Q&A: Carolyne Roehm on how to style a beautiful holiday in your home

Carolyne Roehm
Nov 29, 2018

Carolyn Roehm is widely known as an author, tastemaker and entertaining expert. She developed a fashion career with Oscar de la Renta, and later launched her own fashion house and became acclaimed for her expertise in design, gardening, decorative arts and beautiful table settings. Her 13th book has just been published by Rizzoli: "Design & Style: A Constant Thread." She has lots of ideas for creating a beautiful home for the holidays.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Carolyn Roehm is widely known as an author and decorating and entertaining expert. Her work is wide ranging and she has published books showcasing her talents in interiors, fashion, flowers, gardens and table design and She developed a fashion career with Oscar de la Renta, and later launched her own fashion house. Bill Blass once called her "the ultimate tastemaker."  She has created lines of table linens, home fragrance and glassware, among other things. Her 13th book has just been published by Rizzoli: "Design & Style: A Constant Thread." She has lots of ideas for creating a beautiful home for the holidays.


Good morning from snowy CT ….It is a perfect day for a chat —   i have my Cappuccino in hand a fire in the fireplace and 3 of my dogs sleeping around my desk and I look forward to your questions


Hi Carolyne: I love all your beautiful tables. Can you give us some ideas for some simple yet beautiful Christmas table flower ideas? Thanks!

​While flowers are always beautiful, Christmas is perhaps the one time of year when you can really add fantasy and play to a tabletop so don’t be afraid to try something different. In the past, I’ve done baskets filled with pine cones or bowls of red and green grapes which can look gorgeous and very seasonal. 

On your Instagram, you had a video mixing real flowers with faux flowers. Which flowers are the best to buy real and which ones are best to buy fake?

​It​ is​ a matter of visuals always - there are fantastic flowers that can be found in places like ​Trader ​Joes and ​Whole​ ​Foods and in corner groceries if you keep an open mind. Regarding fake flowers - quality is key. They are a great base for arrangements and can help you achieve the volume and shape you desire, then you can go in with real flowers to bring the arrangement to a whole new level. 

For people that are affraid to decorate with color, what is your best advice to get them out of the gray and white slump?

Everyone has a color they like and respond to. Before you start applying paint and ordering fabrics, don't be afraid to start a storyboard or interest board online. Remember that colors also have many nuances - red for example has many shades like coral, Chinese red, etc - experiment and find the right shades you love and work for your room before you dive in and commit to something you might end up hating in six months.


Is there a great holiday signature cocktail that is a punch? Don’t want to see Tom and Jerry or Hot Buttered rum too heavy

I happen to love pink champagne or prosecco. It's bubbly, affordable and comes in a huge variety. Mixed drinks don't always work for everyone so sometimes it's easier to keep it straightforward - plus you can always elevate a simple cocktail by garnishing with fruit. 

Is there an elegant way to do plastic Christmas trees or is it better to just go with the real thing?

I've done both! I love spraying green faux trees with snow, it gives them a fantastic effect and softens the green. I've also done this in powder blue which was wonderful. Sometimes it's just too much to do a big tree so don't feel pressured - the quality of the faux trees have come a long way and if it's the fragrance that you're missing... there are a ton of scented candles that will do the trick!

Hi Carolyne, I've recently moved into a new home. I've redone the place with a light contemporary feeling. I've used a lot of whites, grays, and some touches of gold. I live in the midwest where it's cold and a bit dreary this time of year. Do you have any suggestions on how I could warm up my space for the holidays? I would like to keep it uncluttered and maintain the clean simple look I have if possible.

As you already have touches of gold in the space, I'd play with candles, especially in hurricanes, which will give any room a warm, glamorous feel.

What is your favorite home fragrance candle for the holidays?

 I just launched two new scented candles of my own on www.carolyneroehm.com - the red candle is a little more holiday. Beyond that, some of the classics are Balsam by Agraria.

What are your favorite, go-to color schemes for creating festive holiday décor?

Gold and Red is always fantastic. However, this year, I am experimenting with Blue and White - my all time favorite color combo.

When decorating the tree do you usually go for a matchy, matchy look or do you believe in showcasing heirloom ornaments that you have collected over the years? I have so many ornaments passed down in my family, I'd love any advice on how to make it look cohesive.

I like to take out all of the ornaments that have meaning and spread them out on a white sheet next to the tree. With a blank slate as your background, you can usually find one predominant color, maybe it's blue or gold and then I buy additional baubles in that key color to help tie it all together. You can also add in different finishes in the key color like satin and glass which again help bring the tree together to make it look cohesive, yet memorable. 

Your iconic book "A Passion for Flowers" set a high bar for how to integrate beautiful flowers and vessels into classical interior and garden table settings. . . what do you see as the new top trends for decorating with flowers?

Frankly, I do not follow trends. I've always just followed my instincts and experiment with what I'm in love with at the moment - be it a color or texture... In everything I've ever done I've tried not to follow trends. 

This is a question for Jura: in the past, there would be a theme, and crafters from all around the US would make ornaments for the WH Christmas trees. Michelle Obama would invite the children of military families for a party, etc. Has all of this disappeared now?

Each First Lady handles the holiday decorations in her own way. Last year, Melania Trump invited children and students from Joint Base Andrews to the White House to view the 2017 holiday decorations and she participated in arts and crafts programs with them. This year she chose not to attend the press preview.

Here is my story on this year's holiday decorations at the White House.

I am loving all the oversized floral arrangements in your book. I would love to arrange something similar for the table in my foyer, for the holidays. Which flowers should I use to create something festive and dramtic?

You can start with a base of Christmas branches like quince Ilex to create a dramatic shape. From there you can add the flowers you love. In my house in Charleston, I've also decorated with branches sprayed gold which gave the most incredible effect. You can also wire pine cones in which adds a seasonal touch. 

In the spirit of the season, I wanted to alert you all to my story on unsung heroes. It's a piece on how little gifts to the special people in your life are a wonderful thing to consider during the holidays. The experts at Secretly Gifting provided five great ideas for presents that would work for many on your life and in your life. Read the story here.

When decorating with garland and wreaths, do you go for the real thing or do you buy faux?

I do both and usually mix the two. I love the scent of real wreathes but given there are so many beautiful faux wreaths - it is lovely to have something special you can use over and over again. I just got a wonderful wreath from the Wisteria catalog which is lovely - and you can always add real botanic elements into a faux to give it a little more texture. Some natural things I love to add in are juniper berries and seeded eucalyptus. Boxwood is always great for adding extra body into a faux wreath too!

Hi Carolyne! Always have been a fan of yours! How would you do up a Holiday Hanukkah House?

I've always collected blue and white porcelain which is perfect for decorating, especially Hanukkah-themed. It's my favorite color combination! In these vases, I mix carnations, white roses and green accents like seeded eucalyptus or juniper berries to give the arrangements more life. I've also found green and white variegated ivy at the flower markets before and it looks fantastic with blue/white decorations. 

What's your favorite source for holiday pillows? Some of mine have seen better days and need to be replaced.

The Sandor collection makes wonderful pillows and stockings!

Do you have any ideas for wreaths or other greenery to use on a red door?

How fantastic to have a red door this time of year! You can't go wrong with a greenery and pine cone wreath on a door with so much color. 

I hate the way Chrismas Tree Skirts can look sometimes -- it can read so cheap. Do you have any ideas on alternative ways to hide the christmas tree stand and make it look elevated?

I always like to put mossy green felt below the tree which is then covered with Christmas branches so that the whole floor appears natural. This is also a great surface to lay gifts upon. 

I've been loving topiarys this year? I was thinking of using them to decorate my 12-person dining table. Do you have any tips on how I could give them a holiday spin?

So funny you should ask, in the past I have done a topiary Christmas theme where I displayed a series of mini boxwoods on the tabletop, one of which included a boxwood Christmas tree! A simple way to dress them up is by tying a lovely big ribbon around the pot or planter to add in another color like red or gold into the mix. I've also sprayed the flower pots gold which is a nice touch for the holiday season.


When do you start decorating for the holidays? Some people start before Thanksgiving, some after, some right before Christmas. What's the etiquette?

There is no hard and fast etiquette here. My partner, who isn't American can't stand decorating too early and for me, I'd start decorating right after Halloween if I could! I think the only real rule here is taking the decorations down after the holidays and not letting them linger - the day after New Years feels right to me. 

In your book you had a page with the most beautiful wrapped green gifts. Any ideas on chic ways to elevate gift wrapping this season?

One of the best ways to create a beautiful look is to always have a theme. If the theme is green - mix as many hues and textures as possible. Also, have fun with ribbons - there are hundreds of beautiful shades of green to play with!

Do you ever get stuck when trying to make a design decision and if so, how do you handle it?

Don't be afraid to give the problem time - look at it in different moods, under different lighting situations. Ask for the opinions of others. Design is a process, not a destination. 

I am hosting some giflfriends at my new home for a holiday cocktail party. I'd love some ideas on how to create a chic holiday-themed bar cart? Any ideas you can send my way?

I always decorate my bar cart in addition to the drinks on them. You can simply place a small bouquet on the cart or sometimes even wrap a garland around one. Finally, if the drinks are festive and holiday-themed like eggnog, you can't go wrong. 

Good morning! Any ideas for holiday decorating with an ocean/beach theme?

There is always so much fun to be had when you have a theme. Fortunately, there are so many beautiful decorations for people who celebrate near an ocean. Shells and driftwood covered in snow can be beautiful. You could even do a theme of white coral set in a bed of snow. 

A 76 year old widow, so far active and independent, and currently living in a relatively large house for a single (old) person (approx. 2,600 sq ft), I recently put a large down payment on a tiny (735 sq feet!!!) apartment in a yet-to-be-built CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Community) here in New England. After the sudden death of my husband in 1999, and after many years having lived together abroad, I returned to New England and bought my existing house. Having been an interior designer, among other things, pre-marriage (in Texas), I was eager to decorate my new fixer upper and spent the next several years doing what I could afford (piece meal) and built, in addition, a beautiful carriage house garage to my own design. I installed lots of black French doors and new windows, crown molding, plantation shutters and rustic contemporary??? I have loved it - and hated also what still needs to be done, but which I can no longer afford to do. Back in the say, I did all of the interior painting myself - which now in my dotage seems like an impossibly impressive feat - but I was still in my late 50s when I started this personal project- still able to climb ladders with aplomb and sit down on the floor to paint molding without needing to grab hold of support to get up again! Those days are over. Bottom line, in about a year or so, I will be moving to my new digs - and have the daunting task of downsizing my beloved household possessions - and making decisions about how I will live with MUCH less in my teeny place until the end. I hate the thought of all of it, but the die is cast - I made the commitment to a retirement community because I had recently been released from the wait list (with a likely 5 to 10 years wait) so great is the demand for this community with those in my demographic (and even w/those couples in their 60s, who are, BTW, the majority of new residents). Because this community has just recently completed ground breaking, its first occupants, like me, are able to customize their various sized apartments. We can opt for upgrades from the standard offerings by way of flooring, carpet, plumbing and light fixtures, hardware, shelving, choices of cabinetry colors, countertops, paint colors, and the like. I have been out of the design world, as a professional, for over 30 years, though I still recognize the importance good design plays in my life. Now I need general advice on what is trending and also of value and what can I reasonably expect to do in only 735 sq feet and still be content. I still favor rustic contemporary - have been used to living with three or four colors in all my migrations across the globe: beige, white, black, chocolate and/or powder blue for fabric and paint. They've worked well for me. Love texture. Rustic "farm" antiques - mainly French. Old beams, light colored wood. I hope to do Plantation shutters on the bedroom and LR windows. Also classic crown molding for 9 foot ceiling rooms. BTW, the architectural design of the community in the common areas is to be "farmhouse industrial," but what we do within our own apartments is up to us. Philosophically speaking, what attitude should I strike to remain psychically healthy with this transition? (There are many like me who are in similar troubled positions...) Humbly, Barbara

Barbara - I understand your dilemma. It's a complicated question and I don't want to write something off the cuff. I'm facing this issue with my family and myself. Would you be able to email me at my blog www.carolyneroehm.com and I'll give this some thought. 

Do you look to style icons from the past for inspiration when decorating? If so, who is most inspiring to you and why?

We all build on expertise from the past! The challenge is to take these ideas and put your own twist on them. I am a classicist and a traditionalist so, I've always loved and admired the work of Pauline de Rothschild, Elsie de Wolfe, and Henri Samuel.

Hi Carolyne, congrats on your new book, which is beautiful! Are you already thinking about the next one? What lies ahead for your creative pursuits?

I'm already thinking about the next one! That's the nature of my brain although, I must admit there are times when I say to myself "stop it, Carolyne, focus on music or something else!" But... I've already started working on a book about Charleston and a collection of chinoiserie jewelry.

How do you decorate your staircase for the holidays? I never know what to do?

I've done it many ways! I've used garlands of greenery with grosgrain at the ends, and even a garland made of pine cones once!

What are they made of?

We were not provided information from the White House on what they were made of. But from what I saw, they  are made of red berries - the kind you buy at the floral design shop - they are not fresh berries as some have reported. And they are not cranberries.


I am sure you receive a ton of holiday cards? Do you have a chic way to display them?

I'd forgotten about the tradition of displaying Christmas cards which I feel is so charming. I wish I received more to decorate with, but I always just keep them in a little basket to read over in private moments. 

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful and charming questions - they have forced me to put on my Holiday thinking cap! This chat has been exactly what the holiday spirit is about - sharing ideas with others ! I wish every one of you a blessed and joyful holiday.  

P.S. I do believe that pictures are worth a thousand words and hope that I can share pictures from my favorite holidays ever soon on my blog at www.carolyneroehm.com 

So nice to have Carolyne Roehm chatting with us today. Thanks so much for doing it. Next week my chat guest will be designer James Farmer, a Southern born and bred professional garden, floral and interior designer; plus cook, author and entertaining expert.

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 and organizing.

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Carolyne Roehm
Style icon and lifestyle maven Carolyne Roehm has been part of American design culture for over four decades, with a career spanning the fashion, gardening, entertaining, publishing and decorative arts worlds.
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