Extravagant holiday lights are one of Matt Wetzel’s earliest memories from his childhood in Gladwyne. Today, he and his partner, Don Thomas, love creating luminous displays for their own home. The two run the interior décor company, Thomas Matthew Designs, where business is bustling most of the year—except for the holidays. Looking to fill that void, they created a niche design- and-installation branch focused on seasonal lighting and decorations.
“Nobody wants a big renovation project going on in their house during the holidays,” says Wetzel.
Thomas wholeheartedly agrees. “It’s typically the time when people have the most guests and want their homes looking their best,” he adds.
Their own home is an incubator of sorts—a place to test ideas. Last year, in keeping with the Dynasty theme, they staged lavish lighting worthy of a Hollywood set. “We lit up everything outside—trees, shrubs, uplights—then set out candles in jars all over the front yard for a black-tie party,” recalls Wetzel. “At the front door, we draped a big fox stole over the wreath.”
Let There Be Light
This year, their theme is limelight, inspired by 22 hydrangea bushes on the property. Thomas, who has a flair for making bows, pleated tartan ribbon and embellished it with sequins to rev up a wreath studded with dried hydrangeas on the front door.
Two tall garden urns flank the door, each with live boxwood shrubs. Additional texture comes in the form of large pinecones, dried hydrangeas and fresh fir boughs (which stay fresh longer when they’re outdoors). The abundance of white lights adds a welcoming glow.
Wetzel and Thomas avoid the net lights often used to cover shrubs, since they miss angles that string lights don’t. “The lights just stop abruptly where the net ends,” Wetzel says.
Their front door is framed with a pre-lit garland of artificial greens and pinecones, woven with supplemental lights for oomph. “You want to find a garland that’s fat and lush so it makes an impact,” says Wetzel.
White and colored lights are the two popular choices for holiday aesthetics. White is “always tasteful,” Thomas says—although they do use colored lights in specific situations.
“We like the big old-fashioned lights on a tree if you have a retro theme,” adds Wetzel. “We’ve also used colored lights at a few homes in arrangements and planters around the front door, then done the rest of the exterior in white lights.”
The two recommend sticking to traditional colors like blue, red, green and yellow, while avoiding super-saturated purples and other similar hues. “The ultraviolet colors are too vivid,” Thomas points out. “They’re just not as welcoming.”
“We’re also not fans of icicle lights,” Wetzel adds. “They fall down in windy weather, plus it’s hard to hide the cords.”
Wetzel and Thomas also eschew inflatables. “A sleigh that’s nicely illuminated is a wonderful alternative,” Wetzel says.
Tricks of the Trade
To achieve their aesthetic, Wetzel and Thomas start each year with new lights—even LED versions don’t last indefinitely. But you don’t have to toss burned-out lights, as they can function as extension cords in your display. They also recommend reusing tinsel, since it lasts for years. And, this year, they even included vestiges of autumn in their winter exteriors, breaking off the stems of pumpkins and painting them metallic red and gold to make giant Christmas balls.
No matter the display, there’s a science to placing cords so they don’t intrude on the magic. “We don’t want to see wires; we don’t want to see extension cords,” Wetzel says. “We especially don’t want to see strings of lights hanging from tree to tree.”
Often, the simplest solution is to hide cords in greenery. They also paint extension cords to match the house and place ratchet straps on large trees to camouflage wires.
To ensure the display will have the desired impact, they study the exterior of a home, as well as how far it sits from the road. “If your house is huge and sits 50 feet from the road, we recommend spotlights that accent both the house and any large trees, in addition to strings of lights,” says Wetzel.
A home’s entire façade should have some sort of illumination. Otherwise, only the lighted portion is visible at night. Placing candles in windows is both elegant and easy. “We keep them on all year,” Wetzel says.
Perhaps the most important part of an exterior lighting display: “You need a timer,” Thomas says. “You shouldn’t have to come home and plug in cords. You want the lights to welcome you.”
Matt & Don’s Seasonal Décor Tips
- Repurpose strings of burned outs lights as extension cords.
- Plan for bad weather and anchor lights so they don’t blow off the house, trees or shrubs. Use floral wire to secure greens and garlands.
- Plan your extension cords and connections on paper to make sure you have enough and that they can be hidden.
- If you use LED lights, avoid those with ratings over 2700k. Lights with a lower kelvin give a warmer glow.
- Keep it simple. Don’t clutter your display with multiple points of interest.
- Use white lights for a cohesive lighting design that maximizes curb appeal.
- Plug lights into an unobtrusive outlet, rather than at the front door.