How To Decorate A Mantel

If you're lucky enough to have a fireplace or wood stove in your house, working or not, you have a unique opportunity to create a focal point with your mantel decoration. Often overlooked other than holiday seasons, the mantel naturally draws the eye, as it's a mix of masonry, wood, and sometimes fire. The fireplace area includes the mantel, hearth, and chimney, and this area is unlike any other. According to Mantels Direct, the mantel is the focal point because it dictates the fireplace's overall style. From modern floating wood and rustic stone mantles to ornately carved marble mantels, they all pretty much follow the same decorating rules. 

There are two primary decorating styles for your mantel, and these rules are basic to all design: symmetric and asymmetric. According to Homes & Gardens, symmetric design is balanced, where each side is matching or mirroring, creating a calm aesthetic. On the other hand, asymmetrical arrangements favor one side, don't mirror each other, and instead use related forms (via MyMove). No matter which style you choose, don't add clutter, and make sure your pieces on display have meaning, suggests The Spruce. You should also group pieces in eye-pleasing odd numbers for some visual harmony. Want to see this in practice? Here are some ideas to give your mantel — that prime decorating real estate — a little more curb appeal.

Display that fair mirror

One of the most popular mantel decor pieces is the large mirror. Before incandescent lights, capturing natural daylight was paramount in a house. Until the mid-1800s, mirrors were a luxury since they reflected sunlight into the home. But today, in an era when lightbulbs are a dime a dozen, mirrors instead add grandeur and elegance to a room. From frameless classics to those with ornate frames, mirrors are a favorite backdrop. When decorating your fireplace mantel, go big with your mirror. The biggest mistake designer Laurel Bern at Laurel Home sees is people choosing a too-small mirror for the space. As a rule of thumb, she says, the mirror should measure about 2/3 of the size of the mantel. Like this mirror from Lulu and Georgia, hang it, or lean it against the wall. Use this as an anchor or a stand-alone piece.

In homes with eight-foot ceilings, most large mirrors are installed horizontally. But houses with tall ceilings can host substantial mirrors, like the traditional pier, or trumeau, mirrors. According to Apartment Therapy, these grand mirrors traditionally covered the entire wall space over the mantel and featured a carving or a miniature painting over the mirrored area. So mimic the French and decorate with a mirror that runs up to the crown molding. No matter which mirror you choose, use properly sized hangers, like these at Lowe's, to ensure your base stays in place. 

Decorate your mantel with dwarf trees

Often overlooked or dismissed as being too difficult to keep thriving, small trees on your fireplace mantel are like a breath of fresh air. Literally. According to Time, numerous studies have found that houseplants remove the carbon dioxide from the air. Country Living recommends palms as some of the best indoor trees, and majesty palms top its list. With regal arching fronds, these palms like light, and their soil always slightly moist, says Costa Farms. Other light lovers on its list include the windmill palm, Areca palm, ponytail palm, and Kentia palm. 

If your fireplace is positioned in a shady nook, the parlor palm can handle low light conditions (via Better Homes and Gardens). Impress your friends by growing your own citrus with a miniature Meyer lemon tree, which, according to Apartment Therapy, does well in well-lit locations and containers. Miniature, manicured Bonsai trees, including the Serissa japonica "Pink Mystic," fit most mantels. And evergreen trees, like holiday trees, aren't just for the winter holidays anymore. Garden Lovers Club says boxwood, pine, spruce, and even some cedar trees, are suitable for growing indoors as well. 

Add flames to the fire

Is there a more natural combination with a fireplace mantel than some stylish flames? From tealights to tapers, votives to pillars, candles add height and warmth (ha, ha) to your mantlepiece. Shelterness suggests using candles of various sizes while keeping the color palette neutral. If your fireplace isn't operational, mimic the mantel pillar candles in the actual fireplace. Consider adding candles in hurricane lamps for additional texture and interest. Combine pillar candles on their own or elevate your look with candle holders like this five-candle holder from Wayfair.

However, you don't have to break the bank when choosing your holders. Thrift shops, garage sales, and used homewares stores offer unexpected, quirky, and low-cost candle holders. They also come in all shapes. Non-traditional candle holders can be vases, drink glasses, bowls, or clay pots (via CraftsOnFire). Looking to add some effortless style without being too matchy? These one-of-a-kind recycled and reclaimed wood candle holders from Sundance Catalog will update your mantel beautifully. As you can see, you can't go wrong with this decor trick. 

Display your dish collection

Displaying pottery on mantel fireplaces is what the aristocrats have been doing for centuries. It's an ideal area to display stoneware collections, grandma's vases, or even ceramic or terracotta pots with or without plants. But when styling the mantel, School of Decorating recommends grouping pieces in threes. The blog suggests combining a short round shape, a large statement piece, and a smaller, more delicate ceramic, china, or pottery piece when creating these clusters. This grouping works because these items combine different proportions and heights. Start with the largest piece and see what looks best on your mantle before adding the smaller ones. Mix old and new items together, or utilize new pieces that look like they could have been unearthed at an archeological dig, such as these vases from Ballard Designs.

For a formal or traditional look, decorate with symmetry. According to Hayneedle, pairing identical items like vases and candle holders on each side of the mantel gives a balanced feel. Repetition — using patterns and colors in sets of odd numbers — is restful and harmonious to the eyes. That's why we love this three-piece set of terracotta spheres from Perigord. While small pottery pieces can get lost on large mantles, smaller hearths can display pottery of petite proportions like mini-vases, figurines, demitasse teacups, or porcelain boxes. 

Flank it with orchids

With over 25,000 varieties and blooms in every color except black, orchids represent elegance and refinement, says ProFlowers. Their graceful arching stems and enticing symmetric flowers make them a formal mantel must. Just please note that when enjoying a fire in the fireplace, move all plants from the mantel to avoid overheating them. The most widely-known mantel orchid, the white moth orchid, is among the easiest to grow (via Better Homes and Gardens). With a few tablespoons of water weekly and monthly feeding of a balanced 20-20-20 orchid food, moth orchids can handle low, medium, and bright light. Other popular varieties like the purple spikes of Dendrobium orchids and waxy-looking reddish Cymbidium orchids give a tropical feel to the mantle. Although orchids are fairly easy-care, many artificial orchids are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Adorn large stately mantles with multi-stem arrangements like these tall faux orchid plants in white and blue planters from Windward Home

Bulbs like fragrant paperwhite narcissus or cheery amaryllis add greenery, bloom, and balance when placed on each side of the mantel. Looking for a change of pace? Add a colorful bromeliad. In the pineapple family, these blooms have splashes of bright purple, yellow, orange, or red. Placed in bright, indirect light, these long-living plants like fast-draining, acidic soil (via The Spruce). Water these beauties directly in the center of the leaves. No green thumb? Try succulents instead.

Decorate your mantel with timepieces

Timepieces add a touch of sophistication to your mantel. These pieces make a statement, from large wall-mounted clocks with bold Roman numerals to demure curved wooden clocks. According to Collectors Weekly, since the 18th and 19th centuries, timepieces combined form and decoration to create something eye-catching. A bold chronometer can be the starting point in your design, allowing you to build the rest of your decor from there. Oversized clocks balance nearby bare walls and play nicely with almost all interior decor styles. And as a base for your mantel, rustic or formal clocks make a complementary backdrop for framed art, potted plants, and sculpture.

Emulate the upper-crust by decorating your fireplace with an ornate French bronze clock, like these at Antique & Uncommon Treasure. Smaller shelf and mantel-styled pendulum clocks were among the first commercially available clocks that kept accurate time (via ThoughtCo). Still popular, these chiming, double-curved, tambour-style clocks are smaller and ideal for dens and rooms with smaller mantels. Get one like them from Simply Mantle Clocks

Look at your mantel in 3D

Especially if your home has an eclectic style, using three-dimensional pieces with sculptural qualities, instead of flat items, keeps the vibe alive by giving your mantel an uncommon focal point. Sculptures are attention-grabbers and meant to stand alone. Unless your room is quite formal, the best way to do this is to give them a place of prominence, but not in the center of the mantel. Set the piece favoring one side, then balance the other side with a cluster of smaller coordinating items. Rustic sculptor Matt Toomey suggests pushing outside your comfort zone and clustering several sculptures together for an eye-catching effect. Metal sculptures blend with most decor styles, so they are a great place to start when wading into the sculpture pool.

By adding a piece of sculpture, you have the opportunity to pay homage to the location of your home and hearth. Do you live by the sea (or wish you did)? Consider carved wooden sailboats or a sculpture of a local lighthouse. Do you live in the mountains (or want to look like it)? How about adding a couple of pine cone-esque tree sculptures like these at Grandin Road. Mahogany is organically carved for this statement piece from Industry West

Your mantel can stage for your collectibles

More often than not, mantel decorations are fairly formulaic and have a large item that centers and grounds the rest of the decorations. While clocks, art, and photographs are great choices, the mantle makes a fantastic stage for your collectibles too. When displaying your items horizontally, SFGate says to place them every four inches along the entirety of the mantel. This rule applies to salt and pepper shakers, vases, glass paperweights, and even vintage painted eggs. If your items aren't all the same size, colors, or textures, cluster them in groups with about the same number and characteristics (for example, one tall, one round, and one ornate). Then adorn your mantle with the groups, making it easy to coordinate and balance the displayed pieces. Veranda suggests showing only star items then moving them around until you're satisfied.

What if the collection is a little less formal? There are interesting and even elegant displays available for the most colloquial of collectibles. Perhaps your passion is cards. No problem, dress up your cards with displays like these at Displays2go and let them grace your mantel. From shelving units designed for small items like salt and pepper shakers at Fine Home Displays, to small awards displays like this one from Wayfair, there are plenty of options. 

Why not nurture some nature

Nature is always in fashion. Pulling outside beauty onto your mantel can't help but draw attention. An easy way to start is by placing a few beautiful budding branches or some stunning magnolia stems in some weighted vases (since these stems tend to tip). Then add some found objects like cool rocks and crystals, good-sized shells, and even pitch-free pine cones. Anchor the display with an assortment of sea life or seascapes, botanical prints, or other nature-inspired scenes. The abstract qualities of driftwood or coral, like this set of three from Bella Coastal Decor, are naturally inviting. Look for shell wreaths, shell-framed statement art, and mirrors that give shells a little more glamour.

Get long weeks of enjoyment from outdoor branches. Above and Beyond Gardening suggests keeping the fresh stems in vases or containers without any water. If the branches are placed in water, the buds will blossom. Branches from your fruit trees — especially apple, apricot, and cherry — make attractive options too. 

Big crystals are having a moment, so why not include them in your decoration. Feature giant clear quartz crystals alone or on stands. Kalifano says that quartz crystals are also known as the mother of all healing stones and bring a sense of peace to your home. Who can't use a little more tranquility?

Let your mantle speak for itself

The home's hearth, fireplace, and mantel combine masonry with wood and wall, and those interesting architectural features are often artistic enough that you don't need to add much to the mantel. Instead of decorating this area, we are going to allow it to speak for itself, with minimal ornamentation. By decorating with a few robust pieces and limiting small items and clutter, we create a simple feel. Maison de Pax says mirrors make a great focal point. Round and arching mirrors make a statement without speaking too loudly.

Grace in My Space says that adding a mirror or piece of simple art is an easy way to create impact. She suggests using one very large piece that draws the eye to the mantel. Potted plants, vases, and candles make great sleek accessories, especially in coordinating neutral-toned vases or pots. To get the look, Next Luxury advises using restraint to keep the lines clean. They suggest that even a bare mantel can work in some contemporary homes. Unhappy with your mantel? New and used mantels are widely available at home improvement, used furnishing, and resale stores.

Dress your mantel in proper British style

The hearth area is quite traditional, especially in older homes across the United States and the United Kingdom. This makes it fun to dress up with a nod to British style. Originally used as a heat source and kitchen, fireplaces continue to be the center of English homes, says Homedit. Mantels, usually made of white painted wood or stone, make a sturdy base for the ubiquitous large mirrors over the fireplaces. Mirrors catch and reflect the light and scarce U.K. sunshine, and often feature interesting shapes and ornate frames. English decor is the perfect way to decorate if you already have a rare corner mantel, especially if it has shelves.

Displaying a collection of traditional Chinese blue and white Delft tiles is a very British option. According to House & Garden, these small works of art were all the rage with Britons in the mid-17th century. Rising in popularity again, reclaimed Delft tiles can be found at Regts Delft Tiles. These tiles are lovely in their own right, but make a brilliant statement when accented with some coordinating blue porcelain ginger jars. Consider a pair of ornate, hand-painted English porcelain mantel vases like these from Bonhams for a classic look. Balanced one per side on your mantel, it'll look simply smashing.

Use books to create a new chapter on your mantel

Snuggling up and reading around the fire is a custom shared by families around the world. So, what could be more natural than using reading material as mantel decor? This is the time to pull out those hundred-year-old yearbooks, hardcover classics, and old bound magazines like St. Nicholas. When decorating with books, Up To Date Interiors suggests taking off the dust jackets and only using books in a few colors to keep the look cohesive. Then, stack them, lean them, or stand them up on your mantle. Go ahead and combine a few techniques depending on the size and scale of your mantel. 

Lay a few of the books in a small pile and leave them as is or use them as a base to give height to an objet d'art, a potted plant, or a bit of nature, says This Is Our Bliss. Stand a few books upright next to the books laying flat. When it comes to choosing books for decorating, pick titles or genres that reflect your interests and personalities. Thrift stores, library sales, and garage sales often have interesting books at budget-friendly prices. If you're not ready to curate a collection, check out the elegant and realistic decor books crafted just for decorating. Mantel-ready books grouped by color, size, and style are available at home furnishing and craft stores too.

Add layers to your mantel

When decorating a mantel with overlapping pieces of art, the goal is to create a cohesive look. Start by choosing a backdrop first. This large work of art should have both the textures and colors of your room and ideally evoke emotion. Houzz suggests choosing art about 2/3 as big as the mantel, meaning you should stay away from art that has the same width as the fireplace or mantel. It's ok to break the rules with pairs or trios of paintings. Then pull a color or two from those art pieces and use them as accent colors around the room.

As for how high to hang that main piece of art, Welsh Design Studio cautions not to hang the art too high. Since the average height of men and women averages about 5'7", the center of the art should be a little bit lower, about 64-inches off the floor. The bottom of the piece should hang three to six inches above the mantel. Once the large piece of art is installed, it's time to start overlapping. An eye-pleasing odd-numbered selection of smaller coordinated or contrasting works of art can be leaned next to the backdrop art and then combined with plants, books, or pottery, says Centsational Style.

It's always the season for garlands

Not just a spot to hang holiday stockings for Santa's visit, the mantel is a fantastic way to adorn your home for all seasons. One of the most festive ways to make the most of your mantel is with garlands. Instead of hammering small nails to hang a garland, Real Simple suggests using widely available Command Strips to keep your walls intact. Although party and craft stores offer large selections of garlands, making your own garland can let you create unique designs and sizes. From Easter eggs to summer florals, any event or celebration can provide garland inspiration. 

Brighten up a winterscape with a green garland. Eucalyptus, cedar, fir, and other evergreens offer natural texture and a forest-fresh aroma. According to Better Homes and Gardens, the first step to making a garland is to group small bundles of greenery and wrap them with wire. Once all the bundles are ready to go, overlap the bundles, attaching the second bundle about halfway up the first one with the florist wire. Continue this process until your garland is the desired length. It can either reach the floor or lay across the length of the mantel. Elle Decor even proposes using asymmetry with a garland hanging only on one side.