Last Christmas, Jean Moriarty gave herself a grand present--a new home wrapped in Yuletide adornment. There were stair rails laced with gold beads, china cabinets topped with silk burgundy roses and mantles draped with cedar boughs.
"It looked like the Ritz-Carlton in here," she said.
When the festive frills went into storage, Moriarty's spacious Mission Viejo home suddenly seemed a bit lackluster. "I thought, there's no reason to celebrate life only during the holidays," Moriarty said.
So she again solicited the aid of Sue Kirby, the Lake Forest decorator who had given Moriarty's house its Christmas glow. Where pine and holly once abounded, silk daffodils and ivy now sprout.
Kirby calls her faux foliage the "finishing touches" in home grooming. Don't think you can rest on your laurels just because you've covered the sofa with the perfect upholstery, Kirby advises. You've only just begun.
"Often people devote all their attention to the big things--the color scheme, the carpet--and then overlook the details that make a room really special," she said. "A room can be full of beautiful furniture and still not feel complete."
Moriarty's Canyon Crest house is an elegant example of such finishing touches, starting with her sunny den that opens onto a back-yard garden. The room's mantelpiece teems with silk irises, tulips, narcissuses and fern.
"I like to bring the garden inside," Kirby said. "The flowers on the mantle are a continuation of the flowers outside the window."
The overflowing arrangement substitutes for a picture above the fireplace, Kirby said. "A painting is flat, straight, one-dimensional," she said. "But this takes you inside it. It looks like a growing garden, whereas a painting of a garden just looks like a painting of a garden."
Not that the artificial greenery is meant to deceive. "The flowers aren't necessarily supposed to fool people," Kirby said. "But they should look as realistic as possible."
Embellishing a mantelpiece year-round with hundreds of fresh-cut flowers would be an impractical undertaking. "They wouldn't last a week," Kirby said, whereas "silk flowers are a great investment. They'll last for 10 years, or until you change your mind and want to try something else."
To achieve an authentic appearance, Kirby uses high-quality silk and cotton plants purchased at Beaux Arts Collections in Santa Ana and the Natural Touch in San Diego. Individual stems range from $8 to $30.
The abundant "garden" on Moriarty's mantle cost about $600, Kirby estimated. "There are $50 worth of flowers in there that you don't even notice," she said. "But they are the ones that draw you in deeper."
Kirby recommends to her clients that, if need be, they hold off on the silk floral arrangements until they "can do the job right."
"People forget to allow for the finishing touches in their decorating budget," she said. "If you've reached your limit, it's better to wait and do the finishing touches gradually than to fill in all the spaces with the wrong kind of flowers. You don't want to use carnations and daisies in a house that has the finest of artwork."
In Don and Joan Rooten's case, donning the mantelpiece with silk flowers and ferns rescued rather than burdened their balance sheet.
When converting their Mission Viejo home into a French country style, they originally planned to add shelves above the fireplace. "It would have cost $10,000, and we already had gone over our budget," said Joan Rooten.
So the couple replaced the idea of built-in shelves with a colorful display of silk fern and wildflowers reflected against a beveled mirror. "We probably saved ourselves $8,000," she said.
Kirby used less formal flowers in the Rootens' house than in Moriarty's. "Joan and Don have a family, and they need a house that's lived-in and comfortable," she said. "I put a lot of meadow flowers in their arrangements.
"Jean's home, on the other hand, is Old World--with lots of beautiful family antiques and oil paintings. In her home, I concentrated on elegant roses, ivies and berries."
Kirby designed a floral arrangement to complement one of Moriarty's antique oil paintings. Framed in gold filigree, the small still life is set inside a muted green panel that also features an ornate mirror. The exquisite art piece hangs above a marble table in the entrance hall.
"I found a fluted silver bowl similar to the one in the painting," Kirby said. In an instance of three-dimensional art imitating one-dimensional art, she used ivy and varying shades of pink roses to replicate the picture.
"I think (the arrangement) intensifies the painting and brings it to life," Moriarty said.
While mantelpieces are Kirby's tours de force, Moriarty and the Rootens have splashes of finishing touches throughout their houses. A silk bouquet of tulips, irises and sweet peas hangs above Moriarty's bed, corresponding with the floral design on the pillows and dust ruffle. A burst of roses tops a wrought-iron bird cage on a hallway ledge outside the bedroom.
In the Rootens' less formal home, a sprawling centerpiece of poppies, impatiens and asters crowns the dining room table. Smaller arrangements of morning glories, tulips and ivy dangle over the bedroom entertainment center and the kitchen hutch.
"Silk flowers are so easy to take care of--even I can't kill them," Joan Rooten said.
How does one keep the in-house garden effect from overgrowing? Pruning.
"I feel that there needs to be a couple of focal points instead of an arrangement on every table," Kirby said. "I prefer doing one thing in grand scale, such as the mantle, rather than stick flowers in every corner of the room."
A finishing touch, Kirby added, does not specifically require that the touch be Kirby's. "It's easy--anybody can arrange flowers," she promised. "How can you go wrong with beautiful roses and daffodils?"