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Chicagoans at forefront of White House holiday decor

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 9:46 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (MCT) — First lady Michelle Obama opened the holiday season at the White House on Wednesday, importing Chicago talent to style the world's most famous home into an elegant, fir-draped and fragrant wonderland.

"Gather Around" is the theme of this year's White House Christmas, the Obamas' fifth. It is meant to signify people coming together to share the stories of the season and the country's heritage.

"Our goal is for every room and every tree to tell a story about who we are and how we gather around one another to mark the holidays," Obama told the first guests, who were military families.

Three weeks before Christmas, she and kids from military families made merry in the State Dining Room, where chef Cris Comerford, pastry chef Bill Yosses and florist Laura Dowling helped them decorate springerle cookies and craft tissue-paper poinsettias.

"Bo-quet flowers," the blossoms were dubbed, for first dog Bo, 5, who was on hand along with the Obamas' other Portuguese water dog, Sunny, 1.

While admiring the puppy, Ashtyn Gardner, 2, from Germantown, Md., lost her balance and fell to the floor, but recovered like a trooper. She was with her dad, Navy Lt. John Gardner.

Eighty-three volunteers from coast to coast helped spruce up the house with swags and wreaths enlivened by shimmering ornaments and ribbon colored bronze, copper, purple, teal, red and warm green.

There are gold notes, too, some of them somber. One tree honors Gold Star families who have lost loved ones during military service. Mary Byers, 61, of Nashville, Tenn., was the volunteer decorator who created a star-shaped ornament to memorialize her son, Army Capt. Josh Byers, 29, who was killed by a makeshift bomb in Iraq in July 2003.

"It was a honor for me," she said Wednesday.

Chicago event planner Gabrielle Martinez, managing partner of agencyEA, a Near North Side firm, collaborated with the first lady for the fourth straight year in designing the decorations. She brought with her 13 colleagues from Chicago for work that ratcheted into high gear the day after Thanksgiving.

"A true labor of love," Martinez, 41, said.

She began planning in March and presented concepts to Obama in July, noting the first lady sought to balance classic traditions that respect the "natural ambience of the house" with "forward-looking, modern twists."

A tradition was the White House gingerbread house, weighing 300 pounds this year. A new twist was a "tree" created entirely from stacks of old books. Other new twists were the show-stopping replicas of the family dogs, crafted in about 1,000 yards of satin ribbon. Their tails even wagged.

"They're mechanical," Obama told her guests. "We're stepping up in the world of Bo-and-Sunny honoring."

Martinez said "repurposed" classic pieces from years past were combined with new crafts handmade by the volunteers, six of whom came from Illinois, according to White House aides.

About 70,000 people will visit the White House during the holidays, the aides said.

Another Chicagoan who lent his talents to the decor was Brent Rogers, 26, of Ignite Glass Studios, who crafted 120 blown glass ornaments, shaped like bell jars, for display on tall trees in the East Room. The jars were filled with items such as miniature portraits and tea services.

Rogers, known mostly for contemporary sculpture and functional objects such as drinking glasses, was awe-struck that his ornaments were aglow in the Executive Mansion. "It's incredible," he said. "I never thought this would happen. It's pretty unreal."

A transplant from Seattle, where glass blowing is red-hot, Rogers flew in his mother, Bobbie Rogers, 52, from Washington state for a reception the first lady was hosting later Wednesday for the holiday volunteers and artists. He'd never been to the mansion before.

"I got invited to the party," he said, "and I'm not going to pass up that opportunity."

The 2013 Holiday Tour Book, and tips on making crafts, is available at wh.gov/Holidays.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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