From the December 2018/January 2019 Issue  

Let It Snow

Writer Meg Fox  |  Photographer Patricia Burke  |  Designer Patricia Burke  |  Location Colts Neck, NJ

Too many snowmen are never a crowd—especially these retro American icons from the 1950s that line up outside Pat Burke and Peter Elliott’s Colts Neck, New Jersey, home. On the way to a photo assignment for Design NJ, Burke spotted the tall father snowman in someone’s garbage bin. Following her quick “dumpster grab,” he now commands the pack.

Everything is warm, white and toasty inside

When it snows, Pat Burke—one of the most prolific photographers featured in Design NJ—is almost always on the scene. While she has an eye for capturing the beauty in any season, there is something about the photographic opportunities of winter—the way snow falls softly or icicles glisten—that makes everything seem fresh, magical and unique to the moment.

Ornaments on the flocked tree were edited down to some of Burke’s favorites in wintry motifs. Hanging on the wall is a framed photo of a snowy landscape she captured at nearby Dorbrook Park. Gifts, such as the ones that depict a Dutch ice-skating scene, are always wrapped in carefully curated designs that coordinate with the tree and décor.

“I love snow,” says Burke, who has spent many a family vacation hitting the slopes with her husband, Peter Elliott, and their sons, Alexander and Graham. With the boys now young professionals living and working out West, those trips are less frequent. No surprise, perhaps, that her holiday design scheme is reminiscent of that snowy splendor expressed in a soothing white palette.

This vintage choirboy ornament once belonged to Burke’s mother. A trio of bottlebrush trees is the backdrop for a tiny snow-covered house, which Burke’s sister-in-law made with heavyweight paper and lit with a battery-operated candle. More of these handmade houses adorn the tree. A cake stand makes an ideal surface for a sweet holiday vignette of faux birch candles, mini snowflake lights and a whimsical ice-skating Santa.

“I turned to a basic white scheme after getting visually overloaded from photography,” Burke says. She cites one particular assignment where she shot vignette after vignette of holiday decor in a vivid array of colors and embellishments that left her head spinning. “I came home and yanked the slipcovers off of everything” in the family room, she recalls, stripping a sofa and chair down to the bare muslin base with no patterns or colors to distract. A friend joked at the time that her furniture looked like it was in its underwear, she says with a laugh. New white slipcovers, however, keep it looking fresh—and dressed.

Burke finds a basic white design scheme “calming and soothing”—at Christmas and year round. A mix of silver accents, trailing garlands and the glow from twinkling lights and candlelight are perfect for setting a seasonal scene. “I’m slowly adding bits of color,” she says.

That same year, she found a beautiful artificial flocked tree at Sickles Market in Little Silver, New Jersey—one that stood tall for over a decade. “I prefer flocked trees,” says Burke, who gave up on live versions years ago because of allergies. Knowing that trees are cut weeks before they arrive in garden centers and can develop mold, she tried other options, including having a fresh-cut tree delivered or the family cutting down a tree. But once the tree entered the house, so did her headaches. “I said, ‘That’s it!’”

Burke found the family’s latest flocked beauty when she wasn’t even looking—while visiting a friend in Pennsylvania—at a Terrain store, a division of Anthropologie. “They have beautiful Christmas décor and an amazing garden center,” she says. Decorated with “itty-bitty” LED lights, “I didn’t think it would look good with regular-sized Christmas lights because there is so much open space between the branches,” she says.

Once upon a time, when Burke “tried to be Martha Stewart,” she had three trees in the house, two in the kids’ rooms—all with different themes. These days, it’s one and done. Ornaments—from heirloom pieces to furry white birds and silvery snowflakes—have been edited down to her favorite or most meaningful. A vintage choirboy, for instance, belonged to her mother. A collection of glass ornaments—gifts from her sister—feature painted scenes of Norwich, Connecticut, where they were raised.

Little skiers and other figurines —displayed on a tabletop—make up this antique Christmas village, evoking memories of Christmases past.

When decorating the tree, “I start with my favorites so they are always in a place where I can see them,” Burke says. At night with the tree lit, she may redistribute ornaments here or there, but “I’m not obsessive about it.” Her approach to giftwrapping, which she always does with special care and attention, may be a different story. “I love to wrap and research [different] wrapping paper,” she says. “I always want to choose one wrap, but then can’t help myself.” The ribbons may vary to complement the paper, but the fresh wreath on the front door is almost always tied with a red bow. “My mom always loved red velvet ribbons at Christmas time.”

Snow and winter are an important part of Burke’s life stories. This Christmas card captures a winter’s first snowfall—and the joy of a two-hour school delay for sons Graham (left) and Alexander when they were in grade school.