DIYdiy projectsholidays

David Stark’s Holiday DIYs at The State Department

by Grace Bonney

Today I’m so thrilled to feature a series of guest posts from one of my favorite designers (and people), David Stark! Welcome, David! xo, grace

My team and I just had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We decorated the storied Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department in Washington D.C. to celebrate the holidays and the rooms’ 50th anniversary. What an honor —Time, Inc. and InStyle Magazine invited us to collaborate with them on this amazing project, and our co-conspirator, Ariel Foxman, InStyle’s fearless leader, set the course for our creative journey.

Like any project we do, we are extremely reactive to the spaces at hand. Few people know — and I was at the head of the line — that these rooms even exist. But with over $100,000,000 worth of American heritage antiques, this is one of the country’s most important museums, and yet unlike other museums whose sole purpose is to showcase art, this museum is busier than Grand Central Station, hosting diplomats, ceremonies, meetings, summits and international and national celebrations. Thus, any décor that we created for the holidays needed to be flexible. It had to be able to move, it could not attach to walls, we could not screw or nail into anything and we had a pretty short window of time to install it, simply because the rooms are in such high demand for use.

Ariel and I wanted to honor the unique period of the rooms, and yet, we also wanted to give them the modern, creative zing that is so endemic to InStyle. Glamour is not about being expensive. Rather, in this case, it was about using accessible materials — ribbon, Christmas balls and gift-wrap in extremely creative, unexpected ways.

CLICK HERE for the full post (and TONS of beautiful photos) and DIY holiday projects after the jump!

The entry hallway is grand and yet there were few surfaces we were able to touch. The solution? An area rug of peppermint stripes immediately changes the context and sets the tone for the guests’ arrival.

In the Jefferson Room, a mirrored plexi-tree is at once modern in shape and material but classic in iconography. Invented by Susie Montagna of my team, the tree perfectly captures the balancing act we were going for. It reflects the room in its every angle, so it is absolutely grounded in the space, BUT it is totally modern at the same time. You need fewer ornaments, too, as the mirror magnifies the quantity in its reflection. (Wink!)

It was great fun to mix high and low. We were lucky enough to use many of the house antiques, like the vases on the mantle that host a burst of our recycled paper and Mylar flowers or even antique cake stands where a menagerie of holiday ornaments, wrapped gifts and other glimmering moments — like West Elm’s chic mercury birds or our mosaic mirror bottles — make for a great holiday moment.

Ribbon (about 5 miles of it) was our hero in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room. Instead of traditional fir trees that I am always sad about cutting down, we invented ribbon trees with scallops of gold balls that amped up the other gilded architectural details of the room. Ribbon wreaths and other décor moments inspired by the art in the room rounded out the detail.

A room where some of the highest-level executives host dinners and lunches houses a grand table, running its entire length. We turned this into a winter forest to get lost in. I simply adore these nutcrackers — classic in their form, made modern in their lacquered white.

I am a big believer in balancing complicated décor moments with simpler, quiet vignettes. These, inspired by the art works in the room, rely on wrapped gifts as décor and an array of clustered, stylized trees to further extend the views in the paintings.

The folks at the State Department could not have been lovelier to collaborate with, and we had such fun with Ariel and the team from InStyle, inventing and making cool stuff. But I have to thank my team immensely, who are really the stars of this show. I always say that David Stark Design is a team sport, and this project could not have been a better example of that! You guys amaze me — constantly.

Now . . . while the rooms are certainly grand, many of the ideas that we employed are not. The garlands, in particular, can be carried out to many visual ends, whether in metallics or even vintage ornaments. Here’s how:

Garland Directions


  • plastic-beaded garland
  • ornaments (the kind with the detachable metal cap)

To attach an ornament to the garland, gently pull the metal cap from the ornament and separate the wire loop from the cap. Place the cap back on the ornament. Slip the wire loop around the garland and, pinching the wire ends together, insert them through the cap on the top of the ornament so that they spring open inside of it and hold it in place.

I have always loved the English tradition of holiday crackers, and I have always thought about using leftover cardboard toilet-paper tubes for SOMETHING. Spencer from our team came up with a fun idea that combines both interests. (Wink!)

Store-bought crackers traditionally contain a crown, a little gift, a joke, a candy or two and confetti. There are deluxe versions of this with silver offerings, and there are more basic models with plastic trinkets, but any which way, they are fun.

Here’s what you will need:

  • 1 toilet-paper roll
  • old book pages
  • decorative paper
  • 1 riddle
  • 1 Mylar crown (we used our David Stark for West Elm ones, but you could make or buy others that roll up tightly)
  • shredded book pages
  • cardstock or heavier-weight paper
  • a piece of candy or small toy
  • metallic cord or ribbon
  • 2 cracker devices per cracker (available at www.oldenglishcrackers.com)

You will also need:

  • X-Acto or craft knife
  • hot glue gun
  • Scotch tape
  • double-stick tape
  • paper towel roll to use as a guide

Cracker Directions

1. Begin by cutting the pretty paper into a 6.5” x 12” rectangle. Cut one 6.5” x 3.5” strip of the book pages for the center, and two 6.5” x 1.5” strips for the ends. Cut two 6.5” x 2.25” strips of the cardstock. (These will be used to keep the shape of the ends of the cracker.)

2. Cut the paper towel roll in half. Roll the decorative paper around the paper towel roll to create an overlap, and apply a line of glue to form a tube, being sure to glue the paper to itself and not to the paper towel roll.

3. Slide both pieces of the paper towel roll out so that you are left only with a paper tube. Then insert a toilet paper roll in the center of the tube.

4. To help the ends of the cracker keep their shape, roll one of the cardstock strips and insert it into one end of the paper tube and glue in place. Do the same on the other side.

Tip: at this point, you can gently score the paper tube by running the knife all the way around the tube in the middle (as if you are cutting the cracker in half) to ensure that when the cracker is pulled apart, there is a clean break. Be sure not to cut all the way through the paper.

6. Finish decorating the tube by wrapping the book paper strips around the center and ends of the tube and affixing with glue or double-stick tape.

7. Now it’s time to add the device that creates the “pop” sound when the cracker is pulled apart.

Tip: It is possible to use a single cracker device per cracker. However, for a more satisfying and reliable “pop,” double them up and reinforce them by taping along the length of each side, leaving only the center exposed.

8. Insert the party cracker device and, using glue, attach one end of the device to the inside edge of the tube.

9. To add the stuffing, first cinch one end of the tube and tie off with ribbon or cord. Fill with the crown, shredded book pages, riddle and anything else you want to include.

10. Then cinch and tie the other end of the tube. Finally, glue the free end of the cracker device to the inside edge of the tube on the side you’ve just tied. Trim any excess from the end.

11. Place on a folded napkin at each place setting.

The British party tradition, as I know it, requires all of the guests around the table to open their crackers simultaneously. At once, every guest holds one end of their cracker in one hand and an end of their neighbor’s cracker in the other hand, creating a chain around the table. On the count of three, everyone pulls, and with a bang and a smile everyone compares their surprises inside. FUN!



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  • This is the most amazing Christmas decor I’ve seen all
    season. It makes me want to become a stylist. OMG. Lovely. This is
    the meaning of a glam Christmas!

  • I’m definitely a fan of a good gold spay painted
    pinecone…I did a batch this year. Those ribbon trees are
    amazing…so much good stuff in this post! Best, Anna

  • Wow, just amazing. Love the ribbon trees and wreath. Very
    inventive. The DIY garland with those amazing vintage ornaments is
    awesome – can’t wait to try it.

  • This post will inspire me for years. I’m curious where one
    could get the large hoops used for the ribbon trees and wreaths.
    Something like that would make a dynamite shade for a

  • Wow! Congratulations on getting invited to design such an
    historic setting, it looks absolutely amazing! The simple color
    choices and interesting natural details are just fabulous. Great
    balance of glitz and simplicity.

  • My favourite are the silver and book page flowers with the
    jewels! How did you make them?

  • Those ribbon trees are genius. I feel vindicated by having so much (treasure) in my basement by his comment “and I have always thought about using leftover cardboard toilet-paper tubes for SOMETHING”. Maybe that will keep my husband from throwing out all my other Very Valuable Materials! Great job, Mr. Stark and Company.

  • Simply stunning. I’m swooning over here in freezing cold Canada!

    Love love love that ornament garland, and suddenly have the urge to spray paint my fiance’s collection of nut crackers…. :)

  • incredible! Washington can always use a little more glam!

    The peppermint rug in the long entryway is perfection! It definitely sets and softens the mood but is not too themey at all.

  • David Stark just amazes me. His vision is so entirely fresh. “Genius” also came to my mind. And he seems generous about sharing his approachable ideas. Thankyou.

  • What a treat to see these pictures. My husband worked as a State Dept. diplomat for over 30 years. He had his retirement reception in these very rooms 5 years ago.
    Beautiful job!

  • is that a glass mirrored christmas tree? Oh My God…that must have been A) SUPER EXPENSIVE, B) SUPER FRAGILE and C) AMAZING TO DECORATE….not something you would own if you have children/animals but wow that is simply the best tree I have seen all year, its genius, bravo

  • I adore my retro sparkly aluminum tree but THIS tree… ! ! ! Put me on the list for the first one off the shelf when it goes retail. OK, maybe a smaller one that I can actually afford. absolutely love the light and joy that it reflects. Literally.

  • Thanks for the kind words, everybody! This was a really fun challenge, and we appreciate your reactions!

    Some answers . . .

    The nutcrackers are fab and are from west elm!!!

    We actually welded our own frame for the ribbon trees, but I have a hunch that you can make a mini version for a table top using a paper towel holder! (wink) The kind that stands on the counter!

    I also think that standard wreath forms (from a craft or floral supply store) can be used to make a ribbon wreath.



  • Absolutely gorgeous! I love the way these thoroughly modern decorations mix with the traditional style of the rooms. It’s simply fantastic!

  • I’m usually a little on the fence about modern Christmas but this is simply lovely!! It’s a perfect complement to the room’s architecture. LOVE!!

  • <3 <3 & *** !!
    great mix of traditional, modern, and glam – I am inspired for Holiday 2011 projects.

    Plz, Plz tell us more about the tree in images 3 &4!! aluminum or what reflective service. If you make these part of your next "co-lab" – it will sell out!! Amazing – ALL OF IT.

  • Re the mirrored tree, he mentioned in the interview that it is mirrored plexiglass. I would imagine you could go to a place like Tap Plastics, and, using the tutorial Grace provided for the Balsa wood tree, have them cut out the same pattern using mirrored plexi and voila! your own version!

    For those wanting more uses of toilet paper rolls, I was completely enchanted by prize-winning gift wrapper (yes, there is a national competition) Megumi Inouye – google her, and see her tips currently at http://www.sfgate.com.

    And of course, the incomparable David Stark blows us away once again. I had takeaway ideas from almost every single one of these photos; I’ll be jotting notes for days. Thank you David for sharing so much of yourself with us.

  • Fantasic! I love the juxtaposition of what could be stuffy classicism (for the space) with really modern styling! Incredibly imaginative and beautiful! WAY fun!

  • I liked article and I for 3 hours have made pair toys for a
    New Year tree. The child has remained is very happy with the
    father. Thank you for interesting ideas!

  • Your post is a life saver, I did these every christmas as a child and wanted to start making them for my family. Now I finally know where to buy those darn cracker snaps. Thanks.