A Designer Holiday
The Gorrivans Celebrate a New England Christmas
Photographs by John Gruen
Growing up in Portland, Maine, Christmas was super important to interior designer Philip Gorrivan. And so it has remained. “There are a lot of parallels between my childhood Christmases and the ones that I have created for my kids when they were growing up,” says Gorrivan. “When my wife Lisa and I were looking for a weekend house, we settled on Washington. It is very much the epitome of New England. For 19 years we have celebrated Christmas here, and it is magical.”
The Gorrivans and their two children moved into their current house eight years ago. The classic house was built in the Depot in 1840. Following the flood of 1955, the house was moved to its present location several miles out of the village. Gorrivan admits he is a true traditionalist when it comes to decorating for the holidays. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are very much family days for the Gorrivans. The tree is not touched until all four family members are present.
“One rule of Christmas is decorating the tree requires a group effort,” says Gorrivan. “My daughter is in college now and we don’t touch the tree until she’s home. My son is sixteen and helps as well. I am certain when he is an adult he will look at Christmas the same way we did when he was growing up.”
And what goes on the tree is equally important. Over the years Gorrivan has amassed a treasure trove of ornaments, all of which have pride of place on the tree.
“I have things on the tree from when I was a child. I have ornaments that my father and my grandmother gave me. I love the tradition of having objects pass down through generations,” explains Gorrivan. “It’s the way I look at interior design as well. Rooms should tell a story; there should be things in it that speak of the past and become part of a family’s history. I think a Christmas tree should have narrative as well. Ours presents a history of our family over time.”
While the tree is the last piece of holiday décor to appear, there is much to do beforehand. There is buying of the tree, decorating the exterior of the house with wreaths and lights.
“After Thanksgiving I will start putting the lights up and getting the rest of the house ready for Christmas,” explains Gorrivan. “We buy a tree that is already cut. I feel that’s more responsible than cutting down more trees. And I begin to assemble vignettes around the house.”
That includes vases full of gold-sprayed magnolia leaves and hydrangeas (which he sprays himself,) hanging small wreaths on various surfaces throughout the house, andincorporating many of his collections into the holiday spirit, particularly his group of amethyst glass.
“I have had a love for glass my whole life,” Gorrivan admits. “And I have always loved the color amethyst. I started my collection with a piece of Bohemian amethyst glass, a vino verte-style vase. Over time I’ve collected glass from all periods and countries. Guests will bring me glass pieces. Some are pretty priceless, others are very accessible. I have a beautiful piece I bought from Jeffrey Tillou Antiques that is from the 18th century.
“My collection has just grown and grown. I’ve got some great 19th-century English pieces. I have dinner plates and wine glasses as well, including 12 amazing William Yeoward glasses.” Gorrivan also collects blue glass and chestnut glass and in the public rooms there are prominent displays of his passion.
In addition to ornaments that have traveled through the generations of his family, Gorrivan has an eye for unusual decorations. Ray Baker and Stan Lindner and their Art from the Garden collection of ornaments and table decorations are a good example of this. Using dried leaves, flower stems, cones, and other elements from their own garden they create extraordinary objects.
“I met them at the annual St. John’s Episcopal Church Christmas Bazaar,” Gorrivan recalls. “They had a booth one year and they were selling these beautiful gold-sprayed ornaments made from different materials. I bought all of them. One year we had a tree decorated almost exclusively with their ornaments. They also make incredible pieces out of recycled rolled cardboard. I use one of their larger pieces as our tree topper.
“The tree comes down right after New Year’s. I believe there should be a finite period, like an installation: a beginning and an end and that makes it more special. I think the family aspect is important and doing it yourself is also important. There’s a magic about the holidays and I love reliving it every year.”