tradition on Christmas Eve when a band of Mummers go from house to house acting out an ancient play of good and evil.  No chance of any of the players fluffing their lines as the audience is of course word perfect and chant along.  It has a strange pagan feel and by the last performance in the local pub it has become extremely energetic,” she recounts.

Playing games and puzzling with puzzles

House & Garden Quilted Comfort Puzzle

A surprising number of interior designers, including Bunny Turner of Turner Pocock and Brandon Schubert, reveal that they love puzzles – though when you consider that decorating and arranging furniture is essentially a life-size puzzle of larger pieces, the surprise lessens.

Brandon – who’ll be in Texas with his family – reveals that “a few years ago we discovered a Scandinavian game called ‘kubb’, in which teams of players through wooden dowels to knock over their opponents’ wooden blocks.  It’s become something of a family tradition, so if the weather is nice enough we’re outside competitively throwing those sticks around on the lawn.” Mary Graham admits to “lots of competitive charades”, Sarah Vanrenen and her boys play Perrudo, “which all gets very rowdy and messy!” Susan Deliss loves backgammon, Racing Demon, and the Italian game Mercante in Fiera, and Susie Atkinson revels in “silly games like Ibble Dibble and Speak Out.”

Wintertime ‘spring cleaning’, DIY-ing and planning home improvements

“Come the 28th or 29th I’m straight into spring clean mode, whirring round the house tidying up and ‘thinning out’,” says Mary Graham.  Nina Campbell is looking forward to sorting out her famed china cupboard (home to the collection which makes her the veritable queen of tablescaping) and has brought in fold-up trestles to lay everything out on, “including all the glasses.  I want them going back in army-like ranks,” she says.

A beautiful Christmas tablescape in Duncan Campbell and Luke Edward Hall's jewel box cottage in the Cotswolds.

Mark Fox

Emma Burns, on the other hand, intends to use her lists of DIY projects as kindling for the fire (“although I do love making the lists,” she says); similarly, Susan Deliss declares “absolutely no DIY over those days whatsoever.”

The Hunting Lodge, to be visited during the in-between holiday period by Francis.

Francis Sultana

But Gavin is going to be sketching up plans for a kiln house to go somewhere in his Tangier garden, “which is very exciting,” and Francis will be visiting the Hunting Lodge, formerly the home of John Fowler and then Nicky Haslam, where works are ongoing. “I cannot wait to spend my first Christmas there next year when we will have a whole lot of new festive moments and memories to create,” he says.

Exploring the countryside, and other places

For Bunny Turner, long wintery walks in the Chilterns, made longer by errant dogs, start early – specifically on Christmas Eve when she and her children go out foraging for lichen, “apparently it’s a reindeer’s preferred food – carrots be damned,” she explains. Martin Brudnizki favours “a walk up into Kingley Vale, an old yew forest planted by the Vikings.” Olivia Outred will be exploring “the wilds of Hampstead Heath with friends, followed by a drink at The Hollybush,” before she decamps to Norfolk where she’ll “revisit my childhood haunts of Wells-next-the-Sea, Burnham Overy, and Brancaster for splashes in the sea with wellies on and two thousand jumpers.”  For both Alice Leigh and Edward Bulmer, marching up Welsh mountains is the order of the day, while Nicole Salvesen of Salvesen Graham and her family head to a south coast beach.

Lamb House – a Georgian house with literary association – in Rye, East Sussex is a must-see.

Others use the opportunity for overnighters, whether home or abroad.  Susie Atkinson is wisely taking a couple of days off packing up her home to go to Rye “for a re-charge and change of scene – I have never been there and know there is loads to see.”  (Living locally, I can confirm that’s true; Susie, don’t miss Lamb House, an exquisite Georgian townhouse where several writers – Rumer Godden, Henry James and Edith Wharton – have spent significant amounts of time.) Edward, once he’s conquered a Welsh mountain or two, is setting off for Switzerland, by train, “in search of some snow,” and Susan Deliss has plans for Paris. “I want to visit the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which is the burial place of the Kings of France – nearly every king from the 10th to the 18th century is there – and the Hôtel de la Marine on Place de la Concorde, which was built by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in the 18th century and was the headquarters of France’s navy ministry for over 200 years.”

Incidentally, it's Brandon Schubert, in Texas, who “drives around with a spotlight looking for wild pigs.”