Deck the Halls

Tree-Trimming Tricks from Former MoMA Exec Bonnie Mackay

Former MoMA executive Bonnie Mackay on her obsession love of all things ornamental.

By Heather Dunhill November 22, 2016

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Image: Alyssa Peek

When it comes to holiday hostess/host gifts, a candle is nice and a bottle of wine is welcomed; however, it's the truly thoughtful purchase that's the most appreciated. So, it may be fun to switch it up this season with a signature gift to set you apart from a countertop of unmemorable libations--like perhaps a personally chosen ornament paired with the book Tree of Treasures, a memoir by Bonnie Mackay? (That's a gift that's likely to get you invited back!)

Once the OVP fashion director for Bloomingdale’s and director of creative, marketing and merchandising at the Museum of Modern Art, since 1973 Mackay has amassed a serious collection of ornaments--one that numbers nearly 3,000. 

"To me each one of my ornaments represents a passage of my life, the story of a family member, the history of my friends, my pets, and my personal adventures throughout my life," she explains. "When my tree is decorated, I see everyone and every experience in my ornaments. The longer I look at the tree, the more the stories and my history reveals itself. My ornaments are so much more than decoration."

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The book is more than just a walk down memory lane--it also includes fun tidbits like playlists and wine and cheese recommendations, spectacular photographs, as well as a historical reference for ornament design masters, such as Oberfraenkische-Glas, Robert Sabuda, Vita Musacchia and Matt McGhee.

I caught up with Bonnie to learn everything from her decorating strategy to ornament storage. 

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 So, I’ve read that you have collected more than 3,000 ornaments to hang on your tree every year. What is your decorating strategy and when do you begin?

It takes four days. These are my criteria: 

My first priority is a fresh tree, which we always cut ourselves. The maximum height is 8 feet—sadly, that is the height of our ceiling. My husband follows me with a tape measure to check my selection in case I start going for a 10 footer (wishful thinking!). 

My next priority is strength. I prefer blue or white spruce, which can support the weight of my collection. The branches are strong, and there are lovely “shelves” that showcase the ornaments well.

My final priority is width. The wider the tree, the greater the ornament capacity. But it must be narrow enough to fit through the doorway and into the house!

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How do you organize everything?

I have divided my ornaments into 66 separate classifications, such as "Rabbits and Royals," Santas, cooks, celestial, Scotland, "cats go wild" and angels. They are boxed accordingly in various cardboard and plastic containers, separated by classification. The smaller groups are boxed together. I place all the boxes around the living room and dining room. Then I walk around the tree judging the right locations and sections. Some are always in the same place. My "mother" classification always faces the living room, where we open our presents. My mother's ornaments are my family history, and they are very comforting to me. Ornaments given by [my husband] Bob to me go near the back porch, where the sunlight pours in and shines on the colored glass. There's one for each year of our marriage.

Then, for days I arrange the classifications according to the story, and within that, the ornaments’ size, weight, and, most importantly, how they look together on the tree.

Do you have a ritual that goes along with the decorating process?

I start with a cappuccino in the morning. My husband Bob mixes music. Then, a nice glass of wine after 6 p.m. When I start in the morning and when I finish each night, I step back and contemplate my arrangements. Then, when I'm absolutely finished, I sit in our black-and-white checked stuffed chair and reflect on my collection.

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I completely empathize with cherishing an ornament or seventeen. They bring to mind holiday moments, a portal in time like nothing else that happens in my year. Would love for you to share one of your memories with us. 

Seven years ago my good friend Annalisa, who is the manager of the ornament maker SAVA in Bellagio, Italy, gave birth to a little girl named Matilde. Annalisa’s parents own SAVA. Her mother is the master painter and her father the master glass blower. She invited me to Matilde's christening, which unfortunately I could not attend. A few weeks later I received a small package from Annalisa and her husband. Inside was a pink blown glass balloon mounted on a stick created by her parents. Inscribed in pink glitter was Matilde's  name. I decided to hang it on my tree between two of their creations, a hand-painted disk created for MoMA and a blown-glass flower that was a Christmas gift to me.

What mistakes do you think we make when it comes to decorating a tree at holiday time?

Rushing to decorate without spending time to acknowledge its importance. Our tree is only with us for a short time and each year it is different. The way we put on the ornaments changes and the assortment grows or shrinks, just like the people in our lives grow and change. The tree represents a cherished moment in our life. It reflects our life, our family, our friends, our travels and our experiences.

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I believe ornaments are one of the best gifts to give and receive. Have any advice for the giver?

Yes, I agree! So many ornaments I treasure have been given to me with so much thought and compassion. When I look at each piece I remember the wonderful giver.

In selecting an ornament to give as a gift, think about the connection you have to the recipient. Does the person have a certain collection (angels, stars, a color or hobby), or is there an especially significant experience you want to honor (their first tree, a new baby, a wedding or anniversary, a special country or vacation)? An ornament gift to a team or business should be given with special thought to both the message and the material (glass, metal, porcelain, fabric).

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