Deck the House

Words by Jennifer Jory

Words by Jennifer Jory

As December approaches, designer Colleen Dowd Saglimbeni can’t wait to pull out her life-size Santa, four christmas trees and heirloom nativity set. But transcending the festive decor, her mission to pass on traditions and holiday joy is what brings family and neighbors into her Hillsborough living room all month. “The atmosphere changes when the house is decorated,” she marvels. “Once the house is ready, I open the doors.”

Colleen lights up as she talks about creating ambiance with an enthusiasm that makes you want to grab a cup of hot cocoa, turn on a Christmas movie and start pulling out your ornaments. “I am trying to recreate the feeling of my mother’s house,” she shares. “She really made the holidays wonderful and her priorities were very simple: She put her family first and had a strong faith.” The youngest of six children, Colleen fondly remembers the many traditions surrounding Christmas in Chicago, where life-size nutcrackers graced the entry. “It was magical,” she reflects. “All of the outdoor lights, the huge feast on Christmas Eve.”

Cover Photography: Courtesy of Lauren Webb  / Photography: Courtesy of Heidi Lancaster

As founder of CDS Interiors based on the Peninsula, Colleen makes time between projects for hosting events—whether it’s for PARCA, Peninsula Family Service, Burlingame’s Our Lady of Angels Church, or more intimate gatherings, including holiday teas. “I deck out the table with things I don’t normally use,” she says. “I take out the good stuff. My mother’s and grandmother’s silver gives a nod to the past and dresses up the table.”

Colleen finds ways to mix in family heirlooms with her current style. On her dining room table, that means pairing her mother’s china with new chargers. She also looks forward to bringing out her treasured family paper mache nativity scene, which adds interest and meaning to the decor. “What’s fun about the holidays is to decorate with your own style,” she instructs. “Don’t be afraid to experiment.”

When it comes to making a home festive and decorating with impact, Colleen begins with the entry. “A wreath on the front door is the first thing people see,” she notes. She often places faux wreaths on her front gates, but uses a fresh magnolia leaf wreath for her front door. Acknowledging the obvious: “I do enjoy the process of decorating,” she admits. “Now my tree is an 11-foot Balsam Hill pre-lit one. I like starting with a blank canvas. I have gorgeous ribbon and I have tiers of crystals.” Colleen prefers a faux tree in her living room so the family can go away for the weekend without worrying.

Photography: Courtesy of Lauren Webb

Colleen adds that ornaments serve as a key element on the tree and don’t have to be expensive. “Ornaments that look like glass, but are plastic, can elevate a tree,” she points out. She also embraces sentimental Christmas decorations that evoke memories: “My children will have my grandmother’s, mother’s and my ornaments handed down through generations.”

In the bedroom, Colleen decorates a tree with more muted tones and her own favorite ornaments. “I leave the lights on when I go to bed,” she fondly recounts, “and then my husband turns them off when he goes to sleep.” She decorates trees for her children with colorful tinsel, along with ornaments with their school photos.

Photography: Courtesy of Lauren Webb

For homes with a modern or mid-century style, Colleen recommends a woodland theme, which maps to a current trend of natural materials and greenery. Try using a minimal garland on the fireplace or door openings, she suggests, and a monochromatic color scheme, which complements this style. “A simple magnolia leaf garland brings the outdoors in,” she guides. “Organic ornaments as well as glass or metallic blend with this motif. Pale velvets also add interest to a more contemporary home.”

Throughout the year, Colleen’s design firm manages numerous Peninsula projects. She recently wrapped up interiors at Millbrae’s Green Hills Country Club and is currently working on an interior design plan for a new build in Hillsborough. When the calendar signals “‘tis the season,” she eagerly jumps in to help with requests for a more festive touch.

One of Colleen’s favorite assignments? Managing the holiday decor for a newly-divorced dad. It was a huge success. “He had a Charlie Brown Christmas tree,” she recounts, “and I came in and decorated the entire house. He wanted to buy every single decoration.” Her only regret during the holiday season is that when Christmas is over, she has to take it all down. “Some people think less is more; I think more is more,” she smiles. “My aim is to create magic for our children, which hopefully they’ll recreate one day for their kids.”

shining bright –

Photography: Courtesy of Lauren Webb


Embrace Nostalgia
+ Incorporate family heirlooms
+ Display photos and items that evoke family memories
+ Embrace the mix of old and new

Spruce It Up with Fresh Greenery
+ Ribbon and greenery make anything say “holiday”
+ If you don’t have a tree, add greenery to a console, mantel or sideboard

Keep It Cozy
+ Pine, evergreen, amber and gingerbread scented candles make your home smell like the holidays
+ If you are traveling, a candle is a portable Christmas

Dream Up a Theme
+ Be simplistic or bold and colorful 
+ Adding one new piece a year creates a collection 
+ Don’t be afraid to experiment

Store Holiday Decor in Original Boxes 
+ Keep your wreath boxes and use them to keep dust off 
+ Store ornaments in zip cases