Decking the Holiday Halls And Malls

Dolph Gotelli began a career when, at age 12, he started decorating the house without being asked

DOLPH GOTELLI'S work is, quite literally, the stuff of Christmas cards. For decades, Mr. Gotelli, a professor of design at the University of California at Davis, has spent much of each holiday season creating displays that summon Christmas past to present-day stores and shopping centers.

For Gotelli, this is only partly a commercial enterprise. When you meet this rather unprofessorial professor, as I did recently for breakfast here in Vacaville, you're likely to come away with not one, but three business cards: his academic one; another labeled ``Dolph Gotelli Designs,'' his private design company; and a third headed ``Father Christmas,'' which features a miniature print of the familiar yuletide figure handing toys to eager children.

It's that last ``hat,'' a Santa's cap, that Gotelli dons in spirit when he accepts a design assignment this time of year. The assortment of toys, decorations, and other Christmas memorabilia he carries to the job are from his own ``workshop'' - a collection that has been accumulating for ``about 100 years,'' Gotelli says with a grin and a note of ennui.

``I started the Christmas stuff when I was about 12,'' he says. ``I used to start decorating the house without being told to.'' Since then, his collecting has taken him to Christmas markets in Germany for pieces from that country's rich holiday traditions, and to Britain's antique markets. He even has Christmas items from non-Christian lands. A friend once sent him a Santa figure he had found in Nepal.

Collecting has its twists. Gotelli recalls a Santa made from loofah - a spongy, mosslike material - that he tried unsuccessfully to purchase in England. Ten years later it surfaced at an antiques show in Vallejo, Calif., where Gotelli finally snatched it up.

Interest in Christmas collectibles is worldwide now, Gotelli says, and he's aghast at the prices: ``Things I bought for a dollar at a flea market are now going for hundreds of dollars.'' A lot of the fun has gone out of it, he admits. About the only things he still actively seeks are printed Christmas scenes called ``scraps'' or ``ephemera,'' large quantities of which were produced in the late 19th century and pasted into family scrapbooks.

Gotelli's raw material for decking holiday halls includes thousands of items - so many he has never bothered to count them. Most were made between the 1860s and 1920, but some newer pieces also find a place, especially if they're Mexican folk art (a particular interest of his) or an especially well-crafted reproduction of an old design.

Victorian Christmas is Gotelli's specialty. That world of hearth-lit warmth and intricate fantasy emanates from the 30 vignette ``boxes'' he recently set up at the Lincoln Center shopping area in Stockton, Calif. He has done similar displays for various Macy's stores, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and other big-name retailers. Dozens of requests came in this year, but he narrowed them down to just the Stockton site because they asked him first, Gotelli says, and because Stockton is his hometown and his work is well-known there.

The vignettes include scenes from Santa's study, children's bedrooms, even outdoor settings. There's one labeled ``Midnight Walk,'' for instance, which portrays a snow-draped Father Christmas walking through the woods with animals and children as companions. That scene has ``a really nice mood,'' its creator says.

Mood is the aim of Gotelli's work. He arranges the pieces so they suggest a story, then ``I let people use their own imaginations.'' Youngsters like to stare at the scenes and pick out hidden elves or tiny beasts.

But it's usually their parents who seem most affected, Gotelli says. ``That's really my whole thing,'' he says, ``letting the adults go back to their childhoods.''

Gotelli and his helpers labored for five days just before Thanksgiving, often until 2 a.m., to get the displays ready. He admits to a bit of tedium after years of doing this - a giant-sized helping of the feeling some families may get when it's time to take all the decorations down.

``If you could see all the stuff I have to put in and out of boxes - sometimes very small boxes,'' he says, ``you could see why I'm willing to have them installed in a permanent museum.''

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