- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

Have yourself a campy little Christmas.Decorating this holiday season is all about turning back the clock with tacky stuff dredged up from decades past. Aluminum trees, sequined Styrofoam ornaments, plastic reindeer and light-up Santas from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s are making a comeback. These dime-store decorations, like modern furnishings from the postwar decades, are being collected and reproduced as part of an ongoing revival of mid-20th-century design.

“Back in the 1980s, when I first started buying 1950s ornaments and trees from yard sales and thrift stores, they were considered junk,” recalls Travis Smith, owner of Good Eye, a District shop specializing in midcentury modern originals. “Now people are looking at them with a fresh eye and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

A vintage pink metal tree, he says, recently sold on EBay for $3,600.

Mr. Smith, who sells retro Christmas items at his store, has written one of the first guides to collecting them. Titled “Kitschmasland!” (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., $29.95), the cheery book is filled with photographs of fake trees, plastic snowmen and star-eyed Santas. Featured in its pages are the holiday-decorated homes of Washingtonians who top their 1950s Saarinen and Noguchi tables with bottle brush trees and Sputnik-inspired ornaments from the period. The kitschy designs, Mr. Smith reports, appeal especially to baby boomers nostalgic for Christmases past.

“I inherited a lot of vintage ornaments from my parents and aunts and uncles. They remind me of happy childhood memories,” says Richard Heinecke, co-owner of the 9:30 Club on V Street NW. He and his wife, Linda, both in their 50s, just finished decorating a Frasier fir with plastic icicles, Chinese lanterns and musical instrument ornaments from the 1940s and ‘50s.

Infatuation with retro holiday decor is part of a bigger midcentury obsession overtaking the design world. So much so that Christopher Radko, the celebrated maker of Victorian-inspired Christmas ornaments, now sells a line of retro decorations based on World War II-era prototypes.

Five years ago, Mr. Radko revived the Shiny Brite ornaments once manufactured by Corning Glass. “They were made during World War II when we couldn’t import decorations from Germany,” he explains by phone from his art deco-furnished Manhattan apartment.

Corning retooled their machines for making light bulbs into ornament machines that applied painted stripes to mostly rounded shapes. His versions of the glass ornaments are handmade in China. Brighter colors and more durable paints refresh the economical wartime designs.

From the ornaments, Mr. Radko has expanded Shiny Brite into an entire collection of retro holiday decorations, including oversized colored lights, cardboard glitter houses and cookie jars. Inspiration for the designs comes from his own collection of holiday kitsch from the 1950s and ‘60s, which is kept in his Tarrytown, N.Y., office.

“As simple as they seem today, these ornaments, lights and trees are worth their weight in gold,” he says, noting that about 20 percent of current inventory is based on midcentury designs. “They are memory makers connecting us to our past and our memories of people from that time.” Among his most cherished keepsakes are vintage pink, turquoise and gold aluminum trees. According to Mr. Smith, who spent the past two years surfing EBay for Christmas items, such trees are the most coveted of all vintage holiday designs.

Colored metal conifers fetch top dollar (typically $400 to $500, he says) because they are rarer than silver ones. They are often purchased with plug-in “color wheels,” rotating, gel-filled disks that shine a changing rainbow of light on the metallic branches.

Outdoor lawn and roof ornaments are also highly sought after, Mr. Smith says, adding that “you could pay up to $500 for a plastic or plywood Santa with his reindeer and sled.” Still underappreciated are handmade, bejeweled decorations from the 1960s.

“I refer to them as the bored housewife ornaments,” Mr. Smith says. “Some of them look like Faberge eggs or spacecraft. They are often mislabeled as Victorian or shabby chic.” The newest frontier in the kitsch collectible craze, he suggests, may be disco-inspired designs from the 1970s. Some of this year’s Radko ornaments are already showing evidence of the era’s revival in colors such as teal, avocado green and harvest gold.

Interest in postwar Christmas kitsch has led retail chains to jump on the retro bandwagon. Silver, gold and blue metallic trees are among this year’s holiday designs from West Elm, a catalog business owned by Williams-Sonoma (with a new store at Tyson’s Corner). Venerable Hammacher Schlemmer, New York’s luxury housewares store, sells 5- and 7-foot-tall aluminum trees and a color wheel.

More ho-hum than ho-ho-ho, according to Mr. Smith, who says the new designs offer instant gratification but don’t compare with period kitsch. “With the vintage stuff, you have craftsmanship and naivete,” he observes, going on to suggest that even Mr. Radko hasn’t got the spirit quite right.

“Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Christmas wasn’t about a design doyen telling you what to do. You bought the ornaments for a dollar, took them home and put them on your mantel or your tree. They made you feel good, and they are still doing that.”

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