the appetizer:

Kate presents Gift Wrap Tips from her Mom (a former designer for Nieman-Marcus), recommends gift wrapping products, lists recent best selling cookbooks as gift ideas, plus picks some of her favorite holiday recipes in What To Eat This Month.

Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Global Kitchen

by Kate Heyhoe


The Gadget Makes the Gift
Gift Wrap Tips from a Neiman-Marcus Designer

"A customer is lazy, or just doesn't have the time, to go out and buy ribbon and decorated paper to wrap gifts. Rather, the trend now is to buy gift-wrapped articles right over the counter."
    —Alma Shon, gift-packaging designer for Neiman Marcus, quoted in 1959.

Stanley Marcus first created Neiman-Marcus as a single downtown Dallas store, and with it he revolutionized the world of retail, introducing dynamic gift-packaging as part of the store's signature style. But it was my mother, Alma Shon, who actually designed that gift-packaging for some thirty years.

Mom died in 2008, but she was always filled with imaginative tips for making today's gifts as eye-appealing as those once offered at Neiman's. "Stanley Marcus believed the gift should be presented in the most glamorous and beautiful way it could be," said Alma in her characteristic humble manner. It was at her suggestion that famous artists design exclusive packaging for NM, including Saul Steinberg, Ben Shawn and Ludwig Bemelmans (creator of the Madeline storybooks). She was also a friend to and influenced by Sister Corita Kent, whose uplifting fine art is quintessentially representative of an era.

But what really made Alma's packages work is the way she punched the customer's happy button. "The gadget was the selling point. I always had people coming up to me saying they saved the gift wrap gadget from 25 years ago. But when I retired," she once said, "I couldn't face another gift wrap. I started giving my kids gifts in paper bags." It's true, but these weren't just any old paper bags. She always made them special with a custom gadget: a chef-hatted teddy bear attached with velvet ribbon, or red firecrackers wrapped around Chinese newspaper.

While other kids had a few crayons and coloring books to play with, I had my mom's enormous art studio as a toy chest. Hundreds of rolls of wrapping paper and ribbons, and goodies like silk flowers, goo-goo eyes, birds, bees, sequins, beads, and other fun stuff were at my disposal. Magic markers in Pantone colors, big drawing pads, all sorts of fabrics, too. She had a tape dispenser as wide as my arm, which held several types of tape. As a kid, I used these supplies to not only wrap gifts, but also to make them.


Secrets of Success:
5 Best Gift-Wrapping Tips

Alma Shon gave us a few tips for making gifts sparkle on the outside:

Alma Shon
Alma Shon in the 1950s

1) The Gadget Makes the Gift. Even if a gift is too large to wrap with paper, or too bulky to wrap a ribbon around it, you can always affix a bow, a gadget, or a card to it. A gadget can be anything decorative that acts as a focal point, such as a Christmas ornament (like an angel), a chocolate Easter bunny, or a miniature stuffed animal or party favor. A popular focal point used for gift wrapping has become flowers for holidays. They have the ability to be customized depending on the occasion of the gift. Ribbon is important, and often a big, splashy bow acts as a gadget, though you can work up a very eye-catching package even without ribbon. Almost anything small enough to attach to the gift can be a gadget, but it should be big enough to command your attention and not so small to look dwarfed.

2) Personalize It. Make the package scream out "You're special!" Be thoughtful in your choice of colors and materials. They don't have to be expensive (brown paper and dyed twine can work as well as silk fabric and velvet ribbon), but they should reflect a sense of joy and caring. Most of all, they should be festive and fun, and reflect the tastes of the person who's opening them. Even when the gift inside is meager or plain, the packaging outside can make it special.

3) Protect Your Work. When wrapping gifts for shipping, protect the bow or gadget from being crushed. Fashion a cardboard collar or ring around the bow/gadget and place packing materials around the protective collar. Aluminum pie plates and pans also work well.

4) Think Like an Artist. Apply the basic principles of art and design to gift wrapping, like balance, composition, focal point, harmony and contrast. I like to think of each package as a multi-media art piece, where creativity knows no bounds, and "breaking out of the box" is a concept to be taken literally. People who have a knack for wrapping gifts may not realize it, but they're really natural born artists.

5) Make It Memorable and Reusable. Don't be concerned that your beautiful packaging will be a temporary thing to end up in the trash. In fact, many people (especially green-thinkers) repurpose gift bags, paper, gadgets and bows. More importantly, people often remember the packaging long after it's gone, and may even recall the way the gift package looked but forget what was inside. When it's done well, the gift's packaging is the memorable joy you take with you. So go ahead and put your heart into it.


Gorgeous "Green" Wrappings for Holiday Gifts

If she was alive today, my mother would have loved the new gift wrap materials that aren't just pretty and practical, but they're earth-friendly as well. Two worth noting:

Earth Balance Bags—Tree-free bags made from stone. Pulverized limestone undergoes a magical process and becomes sleek, slick, and festive "paper" which this company makes into gift bags. Design patterns include pop-art styled shoes, cupcakes, retro robots, holiday snowflakes, and elegant grapevines among other motifs. The bags feel as luxurious as heavy coated paper, yet not a speck of paper or wood goes into them. Attributes of the process include no chlorine, water consumption, toxic emissions, trees, or hazardous waste. They're waterproof, re-usable, recyclable and sustainable. Plus, 5% of profits go to charities. Find them at

Little Kay Gardens "Flowering" Paper—Plantable Seeded Paper. Unwrap a gift then plant a garden. These 100% recycled gift wrap papers are embedded with flower seeds. After unwrapping, simply place the paper in your garden bed, cover with a thin layer of topsoil, then water and wait for seeds to sprout and blooms to grow. It's truly a gift wrap that keeps on giving. The 24x36-inch pastel sheets (unprinted) contain mixes of poppy, coreopsis, black-eyed susan, snapdragon and other seeds, and come with gift tags and ties. Order from


Finally, the biggest tip: have fun with gift-wrapping. Enjoy the whole creative process and get into the joy of making the packaging a big part of the gift itself. Neatness counts, but not as much as the whimsy and wit that adorn the gift, especially when you personalize the packaging to reflect the gift recipient's own tastes and individuality.

And don't forget: there's a real person behind every design you buy, a designer with a special talent like Alma Shon. Whether it be gift paper, card, ribbon or bag, some artist somewhere created it with someone like you in mind, putting a piece of their spirit into the product. Just knowing this somehow makes every gift-wrapped present all the more special.

Happy Holidays,
Kate, Thomas and the Global Gourmet Team

Essential Pepin
Click to buy Essential Pepin


Top Ten
Best Selling Cookbooks

Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food by Jacques Pepin

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

The Oxford Companion to Beer by Horst Dornbusch

The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America's Most Trusted Cooking Magazine by America's Test Kitchen

Good Eats 3: The Later Years by Alton Brown

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons

The Homesick Texan Cookbook by Lisa Fain

Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi

Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi

What to Eat This Month

Holiday Recipes
Turkey of the Month

More Holiday Recipes


Current Kate's Global Kitchen
Kate's Global Kitchen Archive

Copyright © 2011, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

This page modified December 2011