Holiday Traditions with Shelley Johnstone

At Christmastime, designer Shelley Johnstone delights in welcoming family to her home filled with comfort and joy—and plenty of beauty.
living room decorated for christmas
In keeping with her love for architectural motifs, Shelley designed the Greek key pattern on the living room rug. Greek key trim also adorns the banquette’s upholstery, while animal prints enliven the mix.

The day after Thanksgiving, Christmas music begins playing in Shelley Johnstone’s Lake Forest, Illinois, house just outside of Chicago. “For me, Christmas is all about creating memories,” she says. “My five grown children come home for the holidays and they want all the traditions they remember from their childhoods. I still do the gingerbread houses, as well as the trees in the study, the solarium, and the foyer. And I set the table with treats they’re never too old to enjoy.” For Shelley, the ultimate purpose of a beautiful home is to share it with people you love, and she’s perfected the art of designing spaces to be used and enjoyed.

Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Shelley was immersed in the world of creating beauty. Her father was a landscape architect, and her mother owned a pair of flower shops. “My love of florals and appreciation for details was handed down from both of them,” Shelley says. Her introduction to the world of interior design came when she moved to England and enrolled in London’s Inchbald School of Design. Through that program, Shelley landed an apprenticeship with an interior designer. “That’s where I learned to love the bespoke details that I’m known for,” she says. The experience also taught her the importance of sharing your house with others. “The English are so good at opening their homes and entertaining both indoors and out,” Shelley says. “They make it a habit, and they regularly use their nice things.”

foyer decorated with blue and white ginger jars and garland
In the foyer, a classic console table holds an arrangement of branches that changes with the season. At Christmas, magnolia branches, amaryllis, and reindeer ornaments set the holiday tone for the house.

The designer also credits the school with instilling in her a passion for architecture. Her fondness for architectural motifs is on display in the living room, where a loose Greek key design adorns the custom wool and silk rug. “This house was originally designed by a student of the great Chicago architect David Adler, so a lot of its elements reflect his aesthetic,” she says. The symmetry of the room, the plaster moldings, and the neoclassical mantelpiece are Adler hallmarks, but the serene palette and animal prints are all from Shelley.

The solarium is one of Shelley’s favorite rooms, thanks to the reflective, lacquered ceiling that brings movement and life to the space.
Portrait of Shelley Johnstone

While the dining room, with upholstered walls and a pretty draped table, feels festive year-round, it’s the layer of holiday decorations that offers a fresh take on a winter wonderland. The gingham table skirt can be dressed up or down. “I view checks as a neutral,” Shelley says. To complement the blue-and-white wallpaper, she opted for natural tones accented with juicy pops of pink flowers. “Red just doesn’t work in my house,” says the designer. “I like to use greens and chocolate tones mixed with gold and silver.”

A trellised hallway opens to the dining room, where upholstered walls and a draped table create a sense of occasion.

Shelley loves to display decorations with a deer motif throughout the house. For the Christmas feast, she has a local bakery adorn sugar cookies with a stag design. She also nestles little silver reindeer among the flowers. “Rather than one big center arrangement, I like to spread the flowers out in bud vases down the table,” Shelley says. “It’s very loose and fun. I am a firm believer in taking traditions and making them your own.” The room has built-in, hidden cabinets, which she says make setting the table a breeze. “If everything is easily accessible, you’ll use it.”

Tulips, anemones, peonies, and ranunculus fill vintage Moroccan glasses. Shelley’s fondness for woven textures is evident in the placemats and glasses.

One might think that Shelley’s glassed solarium, with its white rattan furniture, wouldn’t be a hospitable space in the winter. But thanks to its heated floor, cozy window treatments, and fireplace, the room is a popular gathering space this time of year. A palette of rich browns and greens warms the space as well. Most of Shelley’s fabric choices throughout the house have stood the test of time. “The drapery fabric in this space is a great plaid,” she says. “It’s been hanging here for over 20 years.” Chairs upholstered in heavy canvas feel substantial and have also endured decades of use. “The best thing about the room is the lacquered ceiling,” says the designer. “Light bounces off of it, and it makes the room feel current.”

dining room table

In the study, a tree covered in reindeer ornaments presides over a space with rich references to nature. An antelope rug underpins the room, while the painted ceiling was inspired by a tortoise shell box. The room also features a tea table that Shelley converted into an Hermès leather backgammon board as a gift for husband Brett on his birthday.

The breakfast table with vintage rattan chairs accommodates small groups for intimate dining.
A white vase by Frances Palmer is filled with a mix of peonies, winter greens, French parrot tulips, and ranunculus.

For Shelley, this house means family, something that has always been paramount to her. In fact, the designer feels so strongly about her brood that when she recently developed a signature candle for her shop, she wouldn’t sign off on the scent until her family had approved it. “I had my kids smell it, and they said it smelled like home,” she says. “To me, that’s the perfect scent—at the holidays and year-round!”

Exterior of Shelley Johnstone's house decorated for Christmas
Shelley’s classic holiday décor spills over into the front motorcourt.
“For me, it’s not just about having a pretty house. It’s about using your pretty house to create memories.”

—Shelley Johnstone

The tree in the study is covered exclusively with ornaments in the shape of reindeer, a common theme for Shelley’s Christmas décor.

Holidays in Lake Forest, Illinois

Shelley Johnstone shares her special spots for Christmas shopping, entertaining, and decorating in Lake Forest.

M on the Square

The owner, Missy Poth, does beautiful bespoke flower arrangements. The shop also is filled with lovely tabletop items.

Lord & Mar
Another wonderful flower shop in town. Arturo Mar creates arrangements with a European elegance.

Flowers by Katie Ford
Katie makes such beautiful floral designs that you truly feel her intent of bringing joy to the recipient. There is no retail location, but they do offer local delivery.

Pasquesi Home and Gardens
Based in the neighboring town of Lake Bluff, it’s the place to grab your Christmas trees, garlands, and so much more.

Amidei Mercatino
This local, outdoor market sells and delivers beautiful Christmas trees, wreaths, and greens.

Gerhard’s
Indulge in elegant European desserts at this hotspot. They make seasonal gingerbread houses and yummy treats for the holidays.

Sweet’s
This family-run business is a Lake Forest favorite! Their chocolates are made daily. Christmas wouldn’t be complete without their solid chocolate Santas on our holiday table.

Initial Choice
This is my go-to for custom embroidery. It’s so fun to work with the team on monograms for holiday table napkins and gifts for friends.

Shelley Johnstone Design
I have to include my interior design showroom, filled with curated finds for the home. It’s the perfect place to grab a hostess gift (such as our signature candle), as well as pick up items for setting a beautiful holiday table.

By Lydia Somerville | Photography by Aimee Mazzenga | Styling by Cate Ragan