15 Tips From the World's Most Famous Gift-Wrapper

December 16, 2016

When Alton Dulaney won the 2008 Scotch Tape's Most Gifted Wrapper Contest, he was running, as he remembers, on "pure excitement and adrenaline." At the time, Dulaney was the director of creative services and visual merchandising at the now-closed stationery hub Kate's Paperie, where he oversaw the store's visual identity, from window displays to the gift-wrapped samples that show customers their options.

I'm probably the most famous gift-wrapper in the world.
Alton Dulaney

The night before the competition, he'd flown in from Europe, where he'd been for a wedding. But even jet-lagged and hungover, Dulaney wowed the Rockefeller Center audience when he turned a baby grand piano—which the contestants had a mere fifteen minutes to wrap—into what he called "a celebration of holidays and gift wrap."

Photo by Bobbi Lin

"After I won, they all wanted to interview me and it was a press avalanche. They put me in a limo and sent me to Good Morning America." Dulaney was then flown across the country to L.A., where he was on The Bonnie Hunt Show. Fast-forward to 2016 and Dulaney is a Rachel Ray Show regular—he's been on seven times. "I'm probably the most famous gift-wrapper in the world," Dulaney told me. And knowing no other famous gift-wrappers, I'm not one to argue.

But all of Dulaney's expertise doesn't come from out of the blue. "I've always been an enthusiastic gift-wrapper," Dulaney told me. "As a kid, my parents both made the holidays a special time. Christmas was a big deal. We lived in [rural] Texas: We cut down the tree ourselves; we made paper garlands and homemade ornaments."

These days, Dulaney is an artist who focuses on decorative arts and interior and event decorating, and because he works with paper as a material in his art and his craft, gift wrap is a natural outlet. Around the holidays, especially, he does "an awful lot of gift-wrapping": Companies hire Dulaney to spearhead their entire holiday campaigns, from decking out the holiday party to wrapping all of the corporate gifts (hundred of bottles of Champagne or tequila, for example).

As an ultra-anxious wrapper myself, I checked in with Dulaney to get his know-how (and encouragement). Straight from the pro himself, here are tips to keep in mind this gift-wrapping season:

1. Give yourself more time (and resources) than you think you need.

It sounds obvious to wrap gifts ahead of time, but how many times have I left myself five minutes before the holiday or birthday party starts to wrap the present? (Every single time!)

To give yourself enough wiggle room to experiment and get creative (and also to mess up and start over), wrap the presents well in advance. And make sure you have plenty of paper on hand, too. Since you're wrapping gifts at your home for loved ones (not at Macy's on Christmas Eve for frantic customers), why not lessen the pressure?

If you mess up, don’t stress—it’s just paper. Rip it off and start over. It's not a life or death situation we’re talking about here.
My Reality Check

"Gift giving is a celebration," Dulaney reassured me when I told him about my anxiety over perfect corners and hidden seams. "You should be enjoying it—choosing the gift, wrapping the gift, giving it, receiving it, opening it—it’s all a celebration."

"If you mess up don’t stress—it’s just paper. Rip it off start over. It’s not a life or death situation we’re talking about here." Of course, it helps if you've got the time and extra gift wrap to start again.

2. Get helpers, then set up an assembly line.

When Dulaney is tasked with wrapping hundreds of holiday gifts, he enlists assistants (let's call them elves) to help. "I create a system of it: One will wrap, one will bow, one will ribbon, and one will do quality-control."

You can do the same, even if your gift count is not in the hundreds. Have one person measure and cut the paper; another (the most skilled) do the wrapping; and a third tie the ribbons and slide the presents into bags. (Or, just bribe one particularly compulsive or creative friend or family member to do all the wrapping for you: Every year, our editor Ali Slagle wraps all the present her mom gives.)

3. Look around you for inspiration.

Bored of the run-of-the-mill gift wrap? A self-described gallery and museum junkie, Dulaney turns to contemporary fashion and home decor for color and style trends (see Belgian design and hygge), and looks to art to for historical reference and to assess what has timeless staying power.

4. If you're at a loss for what's "cool" this year, look to metallics.

Solid gold wrapping paper, sparkly silver bows, glittering gift bags! We're big fans of copper and brass, have you heard?

5. Think about wrapping as a multisensory experience.

If you've got the folding down-pat and you're ready to graduate to Gift-Wrapping 202, think about the full multi-sensory experience of gift-giving: not just how the presents look, but how they feel, smell, and sound, and taste too.

Dulaney is wrapping this year's gifts in solid gold paper (he's on trend), then taking the approach one step further by adding little golden bells. He's also treating his presents like Christmas trees, by stringing them with battery-operated LED lights. And, for smell and a touch of nature, Dulaney recommends tucking magnolia leaves or sprigs of rosemary onto simple, kraft paper-wrapped packages.

6. Make your wrapping personal.

If you want to add an element of you to the wrapping (because gift giving is all about you, right?), consider customizing your gifts, be it with a handmade gift tag or ornament. You can go all out and get ribbon or even gift wrap printed with the words of your choice ("A gift from Sarah," for example), or try something a little subtler and...

7. Always take the price tag off!

Never assume there is no price tag.

8. Avoid taping your paper to the package.

Use your tape to affix paper to paper rather than paper to box. Ideally, you want the gift wrap to fall away from the gift, leaving both the box pristine and unscathed by rogue tape.

9. Embellish gift bags from the shelves.

Dulaney takes no issue with premade bows and bags (which, he says, have come a long way), but when you add another element—ribbon, tissue paper, a gift tag—, they'll feel much more special and intentional.

10. For the best deals, shop for gift wrap all year round.

"I shop the after-holiday sales, and I shop clearance and discount retailers," Dulaney told me when I lamented how expensive wrapping is on top of the cost of the presents themselves. "You’ll find luxury, high-end gift wrap for pennies on the dollar compared to what you’d pay for it during the season." Anytime you find a roll of paper or a bow you like, snatch it up.

11. And if you're not looking to spend any money on gift wrap, let your creativity shine.

You can make your own gift wrap paper by embellishing white or brown kraft paper or newspaper. Or, repurpose your kids' art!

12. But if you’re in a real pinch, turn the paper over and use the back.

Let's say you've only got Christmas paper and you're giving a Hanukkah gift. Just turn it inside out: The underside will (likely) be a blank canvas for your own decorations...

13. You'll need two kinds of tape.

A satiny, clear tape that will camouflage into the wrapping paper, plus a roll of double-sided for those tricky spots.

14. And two kinds of scissors.

You'll want a different pair of scissors for the paper and the ribbon. The texture of paper (especially thicker, textured wraps) can dull the blades, which will prohibit crisp ribbon edges. "I always tie a piece of ribbon around the handle [of the ribbon scissors]" to mark them, says Dulaney.

15. If you've got an unusual object to wrap, consider these 3 strategies.

  • Embellish the object itself: If it's bicycle (or a puppy!), put a bow on it and set it under the tree. "No one is going to say, 'Thanks for the bicycle, but wish you would’ve wrapped it better,'" assures Dulaney.
  • "Disguise" the gift. Look at its shape, then mold it into something else. Dulaney has wrapped a tricycle to look like a deer and a bag of golf clubs to resemble a giant firecracker. Squint your eyes and think abstractly and geometrically: Maybe that lamp does look like an ostrich (you see it, don't you?); maybe that pitcher, with the right amount of green tissue paper coming out of the top, could be a tree.
No one is going to say, 'Thanks for the bicycle, but wish you would’ve wrapped it better.'
Alton Dulaney
  • Or, take the gift apart visually, piece by piece: When you approach an unusually-shaped hulk piecemeal, the task of covering it becomes less daunting. When Dulaney wrapped a scooter, for example, he broke it down into its component parts: The handlebars get covered with the actual cardboard of an empty gift wrap roll, and the stem, base, and the wheels each got an individual boxes of different sizes. The same will work with large gifts, like sporting equipment or appliances.

Got a piece of wrapping wisdom to share? Tell us in the comments!

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