Lively Day of the Dead theme in Ferndale home enchants

Jeanine Matlow
Special to The Detroit News

Whether Dan Davis is doing a design project for a client or planning his annual Halloween party that doesn’t disappoint, the secret is in the details. “I love this holiday,” says the interior designer who lives in Ferndale with his husband, KC Vansen.

Each year, their 1940s home features a completely different Halloween theme. This time around, Davis, who co-owns Dan Davis Design with Paul Johnson, selected a Dia de los Muertos motif, which happens to be one of his favorites.

Also known as Day of the Dead, the Mexican tradition that is celebrated in other parts of the world like Latin America honors loved ones who are no longer with us. “As you get a little bit older, you start to lose people in your life, so it’s nice to do something that celebrates them,” says Davis. “KC and I both lost our mothers earlier than they should have gone.”

Previous themes for their popular Halloween party that has evolved over the years include House of Wax, Bloody Mary, Hallogreen, Health Scare Reform and Queer Eye for the Dead Guy.

This holiday is ideal for a special celebration. “You’re not bound by anything other than a great excuse to get together with people you enjoy and have a good time,” says Davis. “That said, this theme adds a beautiful layer about celebrating people you’ve lost.”

Day of the Dead symbols make their first appearance in the front yard, which sets the tone for the colorful theme that weaves its way through the main areas of the home before spilling into the beautiful gardens out back.

Near the entry, skeletons with musical instruments don ponchos and sombreros and carved butternut squash skulls are supported by bamboo poles. Colored light gels that further enhance the eerie setting are done by Vansen. In the backyard, carved pumpkins keep company with a medical skeleton on the patio.

Perforated paper banners (papel picados) hang in the great room where vintage bowls that have been collected for years appear in different vignettes along with vintage textiles. In the bar area, the iconic Catrina character watches over a colorful collection of wine glasses.

Pieces from their cherished collection of paper mache carved molds from the Philippines known as takaan are also on display. Reproduction vintage postcards embellish an old French gate in the kitchen where a large chalkboard gets into character with a colorful Day of the Dead skull drawn by Davis.

In the dining room, where Mexican food will be served this year, the custom lightbox on the wall features a different image for each theme. A traditional altar, or ofrenda, pays homage to their late mothers with their photos and sugar skulls believed to lure them back.

“My mom always liked a good party,” says Davis who painted the row of skulls on the table along with the many dolls displayed throughout the house.

Decorative vultures get repurposed whenever possible, while existing pieces get dressed for the occasion like the Russian icons in the living room that wear masks.

A playlist that mostly consists of Mexican and Latin-inspired music contributes to the mood. The invitations take the pressure off guests before they get there by telling them to do as they choose: wear a costume or don’t, bring a dish or don’t, bring your kids or don’t.

Years of hosting the legendary get-together taught Davis how to perfect it and he advises others to do the same, whether that means making food ahead of time or hiring help so you can talk to everyone.

“I love seeing people react to the decorations and seeing people have a good time,” he says. “It’s a fun holiday and it’s flexible with what you can do because you don’t have some of the trappings of the other holidays. It’s just a really fun excuse to have a party.”

Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at

Treat your home to tricks

Layers make a statement, like the tablescapes seen here. “It takes weeks for us to do this,” says Dan Davis about the collaboration that includes Vansen, Johnson and the firm’s project coordinator, Michelle Schroeder, who sewed the costume for the Catrina character.

Their efforts are greatly appreciated come party time. “I feel that people love details. If you can makeover a mantel or a table, it adds to the whole experience,” he says. “If you don’t do a theme, just change something up each year so it doesn’t get stale.”

Don’t be afraid to mix expensive with budget-friendly pieces and move your own objects around. Items that come back to haunt this party each year include the skeletons that can be posed and dressed differently, as well as their collection of skulls.

“Having some really good basics to draw from means not reinventing the wheel every time,” says Davis whose inventory includes everything from colored lightbulbs to candlesticks.

Another way to save money when entertaining for any occasion is with DIY projects. “If it’s within your skill set, why not?” he says. “If you sew, make your own pillows or tablecloth. If you do woodworking, make some frames.”

Creativity goes a long way. In this case, cutting holes in place mats turned them into ponchos for the skeletons.

Combine local sources like Mexican Village with online shopping, which can be especially helpful when searching for multiples of specific items like sombreros and paper carnations.

Try a color theme or something culled from current events, says Davis who stresses the importance of lighting. Colored bulbs, spotlights and a mix of real and electric candles take his Halloween décor to another level. “A beautiful string of LED lights is a great way to get a big impact without spending a lot of money,” he says.

Lastly, just relax. “I learned you can never start planning too early and that something will go wrong at every party,” he says. “Don’t sweat it and don’t let your guests sweat it.”