Wrapped in Joy

Matthew Patrick Smyth gilds his country house with a childlike delight of Christmas..

By Sally Finder Weepie
Photos by John Bessler Produced by Tori Mellott

Christmas is here.

Time for sparkling snowflakes, twinkling lights, enchanting ornaments—and the decorating sophistication of a 10-year-old.

Really, designer Matthew Patrick Smyth says. “I don't think you should overstudy Christmas. It's a temporary, fleeting, special style. The main thing is to have fun with it. Don't worry about good taste—just go for it. Christmas gives you license to decorate.”

Matthew gleefully makes use of that license at his country house in Sharon, Connecticut, a 1790 Colonial that lends itself to a traditional Christmas with some playful twists—like the cheeky holiday finery dressing the busts of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in his living room.

“At the last minute, I looked at George and decided he needed to be wrapped with red ribbon,” Matthew says. “It takes out the seriousness and brings a smile to anyone who comes in this room.”

Reawakening a childlike joy is truly the heart of Christmas decorating, this designer believes. “It's not a contest. It's about having fun,” he says. “You can walk into a room and immediately see who felt tortured by their holiday decorating and who had fun. If you're amusing yourself and you're at ease, you put your guests at ease.” And isn't that the goal of a holiday party?

For Matthew, Christmas ease is the gift of years of practice. Before he was an A-list interior designer, he decorated windows at the Baccarat crystal store in New York City. “I had to change the windows and tree every week between Thanksgiving and Christmas to show off the maximum amount of merchandise. I learned to work fast,” he says with a laugh.

In fact, Matthew can have his entire country house festooned for the holidays before the rest of us have managed to untangle a single strand of lights. “I always set aside the second weekend of December for decorating—and do the decorating myself with no people hovering around,” he says. “I start Friday night and finish by Saturday night.”

Even the tree is all adorned before you can say Jolly Old St. Nick. “I have a system down,” Matthew says. “I can decorate a tree pretty fast.”

He uses many of the same ornaments each year, adding to his collection here and there on his frequent travels or whenever something catches his eye. “Occasionally I'll be at a flea market and I'll buy an ornament that reminds me of the Christmas tree from my childhood,” Matthew says. “We lost our ornaments in a fire when I was in fifth grade. It's nice to bring back those memories and find new keepsakes.”

Even a family of three twig deer gathered next to the tree evokes a sense of wonder. “I found them in a New York garden shop, and I just love them,” Matthew says. “Thanks to them, there's something to look at under the tree after the presents are gone.”

Those neatly wrapped packages are another of Matthew's Christmas stars. “I love gift-giving,” he says. “But I never want to buy a gift just for the sake of buying a gift. I pick up things when I see them during the year—things that my friends might not have seen or might not have thought of buying for themselves—an old postcard showing a friend's house long before he lived there, or a vintage magazine that includes an article about a favorite star.”

Similarly, the guest rooms at Matthew's home are never an afterthought. “I think about how each one functions for the person who stays there. It's so important,” he says. He stocks plenty of books and magazines, then adds special surprises tailored to the guest's interests—like vintage Royal Ballet playbills from the '50s and '60s for a ballet-loving friend.

Fresh flowers and found things from nature accentuate the festive mood through all the rooms in the house. “I like simple branches. I find things in my backyard,” Matthew says. “I also work with a great florist, Kamilla in Millerton, New York, on my wreaths. As an interior designer, I rely on people who do things well, who bring something to the table that I wouldn't have thought of. Kamilla is one of those people. The silver eucalyptus leaves in the dining room were her idea. I would never have found them.”

Sprinkling on Christmas sparkle is easy in this home, with its unequivocal Colonial charm. Built as a private residence, it was converted to The Iron Cauldron Inn—a hotel for teachers from the schoolhouse next door—then back to a single-family home in the 1940s. When Matthew bought it a decade ago, he renovated it back to its original state, savoring its rich history. “It's beautiful all year-round, but at Christmas it's even more special, with all the nooks and crannies to decorate,” he says. “I wouldn't miss the holiday season here. The town is so pretty too—the New England snow at Christmastime is perfect,” he says. “I love that I'm in the village, and I can walk around and explore.”

The wonder of the season drips like icicles of tinsel from the rooms of Matthew's home, from the village, and from the entire countryside as Matthew makes his way each weekend from New York City through the snow-covered countryside.

“What I love most about the Christmas season is my Friday night drive to the country,” he says, “seeing all the houses aglow, seeing what people do to celebrate the holidays. If someone has 800 ornaments lit up on the front yard, so be it. If it brings out the child in them, how nice is that?”

Interior designer: Matthew Patrick Smyth