Pro at work: Do not try this at home Decorating: If we turn to professionals to trim our Christmas trees, can professional present openers be far behind?

December 24, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

From a ladder top, John Urquhart starts at the peak of the Stamas family's 12-foot Christmas tree and works his way down and around, spinning a wondrous web of huge and small poinsettia balls, harps, garlands, gilded artificial ivy and blooms to create a "really classy, rich and natural look" in gold and white.

"It's a very opulent year," Urquhart observes.

The tree stands majestically in the foyer of the Ruxton home where attorney George Stamas, his wife Georgia and their three children live.

This remarkable tree, like so many others Urquhart decorates, epitomizes everything festive and evergreen about the season. With this tree, how can Christmas be anything but bright? This tree demands spirit and parties and joy. Be merry or else, this tree commands.

This time of year, Urquhart himself commands handsome sums for decking the halls for clients like the Stamases. In a burgeoning field of professional holiday decorators, he is among the area's most sought-after. He and his kind are taking over decorating duty for more and more area homes.

It took Urquhart four hours to complete the Stamas' tree. It "probably would take four days for a novice," he says.

So what about us novices?

We're sunk. Urquhart and other floral decorators have spoiled our sugarplum visions for eternity. Those of us who even attempt to decorate a tree with our frayed strings of lights, crinkled ribbons, fading home-made ornaments, and not quite enough store-bought ones are destined to fall short of their professional perfection.

And forget triage. An emergency run to MK Designs won't cut it. At least not without a trained eye like Urquhart's.

It's too bad, but Christmas is not for amateurs anymore. We will never again respect ourselves on Christmas morning.

Baltimore is not known as a bellwether when it comes to fads. But judging from the small fleet of floral designers like Urquhart hired to decorate interiors, trees and building facades for Christmas, it's clear we've been hit with a Martha Stewart-esque trend that may forever alter holiday traditions such as tree trimming, baking cookies and opening presents.

Once we're released from these responsibilities, we may be able to hire someone to celebrate Christmas for us while we go to Florida.

For Georgia Stamas, however, hiring Urquhart was a necessary luxury. Her husband, general counsel to the Orioles, is often away. And she's not about to get up on a ladder.

Last year, "after 15 years of marriage, I wanted a grown-up look," she says. Additionally, the Stamases were planning a Christmas party for 200. So she traded in her children's homemade ornaments for expensive designer decorations with a poinsettia theme she purchased in Virginia.

Still, "I wasn't sure I could get the look I wanted by myself," Georgia Stamas says. So she called Urquhart.

This year's tree came from the Potting Shed in Cockeysville -- with the lights already attached. Urquhart, whose Christmas consulting work is a free-lance job he does in addition to working at a downtown florist shop, arrived at the Stamas home to put it all together.

Urquhart's second career began accidentally.

Word-of-mouth

"I started out doing a couple of friends' homes and those referrals just grew and grew and grew. People are calling me all the time. I'm doing at least a dozen this year. It's not just trees. I'm talking stairways, doorways, mantels, chandeliers -- believe it or not -- just dripping with greens and velvets."

It may cost as little as $200 or a little more than $1,000 to decorate a home for Christmas, says Urquhart, who every year creates a magnificent tree for his own home, too. (This year, he transformed his evergreen into a snow queen.)

Christmas decorating services are not just for the ultra-affluent, says Teresa Kastner, a free-lance floral interior decorator who lives in Parkville. Her trade is expanding from the wealthiest Baltimore neighborhoods to those that are merely upper-middle-class, such as Cedarcroft, she says.

The clients "without children seem to be the ones that go all out," Kastner says. And from time to time, a homeowner hoping to win the neighborhood Christmas decoration contest will ask for her surreptitious assistance.

As Christmas buyer and decorator at Valley View Farms, Prudence Preston sees "more and more people coming in and asking" about decorating services, often people frustrated by their inability to get the lights on as prettily as Preston manages to do. (The secret is to wrap them around the tree branches from the bottom up, she says.) And so, she began to work with clients who wanted their trees shaped, lighted and decorated.

Look-alikes

Sometimes the customers supply the ornaments, often family keepsakes, Preston says. Others will visit the Valley View display, point to a decorated tree and ask for the same treatment at home.

Others take an even more direct route. A customer at a Frank's Nursery & Crafts store was observed this month purchasing an entire display tree. Those behind him in line had to wait while every ornament was individually rung up.

For five years, Preston and an assistant decorated a 12-foot tree for a young couple who "wanted to impress their parents," she says. The designing women would typically spend three evenings after work on the tree and charge $700.

Preston didn't decorate the couple's tree this year. She thinks they got a divorce.

Ordinarily, Preston is so burned out, she doesn't bother with a tree at home. But now that she has a child, she decorates one there as well. Would she consider hiring someone to adorn it for her?

Never. That's "not Christmas to me," she says.

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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