Floral designer Mary Mazzeffi helps transform the White House into a holiday wonderland.
Mary Mazzeffi realized a lifelong dream this holiday season.
WindyCity Greek readers are familiar with Mary Lalagos Mazzeffi, a pro floral designer, and merchandiser for Toms-Price Furniture and Nona Jo’s home accessories boutique, located in Naperville, IL. We’ve shared Mary’s tips and ideas for Thanksgiving and Christmas decorating.
Mary began arranging flowers at the age of 15, and Christmas has always been her favorite holiday. She’s channeled all of that experience into decorating homes for the holidays. Over the years, Mary has made some of Chicago’s finest homes festive for the holidays.
A dream come true
Since her teens, it’s been her dream to decorate perhaps the most famous home of all for the holidays — the White House. That dream was realized this past week, as Mary was part of the team that transformed the White House into a holiday wonderland.
“I began applying to be a volunteer about six years ago. I love Christmas, and making the holidays come alive. This has been my dream for so long. When I got the acceptance letter in October, I couldn’t believe it was finally going to happen.”
The Glendale Heights, IL native who grew up at The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Demetrios in Elmhurst, IL and traces her Greek roots to the island of Crete and Tegeas, had never been to the White House before.
“My dad was a veteran. I’d never been to the White House before. It was amazing to be there, to be surrounded by all of that history, to learn the holiday traditions of the White House.”
Thousands of people apply. This year, 89 people were selected.
Transforming the White House
Designers from all over the country gathered at the White House, and worked with Rafanelli Events, the official coordinating event company for this year. Mary, along with the other designers, joined Rafanelli’s 20-member team. First Lady Michelle Obama officially selected the theme, “A Timeless Tradition”; Rafanelli’s team designed and coordinated the process; and the design was brought to life by the volunteer decorators.
“Working with Bryan Rafanelli and his team was a great experience. Along with the other designers I worked with, I learned so much.”
On the first work day, Mary and other volunteers were transported to a “top secret” location. Seeing her work, at the end of the day, Mary was transferred from this group, and sent directly to the White House. She spent the next four days at the White House, among the likes of Carolina Herrera, Carol Lim, and Humberto Leon.
Members of the team were assigned to specific tasks in different areas of the White House.
East Wing Hallway
Mary’s first assignment at the Executive Mansion was to decorate the East Wing Hallway. Carpenters erected boxes around four columns. Mary was tasked with hand-gluing 5,000 ornaments — part of the more than 70,000 recycled ornaments used in past years, used throughout the White House — to the display. It took nearly 1-½ days to complete.
The East Room
The next assignment brought Mary to The East Room. The team transformed this space into a sparkly winter wonderland, complete with icicles, glimmer, and various decorations in shimmering silver and white. While others decorated the four Christmas trees in the room, Mary was tasked with decorating the inside arch. It was adorned with fresh balsam garland, from the top of the doorway to the floor, and embellished with silver ornaments, all hand-wired, and then wired to the garland.
From there, it was on to the East Colonnade, where Mary joined nine other volunteers hanging snowflakes.
“They were made by children from local schools. Each wrote on them what they wanted to be when they grow up.”
Impressed with her work ethic, her enthusiasm, and her design sense, Mary was selected to complete some special projects.
“I decorated one of the topiaries near the family quarters, and another team duplicated my design on the other.”
One more assignment for the uber-talented decorator — decorate a three-foot tall tree, designated for a special place — President Barack Obama’s elevator.
The entire experience to that point was unforgettable, but the stars were aligned in her favor, and there was more to come. Mary and 10 other volunteers were asked to stay to greet the press and participate in interviews, as well as Mrs.Obama’s press conference. Mary’s participation is highlighted in the official press release from the White House.
And then there was Google
Mary was also thrilled to be selected to participate in Google’s 360 virtual tour of the White House holiday decorations. The selected volunteers received a complimentary Google Cardboard, a new virtual reality device — think Viewmaster for the 21st century — which provides an immersive experience for the user. The virtual reality tour of “A Timeless Tradition” will be out in about one week.
Experience of a lifetime
The week culminated with a special reception on Wednesday evening. Back home and back to work right off the plane, Mary’s feet haven’t yet touched the ground.
“It’s surreal. I still can’t believe I was there. There really are no words to really describe it. It was moving and emotional to be at the White House. I’m so honored to have been there, to do what I do, and to shine. The history is overwhelming. You get emotional. It all makes you think about life, puts things in perspective. Dreams do come true. I made 88 new friends. We all worked together as a team, even cleaned up was as a team. I learned so much. This experience has meant so much to me. It’s something I will never forget.”