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Have Yourself a Creative Little Christmas

  • Photos by Jennifer Causey

Holidays at the Athens, Georgia, home of textile designer Susan Hable Smith mean an array of lighthearted handcrafts -- from gift bags to garlands -- all served with a big helping of color and fun.

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It’s no surprise that the designer behind Hable Construction’s playful, graphic textiles isn’t a traditionalist when it comes to decorating her home for the holidays. “The most fun for me is to change up expectations,” Susan Hable Smith says. So when you visit the early-20th-century Victorian cottage Smith shares with her husband, Pete; 9-year-old daughter, Bird; and 6-year-old son, Lake, in Athens, Georgia, you won’t find any decorative reindeer or blow-up Santas on the lawn. Instead you’ll be met with the rather Seussean spectacle of a maple tree, its bare branches hung with basketball-size ornaments she buys at the dollar store. “The neighbors love it,” Smith says.

Inside, Smith’s signature festiveness continues: “During the holidays we eat tons of s’mores and play lots of Christmas carols -- especially Elvis!” (She doesn’t care which song or album, as long as it’s Elvis.) The hat rack in the front hall is festooned with smilax, a wispy local vine that Southerners have long used to dress up their homes for special occasions. “It has these beautiful blue berries, it stays green for a long time without curling, and it drapes so nicely -- it’s very easy to use,” says Smith. Paper ornaments by a local artisan add color. “Athens is this fabulously creative town where you can find all these wonderful handmade things. I would not be surprised if this city has the highest number of Etsy vendors in the country.”

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Holiday Tweets

Dangling on the door to the powder room are tiny birds hand-carved by Smith’s mother’s friend, who hiked 11,000 feet up into the mountains of New Mexico to find the wood.

I like having the holidays be really playful and not just sticking to red and green.... I want the house to feel like a very warm, cheerful spirit is here.
Susan Hable Smith

As it does with many of her neighbors, creativity permeates Smith’s life and career. The studio where she and the Hable team work is just steps from her home, on the other side of a yard filled with native plants and blossoms that the former longtime New Yorker is happily learning to nurture. “My commute is across my backyard,” she says. “When I’m on a conference call, I’ll go deadhead roses in my garden.” It’s in this studio, encircled by tea-olive trees, freed from the grind of big-city life, that Smith is able to launch the partnerships that increasingly define Hable. The business started in 1999 with upholstery fabric and canvas totes printed with cheerful hand-drawn motifs. The totes are still available at the company’s online shop (hableconstruction.com), and Smith’s sister Katharine continues to be co-owner and head of the business side in the company's home base of Brooklyn, but the brand’s focus has expanded.The group has been producing exclusive fabric designs for furniture company Hickory Chair for four years, and this past October marked the debut of Hable’s rug collection for Capel, a company known as the original maker of braided rugs. Like its partners, Hable manufactures all of its goods domestically. “We hand-screen our fabrics at a 100-year-old factory in Rhode Island, and we manufacture our bags in Baltimore. We don’t try to be the poster child for ‘Made in America,’ but we feel very proud that we do it. It’s a very laborious but wonderful process.”

Once the official workday is over, Smith happily turns to creating things for her own home, especially at holiday time. “I have a lot of energy,” she says. “It runs in my family.” This drive fuels projects that are uniformly low-tech, a little offbeat, and very personal: a photo garland featuring images of family and friends from the past year, a Scandinavian-inspired birch-branch Advent calendar sporting a marker made of wooden beads in a rainbow of colors. “For inspiration I look to Hungarian crafts, Scandinavian, German, my home state of Texas.... I like having the holidays be really playful and not just sticking to red and green,” she says. She hand-paints wooden gift tags in bright colors and uses them to accent equally radiant gift bags fashioned from scraps of Hable fabric. The children fill the bags with foil-covered chocolate coins, which are kept by the door (those the kids do not devour themselves, that is) as perfect grab-and-go gifts for teachers, neighbors, and hosts of various holiday parties and events. “I want the house to feel like a very warm, cheerful spirit is here,” Smith says, “and I work to have my children understand that Christmas is about sharing and giving.”

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A String of Memories

  • Step 1
    Step 1

    Smith chose her favorite photos of 2013. Then, with the help of the Camera Bag app, she unified their look.

  • Step 2
    Step 2
    Next, she printed them out, glued them to colored paper, and strung them with suede trim.
  • Step 1
    Step 1

    Smith chose her favorite photos of 2013. Then, with the help of the Camera Bag app, she unified their look.

  • Step 2
    Step 2
    Next, she printed them out, glued them to colored paper, and strung them with suede trim.

An Arborist's Advent Calendar

Colored beads strung on an elastic cord along a birch branch mark the days between Christmas and New Year’s.

Delightful Details

  • Hat Trick
    Hat Trick

    A hat rack goes from functional to festive, thanks to a garland of smilax and a combination of handmade and store-bought ornaments. Smith keeps rolls of Hable Construction test runs (which she uses as gift wrap) in the umbrella slots—an easy way to bring color to the foyer and keep the paper handy. The wallpaper is from the Neue Galerie shop in New York City.

  • Graceful Greenery
    Graceful Greenery

    Smilax drapes easily to add greenery. Smith frames a doorway with it and places a piece in a gourd-shaped vase.

  • Gifts to Go
    Gifts to Go

    Seated by a vintage Scandinavian chest, Lake and Bird fill scrap-fabric gift pouches with chocolates and tie each bag closed with metallic cord.

  • Hat Trick
    Hat Trick

    A hat rack goes from functional to festive, thanks to a garland of smilax and a combination of handmade and store-bought ornaments. Smith keeps rolls of Hable Construction test runs (which she uses as gift wrap) in the umbrella slots—an easy way to bring color to the foyer and keep the paper handy. The wallpaper is from the Neue Galerie shop in New York City.

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