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Display’s the Thing

Stephen Stefanou’s oversized marvels make the season merry.

Stephen Stefanou at his home in a Dallas high-rise, with Bismark palm seed pod sculpture by artist Susan Cochran

Red ornaments on the lawn of the Omni Dallas Hotel

He eschews a beard and prefers a sumptuous charcoal Loro Piana cashmere vest to a red velvet suit, but Stephen Stefanou is Dallas’ Mr. Christmas all the same. The 63-year-old display artist with the perennially boyish face has built an international reputation for his oversized installations that bring a touch of magic to public settings.

Toy soldiers above it all at Rockefeller Center in New York, towering gifts and a hobbyhorse at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, supersized ornament stacks at the Omni Hotel Dallas, bursting icicles at the Hunt Building, undulating angels and doves at the Trammell Crow Center—bigger is not only better, it is the only way. And the artist’s signature.

“I want the guest or tenant in an office building to stop for a moment and look up at the project,” says Stefanou. “They feel small. They feel like a child. And every time they walk past that piece, unconsciously they revert to that childlike moment.”

Stefanou, owner of Venue Arts of Dallas (venuearts.com), has been in the visual display business since he was 20. He arrived here in 1971 from Shreveport, answering an ad for a spray painting job, and has worked for most of the local retailers at one time or another—Neiman Marcus and Zale’s, now defunct Colbert’s, Sanger-Harris and Volk’s.

“This was way before OSHA safety rules, I remember hopping across the floor on ladders.” Even as a child, he says, “I was plucking flowers at age 4, wherever I saw them growing, and arranging them quite nicely.”

Along the way, a creative job became an artistic passion and an aggressive business plan. Inspired by artist Claes Oldenburg—“His attention to detail is so explicit; that’s one of my passions”—Stefanou expanded his client base, with Zale’s as his first big contract in 1976. Then came the Trammell Crow Center. He now has a roster of hotels, malls and office buildings in addition to private clients. He mastered the art of the pop-up display long before it became a retail buzzword. “It is temporary art, exhibition art,” he says, “but it’s really expensive stuff. It had to be well-done. We weren’t selling junk.”

Chances are, you’ve seen a Stephen Stefanou creation, whether on holiday or in Dallas. The contract with Rockefeller Center, for example, recently ended after 30 years. The MGM Butterfly Pavilion on the island of Macau in southeast China has been open since April. And in Dallas, Stefanou’s bright red ornament stack will once again anchor the lawn at the Omni Dallas Hotel.

For Stefanou, a day’s work has its share of nail-biting moments from conception to installation. But in this month of giving and receiving, he considers the fruits of his creative, spiritual mind his gift to friends and strangers alike. “Whatever you do, if you do it beautifully, you add something to the world.”

Merry and bright, indeed.