Joanie Ballard on holiday gifts and design | Home Front

Dec 04, 2014

Joanie Ballard is the owner of R.H. Ballard Shop and Gallery in Washington, Virginia. She has tips for giving great gifts for for the holidays, tips for shopping in the country for the holidays and special towns or markets to see.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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We all need gift ideas this time of year. So I am happy to have Joanie Ballard on the chat today,  someone with wonderful taste and a beautiful store in Little Washington. Joanie Ballard is the owner of R.H. Ballard Shop and Gallery in Washington, Va. and she has great ideas for everyone on your list. Let's chat.


Hello everyone, for those who might not know me, here’s a brief background on me and my businesses. I opened r.h. ballard shop & gallery in 1997 in Little Washington, VA, along with my husband, Robert H. Ballard, and it was a fine art and rug gallery the first six years. We purchased our current 1929 building on Main Street in 2002, moved into the upstairs apartment, and expanded our business adding European home décor items, French table linens and fine gifts. We recently opened Artifacts-on-Main across the street, which offers one-of-a-kind architectural elements and ironwork, sculpture for both the garden and home. We have grown our inventory to include unique, handmade, artful, and sometimes quirky and fun gifts, apothecary items and women's accessories. Oh, and we outgrew the apartment upstairs and it's now used for offices, storage, shipping and inventory. I am excited to be here to help answer any questions you have about holiday gift giving, tips for unique gifts, and where to go for holiday shopping in the Virginia countryside.

What are some Christmasy things I can put around the house to make it feel more festive without going over the top?

This is a great question. You can go out and cut some magnolia branches and put them on a mantel or on top of a chest or side table. Buy a small topiary or olive tree or a live amaryllis plant. Hang some silver stars off your lighting fixtures of on your windows or mirrors. Put out bowls of pinecones or glass ornaments. What other ideas do you all have?

I'm an impulse shopper … in and out … but a bit of a tightwad. I guess I need to be convinced to spend a little more time shopping and a little more money to make the gift more memorable. How would you convince me?

I hear from many people who are craving a more personal shopping experience instead of just going to big-box stores My best advice for holiday shopping is that if you have to shop then make it a memorable experience for you. I advocate shopping stress-free local venues, shopping in small stores that have a unique mix of products or special focus, visually appealing and inspiring displays, and a staff that is helpful and by all means cheerful!  Nothing worse than a glum sales person, and good boutiques usually have trained and happy people to help you especially during the holidays. Don't be shy to voice your budget needs. That's very important during the holidays. Since I've run a shop & gallery in a small town for many years, I ultimately recommend small town shopping, - why?  Because you will remember that day of buying, eating out with friends/family, drinking local wine, talking to townspeople, staying in a charming B&B, and discovering unique shops well after all the Christmas rush is over. Christmas is for you too, you know? Create an experience with great memories for yourself and others, and in the process purchase unique and rare gifts in a small town. A win-win experience all around!  

Are there design or accessory books you love to read? Any suggestions?

Style & Simplicity: An A-Z Guide to Living a More Beautiful Life”, by retail friend Ted Kennedy Watson from WASTON-KENNEDY shops in Seattle, with great tips for everything, from flowers to table stings and collecting art. A great small book, easy to carry with you, great photos. Other new design titles I recommend are:  “Elements of Style” by Erin Gates (on a recent Q&A webchat!), “Jean-Louis Deniout Interiors”, by Diane Dorran Saeks, on his classic French style interior design, and just released “Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature,” by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti, on how to bring your favorite novel’s interiors to life in your own home. Another new and gorgeous book out this year is by my friend Nol Putnam, “Beauty in the Shadows”. It’s the first book ever about the extraordinary ironwork at the Washington National Cathedral. Nol Putnam designed and created several iron gates and entrances for the Cathedral (Blue Moon Press). Hope this helps!


Question about art - favorites? Hello ladies, the artwork of what artist(s) (past or present) is your favorite to hang on your walls?

Robert and I love an eclectic mix of art, we love many genres, from original Chagall lithographs to paintings by DeLoss McGraw or local favorites like Thomas Mullany, Paul Elenborn, Mark Poss, or wonderful etchings by Viviane de Kosinsky. I always say collect what you really love and you can't go wrong. You will always love looking at it every day. 

Jura... Your readers should follow Joanie and RHB on Facebook. Her photos are always so gorgeous. Meg@PigtownDesign (in rainy London!)

Thanks so much for your compliments, Meg! And enjoy your London trip!

We host a lot of parties. My favorite hostess gifts are things that I don't need to figure what to do with the moment you walk in the door, such as: (1) good chocolates; (2) a baked good I can eat for breakfast (that I don't have to cook!); (3) small decorative bowls which always come in handy at the next party; (4) fancy olive oil; and (5) a small plant - not cut flowers.

These are great ideas and very timely and thoughtful. I agree about all of these suggestions. It's nice to get wine but it's also nice to get something else. Love the idea of something to have for breakfast the next day when as a host or hostess you are exhausted and starving.  Does anyone else have ideas to add?

I never know what to get my coworkers for the holidays. I have a tighter budget then most of them, I think, but I don't want to skimp.

Have you ever given handmade ornaments,  pretty and unique items which can be found online on ETSY, for instance? ETSY has lots of creative options for those on a budget, not just ornaments but handmade journals and fun objects. I also recommend food items from small local bakeries (Triple Oak Bakery in Sperryville, VA or Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, VA) all have great options in this regard. If you call up a small shop like Coterie or Heritage Hollow Farms (both in Sperryville), they can help choose a few foodie items or other gifts within your budget and ship them to you. A creative option. Hope these ideas will assist you!

We're looking to purchase a new couch for our very small living room. How do we maximize seating capacity, comfort and design given such limited space?

I also have a very small living room. I needed a sofa 76-80 inches long, since that is the space available in my bay window. I was determined to get a sofa with three cushions - I didn't want a two-cushion model - that looks like a loveseat.  Narrow your choices by size and then by style. Check out places such as West Elm, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Room & Board, Crate & Barrel and Ikea.

Magnetic towel bars. Some come with hooks for pot holders; some are just towel racks.


expensive hand soaps and lotion, something I never have the time or money to buy.

I love receiving special soaps and lotions as a hostess gift!  Favorite New Soaps or Lotions on the market that I recommend are: LAFCO Chamomile-Lavender soaps and lotion, Pre de Provence Argan Oil Soap & Body Butter, Kalastyle Cedar Wood Soap & Avocado Soap (guys love it), and any body lotion from British company, Naturally European (my favorite scent is Ginger-Lime). A gift idea might be pairing a special soap with pretty ceramic dish, all wrapped in a selected hand towel and colorful ribbon. These are easy to get hostess gifts that are unusual and useful too.

Orchids are so elegant and long-lasting, and are now quite inexpensive. I'd like to decorate this year with orchid plants. Any helpful hints on how to do it (other than just using white orchids?) Thank you! P.S. The perfect hostess gift for me is an orchid plant! Love 'em!

You could do a line up of orchids on your mantel or buy some red or green or gold or silver cache pots to put small orchid plants in all over your house. I also love getting orchids as gifts. There are amazing buys on them at Trader Joes, Safeway and Whole Foods.

How much do you give the delivery guys for delivering furniture? Total three big pieces and two small tables. This is Frederick if it makes any difference.

If it's two guys I would give them $20 or $25 each.

Speaking as a co-worker recipient, please go for the consumables. Any knickknacks that I receive go straight to the Salvation Army box, and I have enough tree ornaments for several trees, even though I usually don't put one up.. Starbucks gift cards are very popular in my office. Even the ones who don't drink coffee might want tea or hot chocolate sometime. My co-workers are getting a little box of brownies and a packet of Fresh Paper (Spice-soaked paper that helps preserve produce. It worked great with summer's berries.)

Very creative ideas. Starbucks cards are always welcome and work for anyone at any age.

I struggle every christmas to come up with ideas for my In-laws. My husband is no help. What are some gift ideas for people who dont need anything and are in a place in there life where they are getting rid of things (downsizing?) I cannot get them another lands end fleece...

For this kind of dilemma I always recommend giving an "experienced-based"  gift. Something they will gain a beautiful memory from. Since I live in the Virginia countryside  I am a big advocate for experience-based gifts that include small trips to the country. You would not have to do all of these things, but I am recommending all of these ideas as a start.  a night at a beautiful B&B (Foster House B&B in Little Washington, VA) adding a tour at a Distillery (Copper Fox Distillery, Sperryville, VA), drinks at a local pub (Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill), dinner at a NOLA inspired resto (Tula's off Main in Little Washington, VA). And spend the next day shopping around the villages of Rappahannock County. A special gift they will remember long after the Christmas rush!

What are you recommending for hostess gifts this year? Something in the $20-50 range, but preferably something a little more unusual than a candle or bottle of wine. Thanks

Great question, here are a few more ideas for you about hostess gifts: Just Slate Co. creates these wonderful hand-cut black slate coasters with cushioned bottoms, a set of 4 for $45., in a nice embossed box. Fishs Eddy Painter Pallet Coasters, $9.95, are unique and for the creative type.  Golden Salt cellars with a golden branch spoons from Vagabond Vintage is a super unique hostess gift ($24.-$32.). 

Any suggestions for a gift to give my significant others parents? Should I get a joint gift, or two separate things? I know this is kind of personal, but I'm floundering.

I always suggest a joint gift that perhaps has a usefulness to it, like a pretty serving tray, food items like French Butcher salt and a pretty salt cellar,  a basket of "like" items from their favorite 

I never had much trouble choosing gifts for my younger sister before, but this year, before Thanksgiving, she lost her husband unexpectedly at age 60. I am at a loss for something warm and caring, but not reminiscent of past gifts; we have been accustomed to giving inexpensive, rather light-hearted items with some meaning (i.e. candles meant a lot to them so every few years I would give special beeswax candles; other times family photos, or when we moved, a big box of products created in our new location). Ideas to jump-start my thinking are very welcome!

So sad to hear that. You are a sweet sister. What about a faux fur throw? There are many beautiful cozy ones out there from Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and other places. I think it would be a comforting gift.

Thanks Joanie for all those great ideas. I hope I can get out to your store soon. We'll have more holiday advice next Thursday when Vanessa Holden, senior vice president and creative director of West Elm joins the chat. Bye for now.

Thanks so much for the chat, everyone! Hope my suggestions will come in handy as you shop your way through the Christmas season!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Joanie Ballard
Joanie Ballard is the owner of R.H. Ballard Shop and Gallery in Washington, Va.
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