Pacific Northwest | November 16, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 16, home
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 Dining Out 2003

Creative Traditions
A holiday house is wrapped in whimsy
Ed and Alice Merklin's wit is evident in the dining room, where a dress form is outfitted in vintage ribbon, Christmas lights and a cedar-bough skirt. A branch above hosts a birds' nest filled with jeweled eggs.
In another life, Ed Merklin decorated the tree the way most of us would expect of a graphic designer — plaid bows, perfectly tied and positioned just right one year; a monochromatic display, done just so, the next.

Then he married Alice — who's also a graphic designer, by the way — and she "took him from the dark side and taught him how to do Christmas."

To Alice, "Christmas isn't supposed to be theme trees and design concepts. It's always been about tradition and joy."

Now both Merklins — and their boys, Chet, 7, and Quinn, 5 — are on board for a Christmas that shouts family tradition and winks with waggish joy. It relishes the outdoorsy odor of cedar and the indoorsy aroma of melting candlewax. And it smiles at the oft-told stories that fly out of the box with each unpacked ornament.
Whimsical felt animals peek from the fragrant cedar boughs attached to arched doorways leading into the living room from the front hall and dining room. There's a gentleman grasshopper, a purple-robed frog king and a brown beast dressed in lederhosen. Felt birds tucked in the stairway boughs are by Tanya Harvey, an artist from Eugene, Ore.
Tradition demands that the tree in the living room be fresh, with an electric train chugging around the red-velvet tree skirt. It insists that every archway is shrouded in fragrant cedar boughs. And it sees to it that the tree is studded with bird ornaments — a snuggling bird-couple for every year the Merklins have been married.

And humor? It's the Merklins' off-the-wall wit that prompts them to drape a stand-up dress form in the dining room in vintage ribbon and Christmas lights and inspires them to collect droll felt creatures to hide among the cedar-cloaked arches.

"Even before we got married, we both loved Christmas," Alice says, her voice trailing off a bit — a cue for Ed to finish the thought.

"We just did it a little differently," he says, obligingly.

The Merklins' house lends itself to Christmas the way their relationship lends itself to finishing each other's sentences.
The children decorate their own tree in their playroom, where Alice in Wonderland figurines dance from a light fixture.
The couple met when both worked in graphic design at Nordstrom. Now they freelance together, working out of a small office nearby. They've divided duties, with Alice managing the business and Ed doing most of the design work. That way they're both home when the boys traipse in from school.

The house was built in 1907, one of the first homes in a long-settled neighborhood that overlooks the Fauntleroy ferry landing. Renovating has been an ongoing pastime for the Merklins since they moved in about five years ago. Someone had stripped old wallpaper off the walls and painted the rooms white. And someone had added a white berber carpet at the front door that Ed ripped out in a fit of pique one day.

"We just got really tired of cleaning it," he says. "You can't have white carpet at the door with two boys. And we couldn't live with white-on-white — color is part and parcel of what we do."

They repainted the living room a soft, mossy green and the ceiling a pale, mushroom color to offset the dark beamed ceilings and woodwork. Long and rectangular, the room was once a ballroom-dance studio — the perfect space to frame a traditional Christmas. And the woodland colors form the perfect canvas for a growing collection of Christmas trimmings that mimic nature.

The first bird ornament Alice and Ed acquired to mark their Christmases together features a couple of wooden chickadees slung over a branch of the tree by burlap thread. There are also two cedar waxwings that had to be glued onto the same branch to make them a couple.
The family tree in the living room is laden with bird ornaments marking each year of the Merklins' marriage.This is one of the first pair they bought.
"Sometimes we have to innovate," Ed says with a laugh.

A collection of felt woodland birds perches among the cedar boughs that climb the banister toward bedrooms upstairs. "One of the things I've always loved about the holidays is bringing nature inside," says Alice. "We're both nature fanatics, so all the birds are really symbolic of us as a couple."

Each year, the Merklin boys are allowed to buy one new ornament to decorate the full-sized tree in the upstairs playroom that separates their bedrooms. When they leave home, they'll take their ornaments with them.

The dress form dominates the dining room like the headless belle of the Christmas ball. The antebellum-sized skirt attached at the waist is of cedar boughs and Christmas lights; the bodice is antique gold braid and vintage red ruffles. A corsage of jeweled eggs is tacked to the waist.

"None of this means anything," Ed says. "It's just fun, cool, shiny stuff we pick up here and there, crows that we are. We really are like crows because we're always finding old fabrics and ribbons here and there that we just have to have."

The four velvet stockings hung from the mantel could have been just another traditional decoration. But Ed will tell you they have great symbolism, to which Alice (who sewed them) shakes her head in amazement.

Elements in each of the boys' stockings — texture, color, buttons and beads — are repeated in varying ways in each of the parents' stockings.

"It's our family, an integral melding of the parents and the children," Ed explains, as Alice continues to shake her head.

"I'm the traditional one, and I never realized they meant all that," she says. "I just thought they were stockings."

"No, we planned them that way," Ed insists.

"Christmas has become stitched into the way we live, into the things we do," he adds. "A lot of people have things they put out here or there and it becomes Christmas. But I think we integrate it into our life more than that."

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter. Tom Reese is a Times staff photographer.

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