At home with Father Christmas: His designer’s passion begets Victorian vignettes

12/21/2013 12:00 AM

12/21/2013 3:00 PM

Sacramento’s Father Christmas is too busy to decorate his house this holiday season. What would you expect?

Each December, everybody demands his time and designer’s expert eye. Besides discussing all things Santa Claus, he’s helped friends put up Christmas trees and decorate their homes. He’s also made a few public appearances around town.

Much of his foothills neighborhood is bedecked by blinking mini-lights in a sparkly electric salute to consumption. On Dolph Gotelli’s door, a handsome wreath is the only clue that his home is filled with the true spirit of the season.

“(Passers-by) probably think I’m some Scrooge,” he joked with an ear-to-ear grin.

Little do they know. More than anyone this Christmas season, Gotelli can share the meaning of Santa Claus. He understands the secret behind that kindly face and twinkling eyes.

And yes, he appreciates beautiful decorations, particularly those made with heart, not plastic, a very long time ago.

But most of all, Gotelli wants to share the season’s wonder and delight. It’s his life work. And just in time for the holiday, it’s in book form with the release of Gotelli’s beautiful “Wonder and Delight,” a detailed look at his breathtaking collection and the stories behind his vignettes.

Christmas celebrations spur imagination; at least, that’s the way they used to be. As a collector, curator and lecturer, Gotelli has built a worldwide reputation along with a world-class collection of Victorian Christmas items filled with fantasy and amazing imagination. It’s earned him the nickname “Father Christmas.”

“I’m a Victorian at heart,” he said. “That’s the period I like to collect.”

Now a professor emeritus at UC Davis, Gotelli taught design, visual presentation and related topics for 35 years. Now 71, he served as director of the university’s Design Museum, which he founded.

His vast collection of antique decorations, toys and mementos provides him material to create astounding vintage vignettes. Featuring hundreds, sometimes thousands of pieces, these vignettes each tell a story.

“It started with a bookcase,” he said. “That was how I could display what I collected.”

With a love of set design, Gotelli turned his toys into players in one-scene dramas or (more often) comedies. Some are dioramas: Father Christmas trekking through a snowy forest, led by animals and glowing lanterns. Others are whimsical puzzles: Animals cooking a massive Christmas feast in a crazy kitchen – what are they all doing?

Viewers can look at them for hours and still not see all the detail. Gotelli’s audience skews towards older generations who enjoy the nostalgia and want to share it with children and grandchildren.

“I want people to remember the real magic of childhood Christmases, memories and thoughts,” he said. “To think about what it was like before a society of mall fighting. We’re so far removed now from what Christmas should be.”

Gotelli’s vignettes have taken over street windows and glass cases at flagship Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Macy’s Union Square store in San Francisco. Museums from Yountville to New York have showcased his slices of yesteryear.

“The spirit of Christmas contains a little bit of fantasy,” Gotelli said. “Waiting to hear reindeer up on the roof; maybe that never existed, but it was really exciting to think about that.”

Santa and our relationship to Christmas changed dramatically post-World War II, he observed. “There’s no more spirit, no fantasy. What’s really in vogue now is to be negative about Christmas – the bad Santas out there.”

For decades, Gotelli wanted to capture his vignettes and his process as a book, but he wanted to do it on his own terms – not a nostalgic mishmash, but a serious consideration of imagery and how it came to be. This Christmas, he got his wish. After two years of work, he’s celebrating the release of his impressive coffee-table Christmas companion: “Wonder and Delight: A Dolph Gotelli Christmas” (Half Full Press, 360 pages, $75). It weighs 5 pounds after much editing. Every photo page is gorgeous.

“This is not a how-to book, but people tell me they’ve learned so much about how to decorate from looking at the vignettes,” he said.

Gotelli keeps a bit of Christmas at home year round. He transformed a media room into his personal museum room, packed with an often-changing display.

In honor of the holiday and to spur some imagination or at least thoughts of Christmas past, Gotelli let us take a peek at his magical room. Many of the decorations date to the 1880s, the heart of the Victorian period.

A bright green tree rotates atop a music box that plays a collection of carols on metal discs. The tree is made of goose feathers dipped in dye, and then wrapped around wires. More than a century old, it looks more realistic than many new faux firs.

Covering the tree is a large assortment of precious pressed-paper ornaments: Animals, toys, tools, you name it. Made by hand near Dresden, the ornaments depict everyday items of 1880s German life.

“They’re incredibly fragile,” Gotelli explained. “Most of them originally contained candy; it’s amazing any of survived (after a few holidays). They’re very delicate.”

He continued: “My passion is the … paper-related holiday material. There’s something about it. It’s more original than anything else in the world of Christmas.”

Through these visual arts, Santa can be traced from his earliest imagery. He goes from gaunt angelic-faced saint to jovial chubby merry-maker.

Gotelli has put up and taken down his Christmas vignettes countless times. What he really wants is a permanent home where people of all ages can learn about the holiday’s thematic evolution and be inspired.

“I would love to do museum exhibits,” he said. “It could be really exciting. I’m trying to save this stuff for future generations.

“I’ll never be retired,” he added. “There’s so many more things I want to do; more exhibits, more books.”

And hopefully, many more Christmases.

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