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Diplomatic Design

Written by Jenny Bradley

Traditional Home was presented with an interesting opportunity a few weeks back. One we just couldn’t pass up. Coined “Diplomacy at Home for the Holidays”, the challenge was to partner with several other design publications to decorate Blair House—the president’s official guesthouse for diplomats—for the holidays. The problem? We had just two weeks (including the week of Thanksgiving) to get it done.

Blair House

Blair House

That’s when we called in the cavalry. Or, in our case, Virginia-based interior designer (and holiday decorator extraordinaire) Barry Dixon.

Thankfully, Barry didn’t flinch at the challenge. With his usual Southern charm (and the help of Barbara Hamilton of Ociana floral design), he set about transforming Blair House’s Lee Entrance Hall and Dining Room into a colorful-yet-understated, traditional-yet-unconventional celebration of the holidays.


He chose to steer clear of the tried-and-true red and green holiday scheme and instead opted for a chartreuse, jade, cornflower, and silver palette inspired by the 18th-century wallpaper in the adjacent Lee Drawing Room. Set against the barely-there-blue of the history-rich dining room (President Truman once held weekly luncheon meetings with his cabinet here), the color scheme brings an energy to the space without overlooking the historical significance of the rooms.

“We want to be respectful of the history that Blair House emanates and at the same time look fresh and current,” Barry points out. “We want it to reflect a new administration and a new century. Even the most elaborate homes can radiate a sense of warmth, approachability, and invitation.”

Two overscale wreaths suspended (very carefully, I might add) on the windows overlooking the courtyard are dotted with edible treats—apples, lemons, and nuts—as well as Hypericum berries and osage oranges.

It takes a village to hang these wreaths!

It takes a village to hang these wreaths!

“It’s not the expected holiday formality,” Barry says. “But it’s still rich. And the edible nuts and berries are perfect for the feasting room. It’s a bespoke Christmas décor. You simply have to look around your house and find inspiration for your Christmas scheme.” On the banister of the Lee Entrance hall, a traditional cedar garland is given an update with persimmons and oranges embellished with cloves. Across the hall, on the English carved mahogany console table (circa 1730), the blue enamel Chinese bough pots are dressed with arrangements of Ilex berries, persimmons, magnolia leaves and orchids—a non-traditional holiday mix that partners playfully with the Clarence House foliate pattern wallpaper.

Barbara Hamilton hanging the wreath on the front door of Blair House

Barbara Hamilton hanging the wreath on the front door of Blair House

Tight deadline or not, the installation process was almost painless. The only hiccup occurred when Barry inadvertently left his drivers license at home (security is tight and identification is required for entry) and was forced to craftily volley design direction from across the wrought iron fence and through the front door (while a security guard stood diligently by, of course).


No drivers license, no entry. Barry temporarily, thankfully, directed installation from the front walk.

Security snafu aside, team Dixon had the decorations up in one day (giver or take a few hours). All was perfectly placed for the December 7th open house for families of State Department employees who are stationed in locations too dangerous for accompaniment by family members. Concluding with a meet-and-greet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Ben Franklin room of the State Department, the evening was a smashing success—with 300 guests touring Blair House and attending the State Department event with Secretary Clinton.

Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, with family members of State Department employees on Unaccompanied Tours.

Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, with family members of State Department employees on Unaccompanied Tours.

We now have twelve months to recover our strength for “Diplomacy at Home for the Holidays” 2011. That’s assuming they invite us back, of course—and that we all get through the security screening with proper documentation. I’m not pointing fingers here…Barry.

Keep an eye out for the full story on “Diplomacy at Home for the Holidays” in Traditional Home’s 2010 Holiday issue.



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