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Inspiration Flows: Designing A Longwood Christmas

By Heather Coletti, on November 30, 2015
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During the past year, Longwood guests have had the opportunity to watch the revitalization of the Main Fountain Garden. The current view in front of the Conservatory may not appear to be an obvious source of aesthetic inspiration for other projects around the Gardens; however, Longwood’s Display Designer, Jim Sutton, has placed this massive project at the heart of the Gardens’ Christmas display theme. This year, fountains and the essence of water inform every aspect of the Conservatory’s display as the Main Fountain Garden revitalization continues a short distance away.

A fountain-themed mood board in Display Designer Jim Sutton’s office. Photo by Heather Coletti.A fountain-themed mood board in Display Designer Jim Sutton’s office. Photo by Heather Coletti.

Jim chose this year’s fountain theme well over a year ago when the Main Fountain Garden officially began its massive makeover. One of the first tasks he had to tackle included selecting a color palette to tie together all aspects of the display. Blue, white, and silver inform nearly all aspects of this year’s indoor décor, including the lights, plants, and flowers. Additionally, Sutton and his entire team had to figure out how to highlight and expand upon existing water features already present in the Conservatory. “We knew we didn’t want to just add fountains randomly,” says Jim. “So we had to be thoughtful about where to add fountain elements and how to weave those elements with the more traditional aspects of the Christmas display.” 

For example, guests will see the Music Room patio acquire a new life for the season. Typically, this spot provides a quiet background for guests moving through the center of this space. This season, Sutton’s team created an extended view of an arbor-like tunnel of twinkle-lit trees. A tiered fountain runs at the end of the arbor and becomes a natural extension of the room’s interior. Jim points out that the most observant eye will notice that the entire room takes its inspiration from Pierre S. du Pont himself. The design team retrieved relevant books and blueprints for the Gardens' water features from the archives and placed them intentionally around the room for guests to examine. Every element in the room evokes Longwood’s spirit from 1929 when Mr. du Pont acquired most of these materials to create his vision for the water features in the Conservatory.

Longwood’s Design Studio is filled with baskets of ornaments, lights, and decorations—one for each of the trees in the Conservatory. They provide a snapshot view of the materials used in each year’s Christmas display. Photo by Heather Coletti.Longwood’s Design Studio is filled with baskets of ornaments, lights, and decorations—one for each of the trees in the Conservatory. They provide a snapshot view of the materials used in each year’s Christmas display. Photo by Heather Coletti.

The space in front of the Music Room provides a more contemporary interpretation of the season’s theme. The Fraser fir in the Exhibition Hall stands 24 feet tall above the Lotus Fountain and holds 2,000 crystal teardrop ornaments to conjure the sparkling beauty of ice-covered branches. Intertwined with the ornaments are yards of “tinsel” LED lights. Unlit, the individual bulbs appear to be filled with silver tinsel, but when illuminated they transform into frosted globes that amplify the effect of the glittering ornaments. The most complicated part of this space, however, is the “tree skirt” at the base of the tree. Longwood’s plumbers and carpenters helped Jim’s team create an entirely new fountain for the space that flows from the base of the tree into a mirrored bed surrounded by ivy and white plantings.

Water appears more abstractly in less prominent corners of the Conservatory. While the Exhibition Hall tree captures water in both flowing and icy states, other spots like the Mediterranean and Silver Gardens carry the theme with plant material rather than with actual water. Instead of placing a tree in the center of the Mediterranean Garden, a large urn contains a natural arrangement with elements like curly willow and silver, white, and glittering branches to give the appearance of a fountain frozen in place. Similarly, the Silver Garden has a large, traditional tiered fountain. Rather than water, it contains plantings present year-round in the room. Densely planted and draping succulents dotted with iridescent glass bubbles give the feel of water without its actual presence.

Succulents drape and spill over a tiered fountain in the Silver Garden, creating the illusion of water. Photo by Heather Coletti.Succulents drape and spill over a tiered fountain in the Silver Garden, creating the illusion of water. Photo by Heather Coletti.

It’s this abstract property of the overall display that Jim and his team have most enjoyed tackling. During the past decade, the display teams worked with Christmas display themes that were more concrete in nature. Two examples are the gingerbread theme from 2011 and last year’s “Christmas Takes Flight” theme that centered on birds. “On the one hand, it’s easy to execute ‘gingerbread’ because we can say, ‘We’re going to make 10,000 gingerbread cookies and make replicas of the Peirce-du Pont House and the Conservatory, and we’ll do a candy theme in the Music Room,’ ” describes Jim. “It’s ‘easy’ in the sense that everyone knows what to expect. But with fountains, not everyone knows what to expect.”

Jim admits that all of the creative minds who dream up these visions have to work through their mental fog to clarify exactly how the vision will appear in its final form during the season. “Longwood always has water features: Ok, so we’re going to amp up our water features. But that’s not enough. So now we’re going to have all of these trees—not with water actually flowing down them—but with frozen crystal tear drops.” Something concrete, whether gingerbread or water, has to become somewhat abstract to extend itself in a meaningful aesthetic vision throughout the sprawling space of the Conservatory.

Detail of tree ornaments in the Exhibition Hall. Photo by Heather Coletti.Detail of tree ornaments in the Exhibition Hall. Photo by Heather Coletti.

This materialization of water in the abstract provided a new level of challenge for designers this year. Jim hopes that guests find this abstraction impressive, complex, and ultimately fun. “The fountains and water theme has an appeal on a more adult level because of its sophistication,” Jim says. With so many ideas and moving pieces in play, a solid degree of cohesion from space to space is critical or the display could lose focus and appear random and disjointed.

It’s no wonder then that the entire design team works behind the scenes on all aspects of the Christmas display for the entire year. “The individual design teams know their spaces really well,” says Jim. “They know what’s worked in those spaces before. Even while executing the existing Christmas display, we’ll say, ‘Next year we could do this or that,’ because at that point we typically know the next year’s theme and it’s helpful to work one full year ahead.” Sutton knows the Longwood Christmas theme for 2016, but he is not revealing it yet. For now, he’s anticipating the completion of this year’s display and observing what the initial groups of guests photograph and enjoy the most.

Jim will be there in the thick of the first wave of crowds: visiting Longwood has been a part of his family’s Thanksgiving Day tradition since his childhood, and this year will be no different. The magic of the entire experience has never diminished for him, and he attributes this to the designers and staff that work with him on all of the details. “Everyone here knows the end result and knows what they have to do to get to that point,” he describes. “It’s the tenure of the staff, and the fact that they know the Longwood aesthetic, which is very hard to master. It always amazes me.”

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