Like the "Hey, Y'all" greeting on the welcome mat outside his apartment, Chattanooga designer Brandon Carruth had some Southern hospitality to offer when he flew to Washington, D.C., last month to decorate the White House.
And plenty of youthful energy.
"I was the first to raise my hand," he says of the 100-plus volunteers tasked with transforming the White House into a Christmas wonderland over Thanksgiving weekend. "I was ready."
And at 20 years old, he was "far and away the youngest," says the 2015 Dade County High School graduate.
All told, the volunteers spent 1,600 hours festooning the executive residence with Christmas finery — 53 Christmas trees, 12,000 ornaments, 18,000 lights, 1,000 feet of garland, 3,100 yards of ribbon.
That's not all. Multiple Nativity scenes, dainty sprigs of mistletoe and bunches of baubles, pine cones and florals make for festive touches at every turn. There's even a 350-pound gingerbread version of the White House dominating the State Room and a wreath in every window.
Carruth's eager hand in the air earned him decorating privileges in the East Room, the largest room in the Executive Mansion. He spent much of his time wrapping strings of clear lights around the individual branches of Christmas trees. It's a time-consuming process, but the designer trick results in a tree that sparkles from without and within. Think of it as the difference between a tree in your house, average homeowner, and a tree in the White House.
"Everything is elevated," Carruth says.
Carruth says he flew into D.C. on Thanksgiving Day and met with the other volunteers for orientation at 6:30 Friday morning in the White House movie theater. They worked the rest of the day Friday, plus Saturday and Sunday and were treated to a champagne reception with first lady Melania Trump on Monday.
"Each year the first lady thanks the volunteers for their hard work, so I made sure to get right up front for the speech," he says. "I didn't meet her, but I did get extremely close and filmed the speech."
The president never visited while the designers were at work, and party affiliations never came up in conversation.
"We didn't discuss politics," he says.
Despite long hours, he had time to check out a few museums and restaurants while in town, but it was the official residence that he most remembers.
"The highlight of my trip was the tour we were given of the White House on Day 1 and the reception of course," he says. "I am still in awe knowing that I was on ladders in the White House and dining in the State Dining Room."
The first lady had already decided this year's theme, "Time-Honored Traditions," and selected all aspects of the decor, according to the White House. But volunteers "were able to be creative" with the materials they were handed, Carruth says.
An HGTV special on this year's White House decor (airing again today at 7 a.m.) also features an on-air comment by the young designer.
Carruth says he's not sure why his application was chosen from among the thousands received by the White House each year.
"I expressed my passion for design and decorating and why decorating the White House would be good for me and why I would be good for the position," he recalls.
He also had the credentials to back up his enthusiasm. Carruth has a desk job at Unum, but he previously managed Rembrandt's Coffee House, where he "mastered latte art," he says. While at Rembrandt's, he convinced his bosses in the Bluff View Art District to expand their Christmas decor, and he has honed his skills by hiring on to help with the months-long process that transforms Rock City into the Enchanted Garden of Lights.
"My passion for Christmas decorating became a career interest for me last year when I discovered that people want their properties decorated but don't have the time to do it," he says. "I decided to take the hobby I've had my entire life and start a company, Chatt Christmas."
Through Chatt Christmas, he and his partner, Christian Harris, handle seasonal decor for residential and corporate clients. They'll even store the decor and return with new ideas the next year.
Carruth has had a passion for Christmas since childhood, remembers his mother, Jennifer Carruth.
"Even from a young age, he always wanted us to dress up at Christmas," she says. "We [mom, dad Travis and an older sister] were all the elves, and he was Santa. He'd want to go pick out all the decorations and tell me where to put them on the tree. This was like when he was 8 or 9 [years old] and couldn't reach. He'd tell me, 'You gotta put it here.'"
Carruth modeled for a while as a teen before deciding he preferred designing clothes to modeling them. He created a line of women's evening wear that was shown in Nashville, Dallas and during New York Fashion Week, with financial backing from mom's income tax refund.
"I was very young at the time and went to my mother with my ideas for a collection launch," Carruth recalls. "I had the collection sketched, the venue chosen, chair, stage and lighting vendors, other designers to participate in the launch of my label and a model casting scheduled. From there, I began networking all over the place. That career slowed down when I was focusing on finishing high school."
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.