There’s Nothing Artificial About the Sentiment Behind Modern Christmas Trees

One of Matt Bliss’s earliest holiday memories is of lying under his grandfather’s special Christmas tree as Lawrence “Bud” Stoecker spun the tree — which was created from concentric plastic circles —making reflections of light dance in a hypnotizing pattern. “At the time, I didn’t even realize my grandpa had made the tree,” Bliss recalls. “I was probably five or six years old, and I remember crawling underneath the tree and looking up, with each of my brothers on either side of me and my grandfather spinning it slightly, like this incredible kaleidoscope. Growing up, that was the most important thing for me: the vision of this tree on Christmas Eve every year and the feeling that it gave me.”

That feeling ultimately inspired Bliss to start his Modern Christmas Trees company, celebrating his grandfather’s engineering brain, his appreciation for design and his love of Christmas.

Stoecker was living in Boulder in 1966 when he got the idea to create a Christmas tree from cardboard rings attached to each other and hanging from the ceiling. No one in the family is exactly sure what sparked the idea, because Stoecker invented things all the time. “He was an engineer and worked for Ball Aerospace, which did projects for NASA,” explains Bliss. “After that, he started his own business building A-frame cabins throughout the Rocky Mountains. He was a guy who liked to make things. One year he built an ice rink in the back yard, and all the neighborhood kids would ice skate in the back yard. Any time we had any sort of school project, we would always go over to his house and he would help us with it. He was a very handy guy.”

Lawrence "Bud" Stoecker and his original "modern" Christmas tree.EXPAND

Lawrence “Bud” Stoecker and his original “modern” Christmas tree.

He kept working on his Christmas creation, too, advancing from cardboard to Masonite, plexiglass and acrylic — and the latest version of the tree always played an important role in the family’s holiday celebrations. Even as Stoecker’s children moved from Boulder to Englewood and started families of their own, they’d return to mark the start of the holiday season by the tree. Stoecker would decorate it differently every year, plotting out a pattern for the ornaments in a journal to ensure that every design was unique.

Bliss discovered the journal in 2008, as he was packing up his grandparents’ Boulder house to help them move them to a retirement community. “It was at the same time [that] I saw the tree in his garage and asked him if I could have it,” Bliss recalls. “I think he was surprised I would have any interest in it at all, but I thought it was just the most amazing thing. I don’t know if I thought it was so amazing because he made it, or just because it was so beautiful, but I took it home and left it up for like four years.”

During those four years, Bliss’s grandmother passed away, and Stoecker was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Bliss was devastated, and felt helpless as he watched his beloved grandfather slowly slipping away. He had his grandfather’s high school graduation picture tattooed on his arm. “I showed him, and he licked his thumb and tried to wipe it off,” remembers Bliss, laughing.

He decided to honor his grandfather in a way that was equally permanent but easier to share. “From then on, his Alzheimer’s just got worse and worse, and that’s when I decided I would try and give him a legacy and show the world his contribution to design,” Bliss says.

A Modern Christmas Tree shines through the window at the Sleeper House.EXPAND

A Modern Christmas Tree shines through the window at the Sleeper House.

He made two trees based on his grandfather’s design and took them to the Denver Modernism Show in 2011. “It gave me an amazing opportunity just to tell people about him,” Bliss says. “I don’t know a better way to pay tribute to somebody than to talk about them and tell stories about them. But at that show, I got a lot of positive feedback, and I decided that I loved it not only because he made it, but because it was a great design.”

That year, Bliss launched the website for a Denver-based company he decided to call Modern Christmas Trees. He only sold about a dozen trees based on his grandfather’s design that first year, but the business was rewarding in other ways. “It was to honor my grandfather, and it’s also been a huge gift to me,” Bliss says. “I was in the mortgage business prior to this, which had no creativity. I studied art and design in college, so this was an opportunity for me to be creative and to create things that didn’t exist before I thought of them and made them.”

Just as Bliss was gearing up for his second season of selling trees, his grandfather passed away at the age of 85. If anything, Stoecker’s death fueled his grandson’s ambition to make Modern Christmas Trees succeed, and his determination was validated when the original Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, commissioned him to create trees for its annual Christmas display. “I made fifteen custom trees for them, and they’re part of the holiday display at the hotel every year,” says Bliss. “It was cool, because my grandfather passed away at the end of September 2012. About a week later, I was granted a patent for the design, and about a month later, the Disneyland Hotel was displaying his trees. Half my family lives in southern California, so they were able to say goodbye and bury him in Broomfield and then celebrate his contributions and his life at the Disneyland Hotel.”

A Modern Christmas Tree on display in Los Angeles.

A Modern Christmas Tree on display in Los Angeles.

But after that auspicious start, Modern Christmas Trees hit several bumps. “I think any entrepreneur will tell you that starting a business is extremely challenging, which is why most fail,” Bliss admits. “You throw on top of that the fact that I have a seasonal product, which has really unique challenges in terms of forecasting demand: Either you sell out early, or you’re too optimistic and your profit is wrapped up in the inventory you couldn’t sell.

“When I started this, I didn’t know anything about manufacturing or intellectual properties or patents, and there was no one I could really go to that could provide a lot of value in these things, so I had to make a lot of painful mistakes and kind of fumble my way through it.”

Those mistakes were not only painful, but costly. At one point the company was nearing bankruptcy, and Bliss went on Shark Tank in 2017 in an attempt to secure investors. Instead, the TV publicity brought Modern Christmas Trees a larger audience, setting up Bliss for several high-profile collaborations the following year.
“Part of my marketing strategy was to pair the tree with really unique and interesting spaces,” Bliss explains. In 2018, he got that opportunity after world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind — who designed the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum, among other international landmarks — created the topper for the Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree using Swarovski crystals. Swarovski commissioned Bliss to make a custom tree for its Rockefeller Center store, featuring a mini replica of Libeskind’s tree topper and special crystal ornaments.

Swarovski Crystal's custom Modern Christmas Tree, featuring a replica of Daniel Libeskind's Rockefeller Center tree topper.EXPAND

Swarovski Crystal’s custom Modern Christmas Tree, featuring a replica of Daniel Libeskind’s Rockefeller Center tree topper.

While in New York City, Bliss was able to do a photo shoot with one of his trees at the TWA Lounge at the One World Trade Center. That tree is now permanently located at the TWA Hotel, designed by famous architect Eero Saarinen.

To date, Modern Christmas Trees have been installed and photographed all over the globe, including at the Governor’s Mansion in Denver, the Stahl House in Los Angeles, the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai — which displays a whopping 22 trees — and the Sculptured House, aka the “Sleeper House,” off Interstate 70 overlooking Denver. “That’s the really neat thing, is where the trees are being displayed and seen,” Bliss says. “To have the validation of some of these amazing places provides me a lot of joy.”

A Modern Christmas Tree gives an updated feel to the TWA Lounge's retro decor.EXPAND

A Modern Christmas Tree gives an updated feel to the TWA Lounge’s retro decor.

But Modern Christmas Trees isn’t out of the woods yet. This “has been a tough year for everyone, including me,” Bliss says. “I had come off a tough year with the business where we had some manufacturing challenges and really high costs of some things. I made the mistake of defining myself by the success of this business. That works when things are going well, but when things aren’t, it can be really tough.”

Between the coronavirus pandemic and a bad breakup, Bliss found himself slipping. “I’ve struggled with addiction to alcohol for a number of years,” he says, “and I found out from my mother that my grandfather had suffered from that, as well.”

But with the help of his family and friends — Bliss’s best friends are the company’s marketing director and its in-house photographer — he picked himself up and got into the full swing of the holiday season. A few weeks ago, he was able to do a photo shoot with one of his trees in the iconic Goldstein House in Los Angeles, designed by James F. Goldstein and featured in The Big Lebowski.

Despite the global pandemic, this has been a banner year for Christmas decorations — and that includes trees. Across the country, people were buying and decorating for Christmas earlier than ever, stuck at home and desperately wanting some seasonal spirit. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers are spending more money than ever on holiday decorations and other seasonal items — often an artificial tree. Many who usually go to tree farms have run into issues with social distancing, and the cost of a real Christmas tree has been steadily rising: According to a study done by the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group based in Littleton, the median price of a real Christmas tree in 2020 is 7 percent higher than it was in 2019, and 23 percent higher than it was in 2018.

Not that Modern Christmas Trees are a bargain — unless you’re thinking long-term. While artificial Christmas trees are typically more expensive than real ones, they have a long life span. According to a study done by Statista, Americans spend between $25 million and $30 million annually on real Christmas trees, and from $10 million to $20 million on artificial ones.

People who appreciate modern design are drawn to Bliss's trees.EXPAND

People who appreciate modern design are drawn to Bliss’s trees.

Over the years, Bliss has branched out a bit from his grandfather’s basic model, but each tree is still made from a single sheet of plastic, cut in concentric rings at Laird Plastics, a Denver factory. Modern Christmas Trees is currently offering a Classic Tree (7.5 feet tall) and a Soaring Tree (a whopping 10 feet tall) designed to hang from the ceiling like Stoecker’s original, as well as a tabletop tree (33 inches tall) and a wall-mounted version. They’re sold undecorated or adorned with globe ornaments and chandelier crystals, and range in price from $279 to $1,500. Fully decorated, the largest tree only weighs about fourteen pounds — and it folds flat for storage.

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There are other advantages to its local manufacture. “The carbon footprint that a traditional artificial Christmas tree creates is significantly more than ours,” notes Bliss. “One, because of the sheer volume of plastic material, but the other thing is, every artificial Christmas tree is made in China. They make it, put it on a boat, and they ship it over here, and then it gets shipped to somewhere else and shipped to somewhere else and somewhere else, and then finally to the customer.”

Still, for Bliss, the tree’s greatest selling point is the unique design. “It offers the ability to have a memorable holiday that’s a little bit different, because there’s nothing to compare it to,” he says.

While he’d assumed the tree’s contemporary feel would appeal to a younger generation, Bliss has found that his largest customer base was not new parents, but rather new grandparents. “I had thought that they were going to be — certainly people who like modern design and eccentric art design — but I thought it would be kind of a younger demographic, that were starting families and wanting to start their own traditions, and that represents maybe a quarter of the people who buy our trees. But our biggest market is the baby boomer generation,” Bliss explains. “I think the reason for that is it’s kind of a timeless design, and people take comfort in that nostalgia. But oftentimes, you’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to celebrate Christmas, and so they have that vested interest in making the holidays special for their family.”

This Christmas is certainly looking special for Bliss. “By year’s end, we should have sold more trees this year than any previous year,” he says. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs with this business, but thankfully, I’ve learned a lot of important lessons this year that I will continue to work on moving forward.”

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