The Queen of Creativity

Woodbury guru Heather O’Malley gives new life to vintage furniture at her new shop, Thistle.
Woodbury resident Heather O'Malley at her shop, Thistle in St. Paul's Milton Square.

When you ask local set designer and store owner Heather O’Malley about her profession over the past years, she would liken herself to a Christmas elf, readying shopping malls and other locales for the holiday season. With a background in visual merchandising and an eye for all things artsy, O’Malley has always found herself drawn to transforming things into the unexpected. And her newest venture—Thistle— follows in suit. The occasional store in St. Anthony Park’s historical Milton Square (2228 Carter Ave.) is open 4 days a month, featuring furniture and vintage finds that O’Malley has repurposed herself.

The Christmas Elf

You might not realize that behind those elaborate shopping center holiday displays is a talented designer and lots of creativity. That’s where O’Malley steps in. She’s the one that finds ways to turn an everyday shopping center into a whimsical Christmas land. O’Malley got her start working for a property management company and doing holiday displays and elaborate Christmas trees for hotels and restaurants, and then worked her way up to creating extensive holiday sets at places like Woodbury Lakes Shopping Center and Southdale Center.

Woodbury Lakes general manager Lisa Crain called upon O’Malley’s creative set design skills while working for Woodbury Lakes and previously at Southdale Center. O’Malley was able to bring a festive feel to Woodbury Lakes by incorporating a lot of outdoor features into her displays. For one of the Southdale Center Christmas sets, O’Malley created a whimsical, winter candy land with trees covered in candy canes and gumdrops. “A lot of our core shoppers loved coming to the Santa set—it always looked fantastic,” Crain says. “I attribute that to Heather taking the [existing] set to the next level.”

But where does O’Malley come up with her ideas? “My friends laugh because I don’t ever sleep,” she jokes. “My ideas come to be in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping.”

But one thing is for sure—O’Malley always gives her sets and displays some sort of unusual twist. And her creativity skills were definitely put to the test one year when creating a holiday set for Southdale Center in which O’Malley was tasked with including a number of life-size animals that the marketing department had come across. “These were not Minnesota animals,” she says. “But all I could think of was that if we were going to bring them to Minnesota, they had to be dressed for the weather.” So O’Malley dressed her animals in boots, scarves, and hats—and even the occasional pair of ice skates. “It ended up being very funny and the kids loved it,” she says.

The Repurposing Guru

Instead of dressing up animals in winter outfits and covering Christmas trees in gumdrops, O’Malley is focusing on her new store, Thistle, this holiday season. The occasional store is open the second Thursday through Sunday of each month.

At Thistle, you can expect to find repurposed furniture or vintage odds and ends being used for something other than originally intended. O’Malley is constantly looking for furniture at garage sales and Goodwill, and will even embark on the occasional road trip in search of items in need of a little facelift.

O’Malley tries to have a good representation of each room at all of her sales, featuring pieces like vanities, bedroom furniture, dressers, desks, chairs, and of course, a bunch of vintage knickknacks. And you can be sure that each piece will have been given new life, whether it’s been re-glued, re-nailed, re-upholstered, or re-painted.

“It’s always been fun for me to do things where I start with a normal object and turn it into something different,” she says. “And that’s what Thistle is.”

Heather’s Top Three Refurbishing Tips

1.    Start simple. If you’re new to the refurbishing game, start with a simple chair. It’s easy to paint over again, and upholstery fixes are usually a cinch.
2.    Think curvy. Turned posts, curly edges, or carvings provide great opportunities to add a little color and definition to your piece.
3.    Don’t be afraid of color. Boring, brown-stained furniture comes to life with paint!

For more information about Thistle, visit thistleinmiltonsquare.com.