Cone- or pyramid-shaped decoration
s, such as the topiaries in the center of the dining table on page 46, have graced American tables for nearly 300 years. Their origins go back to the tall centerpieces popular with fashionable European hostesses in the early 18th century.
For a dignified and sumptuous presentation, the main dish was elevated above the rest of the offerings. For the dessert course, fruits, berries, or sweetmeats were arranged in elaborate pyramids and presented on fancy platters. To make the sweets even more enticing, they often were adorned with spun sugar, flowers, or bits of gilt paper. A stylish and well-appointed table could include one such centerpiece or a group of them.
Gradually, the vogue for these pyramids crossed the Atlantic and housewives with more modest budgets adopted the idea for special occasions. Plates arranged in descending order of size were placed between layers of large fruits to give stability and a symmetrical structure. Other typical designs used sweetmeats or berries held together with icing and molded in a tin cone to achieve the desired shape or apples interspersed with evergreens piled in a conical figure and topped by a pineapple. Today, nail-studded wooden forms, chicken wire, or styrofoam cones may be used to create these traditional designs.
Select crafts for decor
The floral-and-fruit topiaries in the New York City apartment featured on these pages were created by Carmine Marotta, a Manhattan-based floral designer. A former Franciscan monk, Marotta nurtured his love of plants and flowers by constructing inventive holiday decorations from the natural foliage growing on the monastery grounds. Today, some of his favorite and most-requested decorations are his Christmas cones. He makes hundreds of custom-designed pieces every holiday season but notes that they are adaptable to different themes and may be used for decorating throughout the year. Fresh greens, ribbons, ornaments, toys, shells, pinecones, gilded fruits, and dried or fresh flowers are just some of the materials he uses.
How to decor
A few basic supplies are needed and can be purchased at hobby and craft shops for approximately $30. An 18-inch-tall Styrofoam cone, floral picks (thin pieces of wood with one blunt end and one sharp end used to affix trimmings to cones), greens, pinecones, fruits, and flowers are the principal elements in the topiaries on these pages. Either fresh or dried flowers may be used: fresh ones have extra vibrancy and depth of color; dried flowers will last indefinitely. Fresh, firm fruits, such as apples, oranges, or lemons also are bright and vivid options. Small fruits and berries tend to shrivel and Marotta advises the use of their “faux” counterparts. Beginning at the base of the cone, materials are layered from bottom to top. Building from the bottom up helps ensure that the piece will retain its conical shape. Fresh evergreens should always form the first layer; Marotta’s favorites are pine, holly, and juniper. The greens are inserted directly into the Styrofoam core.
From the first bed of greens, materials are alternately layered up the cone. Silk or dried flowers, fruits, pinecones, and small ornaments are attached to the cone form with wired floral picks. The wire, which is attached to the pick’s blunt end, allows the pick to give flimsy or bulky materials the rigidity needed for insertion into a base. Marotta recommends using floral picks rather than a glue gun because glue often does not hold up as well, sometimes melting from the heat of a room. When using fresh flowers, stems should be placed in floral tubes and inserted into the foundation.
Make it beautiful
Marotta can assemble a floral cone in about an hour, but he estimates that it would take a novice three or four hours. Finished crafts should be kept indoors and will last about a month. They may be used as centerpieces, on the mantel, or even as miniature Christmas trees if space is at a premium. He suggests topiaries as a wonderful family project for a winter’s afternoon. The possibilities for materials and themes are limited only by your imagination.