Downtown merchants share inspiration behind holiday displays

‘TIS THE SEASON: Madam Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe gears up for the latest holiday season with an expansive winter wonderland. Photo by Brionna Dallara

by Brionna Dallara 

Madam Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe, a retail store tucked away on Battery Park Avenue, is known for its elaborate window displays. In 2021, the Asheville Downtown Association awarded the eclectic antique and gift shop best in show, as part of its holiday window contest.

Two years later, and the business still technically holds the title. Since its win, the downtown association has opted to forgo the competition, replacing it with various other holiday-related cheer, including interactive maps.

“We’re hoping to revamp the [holiday window contest] program and bring it back in 2024 with a little more of a local impact,” says Hayden Plemmons, the downtown association’s executive director. Next year’s tentative plans, she continues, involve “making it more interactive” through QR codes, maps and sponsorships, which could generate more funding for businesses to expand on their displays.

Despite the competition remaining on hold, Madam Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe’s owner, Ashley Deck, and her team have not slowed down. She says her business is always trying to outdo their main competition — themselves.

“We want to continue to create incredible windows and maintain the level of interest that the best-in-show window had,” Deck says.

Fortunately for fans of holiday decor, Madam Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe is not alone. Throughout downtown Asheville, local businesses are gearing up for the holidays with window displays. And behind each design is a story to tell.

Delighting others

About a three-minute walk north of Madam Clutterbuckets is the Dog & Pony Show, a home goods shop on Haywood Street.

SPECIAL TOUCH: “I think people enjoy seeing the windows decorated,” says Margaret Lancaster, owner of Dog & Pony Show. “I think it’s part of what downtown stores should do just to make it special, to make it different.” Photo by Brionna Dallara

The business won “wow factor” in the 2021 window display contest. Owner Margaret Lancaster says that at the time the windows donned teals, blacks and silvers to match the shop’s former color scheme.

“I always want them to be beautiful and people to appreciate them, because why not? It’s always a little bit of art and a little bit of things that we sell, but it’s more about just delighting people when they walk by,” Lancaster says.

She recalls a memorable moment from 2021 when a young boy and his father saw the display. “I heard this little boy squealing outside, and he was there with his dad pointing in the window, and it was just so precious,” Lancaster says. “I thought, ‘All right, my job is done. I did what I needed to do.’”

The latest design is particularly meaningful for Lancaster. The inspiration spurred from a sequined red bolt of fabric, the piece de resistance in this year’s window frame. It was a gift from her late friend Jonathon Mariano, who owned We’re Off to See the Wizard; Mariano died unexpectedly this summer. Also in the mix are several Santa Clauses from Mariano’s former shop. She says their additions complement the white trees she brought in from fellow business neighbor and friend Beth Stickle Schoenheit, owner of Bloomin’ Art.

Lancaster felt it was important to commemorate Mariano and to include something from Stickle Schoenheit, who is set to retire at the end of the year.

“That was completely what the inspiration was for this year,” Lancaster says. “I just wanted to have a little bit of both of those people for different reasons in my windows.”

She had come up with the concept the night before building the displays, after letting her “thoughts wander.” It took two days to complete.

“I think people enjoy seeing the windows decorated. I think it’s part of what downtown stores should do just to make it special, to make it different,” Lancaster says. “I have an art background. I’ve always been interested in design, just all that. And so for me, it’s just a joy.”

Handcrafted designs

Toward the end of Haywood Street, and with some of the largest window space on the block, is Woolworth Walk art gallery and emporium. Displayed in the vast window case are paintings and works from artists featured in the gallery as well as a collection of large, medium and small snowflakes — all handcrafted by the gallery’s employees.

Bethany Perron is the gallery staff member who conceptualized the theme and braved the task of climbing up to the window ledge to piece it together.

“I decided that what I wanted for a theme this year … was light, white, silver, very wintery and holiday-ish. So we all looked around the gallery and tried to find things that we thought would fit,” Perron says. “And then I curated out of them what would go in the window.”

The snowflakes were strung on a cord and made to look as if they are falling. The staff worked together and combined their varying levels of origami expertise to shape the decorative flurries, even stapling six of the medium snowflakes together to create the illusion of a larger piece.

The staff then chose a collection of art that represented the many mediums the gallery carries.

“We try to pick a good mix,” Perron says. “Fiber, painting, photography, jewelry — lots of stuff. So that people who walk by can get a good representation of what we have here.”

The art of conversation

Southwest of Woolworth’s, on Patton Avenue, local artist Julia Ferris paints large colorful designs on Patton Avenue Pet Co.’s windows. Ferris says she has worked with the company for the past couple of holiday seasons and every time she goes bigger and brighter.

“This year it’s kind of colorful and cozy. Working with Patton Avenue Pet’s is always really fun because they love big designs,” Ferris says. “I really use that in my designing inspiration.”

PAINTER ON PATTON: Julia Ferris gets in the zone with an up-tempo playlist as she paints the “purrfect” seasonal scene outside of Patton Avenue Pet Co. Photo by Brionna Dallara

Ferris plans to keep the featured animals in sweaters, which were originally part of the shop’s fall season display. But she has replaced the falling leaves with a winter scene.

The four windows take about 20 hours to complete, she explains. But Ferris, who has done various projects with other local businesses and UNC Asheville, says she doesn’t mind getting lost in her work.

As an artist, the built-in variety that comes with each new job is a perk. “I’m never doing the exact same design twice, which is really nice,” Ferris says. “I really love to lose myself in large-scale work like that.”

The pet store has participated in the window display contest in past years, and Ferris has enjoyed adding to the decorative elements inside the shop, taking creative liberties on the outside.

“I love encouraging young, creative, interested children. I’ve even had kids stop and ask if they can help or give me a color suggestion,” Ferris says. “Another thing I really love about getting to work outside, especially downtown, is locals tend to stop and chat about what they love watching the windows change each season.”

Heirloom memories

Back at Madam Clutterbuckets, the conversation about this year’s display expands. Deck says she and her staff keep their eyes open for unique pieces to elevate the store’s wacky factor. For example, since its launch, the shop has opted to use skeletons instead of mannequins. The move was initially to reduce costs. “When we opened … [we] did not have money to buy expensive props,” Deck explains.

Humor and a touch of magic is also essential to each design. Throughout the year the windows are spruced up for an array of celebrations, including Halloween and Thanksgiving, among other unorthodox display endeavors.

And during the winter, the three large window displays represent a myriad of holidays. Deck says employees believe in inclusivity and incorporate solstice celebrations, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. This year also features a Pagan window that includes Krampus — the haunting Central and Eastern Alpine folklore Christmastime legend.

“Our main goal this year is to highlight our merchandise while creating a beautiful and fun window that customers will be drawn to,” Deck says.

But even as the design evolves each year, there is one item always tucked away in the glitz and glamor of new props — the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.

The BB gun belonged to Deck’s father in the late ’40s when he was a child. One of the most memorable reactions to the displays was when a man came in after the BB gun caught his eye. Deck says that she showed him the notches her father had carved into the handle of the gun. The man then exchanged memories from his own childhood with his own Daisy Red Ryder.

“We talked a long time about the nostalgia that vintage toys can ignite in people,” Deck says. “He comes by every year to see how we incorporate the gun into our windows, and it makes me think about my father. I know he would love to see people enjoying his old toy if he was still with us.”


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