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Hamptons Life

Nov 27, 2017 11:56 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Talking Tree Trimming With Interior Designer Francis Toumbakaris

A tree by Francis Toumbakaris. MATTHEW RANEY
Nov 27, 2017 12:28 PM

Manhattan-based interior designer Francis Toumbakaris fills a special niche during the holiday season: custom Christmas tree trimming.

Mr. Toumbakaris—who was featured on the first season of HGTV’s competition show “Brother vs. Brother” as a member of Team Jonathan—decks the halls of his clients’ Upper East Side penthouses and second homes in the Hamptons.

For those who prefer to decorate their trees and homes themselves, the Athens native and former professional dancer has advice to share, as he offers insights into his methods.

The Press: How do you go about deciding on the theme of a household’s tree?

Francis Toumbakaris: I conduct extensive communication with the homeowners. I ask to see photos of their space, understand the overall aesthetic of the house, the color palette, the furnishings and architectural elements. Then we decide if we want a classic traditional feel or something more on the modern side or in between. We discuss if we want the tree to blend in with the house decor or if we want it to be an accent.

I treat the trees as great pieces of art that have a lot of movement. Our clients always say that our trees are “dancing.” Most of the time I treat the design and the theme of the tree as if the tree is a lady/or a guy who is going to a ball or will walk the red carpet at the Oscars and then I dress it appropriately and with lots of jewelry. It’s like a couture gown or bespoke tuxedo.

From an aesthetic perspective, what are the biggest mistakes families make when decorating their trees?

A few common mistakes I see on trees is not having large enough ornaments. Or when you look from afar things don’t feel balanced. Also too much red ribbon or too many poinsettia. Poinsettia is a beautiful plant on its own and can live in the planter in the house and is a beautiful red accent if red is the theme. It doesn’t have to go on your tree too though.

Most of the time the trees I see at home just don’t have enough elements on them. When I give tips to people decorating their trees I say to them, when you shop and your cart is full and you think “that’s a lot,” I say double it! I have never decorated a tree and had to return things because too much of something. Fill those trees up, it’s never too much. If you doubt this statement, then let us do your tree!

Do you stick to using lights of a certain size and color, or mix it up?

As a designer with a background in theater—lighting is everything!

I like the warm white light as base and I prefer the older technology lights because I put them on a dimmer. Depending on the theme I also add several other lighting elements and sometimes include color. So, if I was doing a tree that had a whimsical fairy-kissed feel, I would use a few additional strings of lighting that I would put farther inside the tree in a purple/pinkish color. However, I am not a big fan of the multicolor lighting.

How do you balance the goal of creating a stylish, attractive tree with fulfilling a family’s desire to hang heirloom and kid-crafted ornaments?

That’s a great question and in these cases I often recommend that they have more than one tree in the house.

If a client comes to me and says they are hosting a formal catered party with 100 guests and they want to make an impression, then the heirloom and kids-crafted ornaments have to find another home and that wouldn’t be the “main” formal tree in the house.

It’s no different from having a Thomas Pheasant furnished living room with a handmade pillow on the sofa from your aunt in Italy that has a tambourine cross stitched on it. You simply wouldn’t place that particular pillow on that sofa. Having said that, we have been able to design trees that have incorporated all of the family ornaments that mean a lot to our clients and even some things their kids made that we can insert in nice frames and hang on the tree.

When decking the halls, does it make a big difference whether the decorations spread throughout the home match the decorations on the tree?

It makes a huge difference. But just like an interior design project, too much match-y match-y can be tacky.

A home always needs to be balanced and have a nice mixture of elements. So if we design a tree that has one large bow of red ribbon, and red ribbon becomes a garland that wraps around that tree, then I wouldn’t necessarily have red bows/ribbons throughout that room. That would just be too much. But I would have some red elements to balance the tree off.

Given the soaring ceilings that many Hamptons homes offer, do you prefer a tall tree, when possible?

Yes, as tall as possible, yet in proportion to the room and more importantly in proportion to a nearby design element. So, to determine the height of tree, if it goes near a fireplace, I base it off of the height of the fireplace mantel, etc. Or I take into consideration where a chandelier or lighting fixture is hanging in the room. I have decorated trees that are 14 to 16 feet in height and we bring in double scaffolding to do so.

The holiday tree needs to be the center of attention on your holiday decoration and I always say: Go big or go home ...

Do you ever recommend more than one Christmas tree in a house?

Absolutely yes. If the home/house has large foyer, a formal living room, a family room or kids have their own space then, yes. If I had my way, each of these spaces would have a tree that would perfectly fit the room

The eternal debate: Real tree versus artificial tree?

There are pros and cons to both, like everything in life:

The real tree is gorgeous and smells great. However, it doesn’t come with lights. Properly lighting a real tree is quite the operation and not as easy to have the perfectly hidden wires on an artificial pre-lit tree.

Also, based on the heat and humidity of a home, a real tree can dry up very quickly with needles shedding and the branches can turn brown as quickly as 15 days. You’ll also, obviously, have to get a new one every year.

I personally prefer a high quality artificial pre-lit tree. Stores like Fortunoff and Balsam Hill along with Martha Stewart and GE sold at Home Depot are my go-to sources for the trees we decorate.

The higher-end trees look very full and realistic, they are perfectly lit and they last from year-to-year if you have the ability to store them. They also allow me to move and shape the branches to accommodate the ornaments and decorations I am using and make space for them as needed.

For more information, visit http://www.francisinteriors.com.

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