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Christmas in a California Home with a Neutral Palette

A California family’s holidays are a mix of closely held traditions and fabulous flights of decorating fancy

Written by Candace Ord Manroe
  • Michael Garland

    Each year, designer Emily Sullivan and her entrepreneur husband, Brian, attempt to re-create the magic of their own childhood Christmases for their four young children. Emily grew up in Washington, D.C., Brian’s roots are in the Chicago area’s Winnetka Heights, and a favorite memory of each is the excitement of venturing out into December’s cold, their breath fogging the air and the air stinging back, to hunt down the most perfect cone-shape conifer on the Christmas tree lot. Their best memories are dusted with snow—and therein lies the problem. “It’s a challenge to make it feel like Christmas when it’s sunny and warm here in California,” Emily says, laughing, “but we try.”

    The Sullivans’ new house in Pacific Palisades goes a long way in helping them re-create Christmases past. Standing out from its paler neighbors, the red brick two-story says Georgetown or old-school Chicago more than it does Southern California. “We decided to leave the brick unpainted because it makes the house look older, more like the homes we grew up in,” Emily says. A slathering of holiday lights and no fewer than 10 wreaths—and that’s just on the exterior—maximize the venerable effect. 

    Photography: Michael Garland
    Produced by Darra H. Baker

    Architect: Douglas Burdge, Burdge & Associates Architects, 21235 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu, CA 90265; 310/456-5905,
    Interior designer: Emily Sullivan, Emily Sullivan Design.  

  • Michael Garland

    Grand Foyer

    Then there’s the postcard-perfect architecture, all symmetry and precise proportions. “It’s a classic Georgian style,” says architect Douglas Burdge, whose challenge was to stay true to classical proportions while weaving in some wiggle room for a more open floor plan. “He created a central-hall plan without it feeling stodgy,” Emily says, noting that the hallway’s extra girth cleverly plays out at the family room in the back. Come Christmas, that’s a huge plus. “We always put a big tree in the family room, and you can see it as soon as you walk in the front door,” Emily explains.

    She and Brian work extra hard to set a festive mood for tree trimming. “We get a fresh tree fairly early so we can enjoy it longer, and we make a big tradition out of decorating. We always play holiday music to create the Christmas spirit even though it’s warm outside. I love to entertain, and I have a ladies’ luncheon, a children’s gingerbread house decorating party, an adult cocktail party, and, on alternating years, Christmas dinner for 15 to 20 family.”

    A noble fir anchors both the foyer and the family room beyond in holiday spirit. The barrel-vaulted ceiling rises two floors for a first impression that is dramatically open. Its arch is repeated on doorway moldings on the main floor. The console table’s vintage white deer declare one of this year’s holiday themes. A Eucalyptus wreath rings a papier-mâché deer trophy on the mirror. Stag heads peek out from the banister garland. 

    Wall paint (“Pointing” #2003): Farrow & Ball,
    Carpet on stairs: Couristan,
    Sofa: custom.
    Sofa fabric (by Travers): Zimmer + Rohde,
    Mirror behind sofa; chair at right by stairs; console table: antique.
    Chandelier: owner’s collection.
    Settee in upstairs landing: antique.
    Sconces on upstairs landing (“Cobham Mirror Wall Light” #WA0062.GI): Vaughan,
    Glass balls on tree and on banister; deer on banister; ribbon trim: GM Floral Co.,
    Deer head on mirror (“White Deer,” Papier-Maché Animal Sculptures): West Elm,
    Angel on tree: Pier 1 Imports,

    Console table by stairs—
    Table: antique.
    Deer and Christmas trees on console: Gift Garden Antiques,

  • Michael Garland

    Gorgeous Green Dining Room

    The central-hall floor plan allows an immediate glimpse of the dining room’s de Gournay tea paper wallcovering, an introduction to the home’s theme of approachable elegance. Above a Theodore Alexander table, a Niermann Weeks chandelier radiates a light-handed formality with its airy swags. The staircase garland’s white baubles reflect a year-round preference for a pale palette.

    The dining room’s hand-painted wallpaper—Emily’s first design selection for the home, and the one that determined its direction—is a soft green tea paper happily suited for the holidays. A matte finish attenuates its formality but not its elegance. “It’s more informal than silk,” Emily notes.

    Wallpaper (“Portobello”/on Emerald Green India Tea Paper ground): de Gournay,
    Mirror: Rosemarie McCaffrey Antiques & Interiors, 310/396-7711.
    Chandelier (“Swedish Crystal Chandelier” #10-00294-39-08): Niermann Weeks,
    Dining table (“A Toast to the Regency” #5405-082): Theodore Alexander.
    Dining chairs; server; lamps on server; area rug; white tables: antique.
    Sconces over server (“L’Odeon Wall Lights” #WLA70/R/S/US): Vaughan,
    Christmas trees on mantel; candlestickscandles: Pottery Barn,
    Deer head on mirror (“White Deer,” Papier-Maché Animal Sculptures): West Elm,
    Placemat: antique.
    Candlesticks on white tables (“Eclectic Silver-Plated Candlesticks”); charger (“Gilt Charger”/Silver): Pottery Barn,
    Dinnerware (“Constance”): Bernardaud,
    Stemware (“Camilla”): William Yeoward Crystal,

  • Michael Garland

    Decorative Mantel

    Glossy white-painted paneling—stately but not fussy—creates a clean backdrop for Emily’s holiday decorating, which changes from year to year. This holiday’s theme is faux deer trophies. The idea sparked when she ran across a silver papier-mâché deer head stored in her basement. “I spray-painted it white, made a wreath around it, and held it all together with pipe cleaners.” For even more interest, she suspended the wreathed trophy in front of the mirror above the dining room mantel—and then created variations on the theme for the rest of the house, including the front door.

  • Michael Garland

    Festive Table Setting

    Pottery Barn chargers and mercury glass candle holders mix confidently with Bernardaud’s “Constance” porcelain plates. Christmas greens on the dining table add extra holiday flair. 

  • Michael Garland

    Dining Details

    The scalloped edges of an antique placemat peek out from underneath the festive place setting. Place cards feature a vibrant Greek key pattern.

  • Michael Garland

    Settee-ing Pretty

    A quieter blue holds court at the dining room bay on a pair of tufted Louis XV period settees. The pretty pair flank an antique English table to provide extra seating for dinners—or a perfect spot for morning coffee.

    Table; table lamp; pair of settees: antique.
    Settee fabric (by Great Plains): Holly Hunt,

  • Michael Garland

    Creamy, Dreamy Living Room

    Aside from that single color indulgence on the dining room walls, the home sports what Emily calls her “creamy dreamy” palette. “I love soothing, calming creams with pops of blue.” Blue lacquered lamp shades bring the creamy living room into focus; blue pillows heighten definition of the foyer’s long pale sofa; the color is scattered in accents throughout the house.

    Creamy dreamy colors don’t pose much difficulty even in a household with children ages 2, 6, 8, and 10, Emily says. “The living room is all white, and we use it all the time.” She credits durable fabrics like the microfiber covering the living room sofa.

    The fireplace painting, which helped determine the width of the paneling, was inherited from Brian’s grandparents. Christmas angels, a second theme this year, decorate a side table. 

    Wall paint (“Pointing” #2003): Farrow & Ball,
    Table lamps (custom): Munder & Sons, 562/229-1000.
    Table in front of fireplace: Rosemarie McCaffrey Antiques & Interiors, 310/396-7711.
    Art (by Gines Parra); lounge chairs; ottoman; sofas: custom.
    Chair fabric (“Veneto”): Quadrille,
    Beige-patterned pillow (“Songbird”): Bennison,
    Ottoman fabric (mohair): Kravet,
    Sofa fabric (“Overton”/Ivory #3767): Pindler & Pindler,

  • Michael Garland

    Pretty Picture

    An antique chair in the living room features Emily's favorite palette. Garland drapes over the Gines Parra piece hung above the chair.

  • Michael Garland

    Kid-Friendly Family Room

    The family room fabrics are even more kid-resistant than those in the living room, although Emily did indulge in an exquisite hand-blocked print for the room’s pair of chinoiserie benches. “You can get away with it in small areas.”

    Framed intaglios—24 in all—allow Emily to wrap the walls in geometric grids, a look she loves. Hair-on-hide chairs add a textural touch.


    Wall paint (“Pointing” #2003): Farrow & Ball,
    Area rug: antique.  Sofa: custom.
    Sofa fabric (“Wessex”/Cafe, discontinued): Pindler & Pindler,
    Pillow on sofa (“Fern”/Sage on Natura Linen): Galbraith & Paul,
    Floor lamps (“Hudson Floor Lamp” #TOB1004, by Thomas O’Brien); light over bookshelves: Circa Lighting,
    End tables: discontinued.
    Wing chair: custom.
    Wing-chair fabric (by Travers): Zimmer + Rohde,
    Throw on wing chair (“Zig Zag Alpaca Throw”): Jonathan Adler,
    Benches; lounge chairs: owner’s collection.
    Bench fabric (“Fern”): Galbraith & Paul,

  • Michael Garland

    Christmas Tree

    The tree stands at the end of the home’s center hall, which opens into the family room and kitchen. Feathers, owls, and a burlap skirt create a woody nature theme. 

    Oval-backed chair: antique.
    Striped chair fabric: Nobilis,

  • Michael Garland

    Siple Kitchen

    Marble countertops and backsplashes define elegance in the kitchen. Custom barstools provide a seat for holiday helpers beneath stylish pendants from RH. 

    For the most part, Emily’s design is pattern-free. “We only used shades, no curtains, on the windows because we didn’t want pattern competing with the moldings,” she explains. In tandem with the neutral palette, the absence of pattern frees her to get creative with holiday greens. “I love the fresh smell. I’ll mix traditional firs with eucalyptus leaves and rosemary to make it interesting. Sometimes I’ll start with a premade wreath and add cuttings from the garden.” The secret is plenty of pipe cleaners. “Green ones!”

    Sconce above chair (“Global Double Arm Sconce” #MS2201): Circa Lighting,
    Wall and cabinetry paint (“Pointing” #2003): Farrow & Ball,
    Range: Wolf,
    Pot-filler faucet; island faucets: Rohl,
    Backsplash behind range; countertop and island sinks: Calacatta Gold marble.
    Lights over island (“Victorian Hotel Pendant”/Polished Nickel): Restoration Hardware,
    Bar stools: custom.
    Bar-stool fabric (“Timon”/Alabaster #1804): Pindler & Pindler,   

  • Michael Garland

    Gathering Table

    Rush chair seats and a weathered round pedestal table warm the breakfast bay. 

    Dining table: Rosemarie McCaffrey Antiques, 310/396-7711.
    Chairs: antique.
    Chandelier: Munder & Sons, 562/229-1000.
    Placemats (“Classic Tartan Plaid Placemats”): Williams-Sonoma,
    Dinnerware (“Tiffany Weave”): Tiffany,
    Santa mugs: Pottery Barn,

  • Michael Garland

    Soft Blue Bedroom

    A tufted blue sofa at the foot of the bed adds an oasis of interest in the master bedroom. Emily transformed a necessary soffit into a decorating opportunity with a “canopy situation, but one that’s not too princessy.” An antique Swedish crown sets off the canopy with beautiful rusticity. 

    Wall paint (“White Tie” #2002): Farrow & Ball,
    Chandelier (“Dauphin” #9135): Currey & Co.,
    Greek key trim on drapery (“Aristotle”): Samuel & Sons,
    Crown; mirror behind bed: Rosemarie McCaffrey Antiques & Interiors, 310/396-7711.
    Sconces: Circa Lighting,
    Bed linens: Matouk,

  • Michael Garland

    Soak it Up

    A trio of rosemary wreaths propped up on the windows define the tub for the holidays. 

    Wall paint (“Pointing” #2003): Farrow & Ball,
    Flooring: Calacatta marble.
    Bath fixtures (by Perrin & Rowe): Rohl,
    Chandelier (“Eiffel” #MS5020, by Michael S Smith): Circa Lighting,
    Stool: antique.
    Stool fabric: Peter Dunham Textiles,

  • Michael Garland

    Family Portrait

    Christmas morning, the presents are unwrapped, just as they were in Emily and Brian’s childhoods. They can’t ship in snow, so they make the best of sun. “After we open presents, we put on wet suits and surf,” Emily says. “It’s become a Christmas tradition.”

    Emily and Brian Sullivan with their children Riley, 10, Devon, 8, Bobby, 6, and Alexandra, 2. 

  • John Bessler