upper east side

‘Once I Decorate a House, It Becomes a Competition on the Block’

Photo: Marko Matijas

If you walk around the Upper East Side in October and notice a Beaux-Arts townhouse with an elaborate Nightmare Before Christmas display — tasteful, with the lighting just so — or a Hitchcockian window motif, you may just be looking at Marko Matijas’s work. “Once I decorate a house, it becomes a competition on the block,” he says of the decade he has spent transforming the façades of some of Manhattan’s wealthiest addresses. This isn’t your average Spirit Halloween fare: These displays tell a story and will impress both the trick-or-treater who has come to expect full-size Reese’s and the parent standing behind them wearing $700 loafers.

It’s precisely because of that clientele that Matijas is cagey about details; he refuses to name any of his clients and similarly demurs when I ask him the top budget he has worked with. What he does share is that minimum rates start at $5,000 and “can go as crazy as you wanna go.” I spoke with Matijas ahead of Halloween weekend about attaching witches to brownstones, working around restrictions on historic buildings, and his most impressive skill of all: managing expectations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tell me a little bit about your job and how you got into it.
My background is in floral design for weddings and parties and then I opened up a catering company with a partner. From there, one of the clients asked me, “Hey, can you do décor for my kid’s Halloween party?” That’s how it grew. It was easy to get into that. I know the mechanics and logistics: propping up things, making them look like they’re flying from the roof, figuring out how I’m going to put a witch on top of a building or have skeletons appear to be raining down. Once I decorate a house, it becomes a competition on the block. Neighbors start to do it, and it makes it fun for everyone.

What’s the profile of your typical client?
They want something elevated — that’s why they go above the usual pumpkins and spiderwebs on your bush. I have some clients who also have design backgrounds, but it’s mostly families with kids. Most of my work is for clients based on the Upper East Side; that’s where I started doing it. There’s enough work from that area. I’ll be doing a house and people will walk by me saying, “This looks great! Can you do it at my place?” I have done the Hamptons and downtown, but mostly it’s the Upper East Side.

What’s the process like? 
Sometimes it comes super-easy; sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. When I have clients who have their own ideas, that’s much easier — they will just tell me this year’s theme is scarecrows or spiders or pumpkins. Some people don’t want scary stuff. The best is if you can set it up in a way that your client thinks it was his idea. Then they are extremely happy. You can’t repeat things, though, because it’s not that big of an area. Especially now with social networks, people post pictures. Everybody gets their own unique thing.

Photo: Marko Matijas

Is it a challenge working on some of these historic buildings? 
Most of them are brownstones, older buildings that are manicured and protected, so you can’t start drilling and putting screws in. You have to work with what’s there — greenery helps a lot.

How much do these displays cost?
It starts at like $5,000 and can go as crazy as you wanna go.

How crazy does it go? What’s the most you’ve spent?
Do I have to answer that?

You don’t have to. 
It gets pricey. More elaborate means more money. Last year and 2020 especially were very challenging with the shortages and supplies. This year, the only problem is that they tripled prices. For the most part, everything is available, but things are very expensive.

Do neighbors ever get mad at the décor choices? 
Not once have I heard that. After I’m done, all of the other houses on the block’s displays start popping up. People get inspired or want to compete.

Any favorites you’ve worked on? 
I like a challenge — when people want things floating and coming from roofs and ceilings. There’s the wow factor at the end. For one client, we did a theme of Hitchcock’s Birds; on all the windows, we had branches suspended with birds all over them. It really looked cool.

Have you ever had a client ask for something totally unrealistic? 
There are, of course, clients who don’t think about the logistics of how some things will happen. I need just four seconds to know if something will work or not and then I don’t even entertain it. You can’t let it simmer because people will get stuck on an idea, like, “No no — this is what I want.”

Beyond the Usual Pumpkins and Spiderwebs on a Bush