Mantel Decorating Ideas: 5 Easy Steps for Your Home Decor
Is your fireplace mantel being eaten alive by framed photos, candle holders, and that old brass clock? (oh, you are so busted…)
It’s time to crack the whip and get your mantel into shape with a few little things we decorators call steps or friendly guidelines. These guidelines have been created to keep those of you in check who think the mantel is a platform for everything small, shiny, glass, and papery, with a wick, that holds flowers and that doubles as a photo frame, cheese grinder, as well as a keepsake from that trip to Mexico in 1974.
So, I have a challenge for you…
TAKE IT ALL OFF, BABY!
That’s right, I want you to take every single little thing off of your mantel, grab a glass of wine, and start reading!
Please keep in mind, I rely 99.9% on my Online Colour Consulting client’s photos for examples, so I make do with what I have! Please be kind if things aren’t perfectly magazine-ready!
STEP 1: PLACE YOUR FOUNDATION & ANCHOR PIECES
Every good mantel display will have a foundation and an anchor(s).
This is the piece that goes on the wall above the fireplace and can be one of the following:
- oversized wall clock
- 2-3 pieces of layered/staggered artwork
If you choose artwork as your foundation, remember, it will set the theme for your space. For example, if you have a beach-themed piece of artwork, your room will end up being beach-themed, as dictated by your key piece. Style is one thing, but an actual theme can be limiting. If you choose artwork, think abstract if you want flexibility.
You also want your foundation piece hung at the right HEIGHT! Read HERE for tips on that (this link’s also in the READ MORE section at the end of the blog post if you just want to keep reading for now).
A mantel needs one or two anchor pieces. The anchor piece is the KEY piece on the mantel that ISN’T the foundation piece that catches your eye the most, usually via its size/bulk.
If you use one anchor piece, it often goes in the middle or on one end. If you use two anchor pieces, you would use one on either end of your mantel. You can also use DIFFERENT ITEMS as your two anchors using BALANCE. For example, you could put a vase with flowers on one end of the mantel and two smaller candleholders on the other with a small decorative item in front of them – as long as their visual weight is similar to that of the vase.
IN GENERAL, WHAT DECORATIONS DO YOU PUT ON A MANTEL?
- smaller artwork
- decorative box or container
- stack of books
- vase with/without flowers in it
- mantel clock
- home decor pieces
In the above display, the candle holders are the anchors – everything else on the mantel is secondary. However, consider how the visual FLOW would be if you were to reverse the position of the candle holders, so the tallest was to the inside, and the shorter was to the outside; the energy would flow into the rest of the room, rather than into the center of the mantel!
A mirror or clock is more unisex when it comes to decorating as it will allow you to change your theme seasonally – or even weekly if you’re OCD like me! (Oh, I make it sound so thrilling, don’t I…) Accessories are fun, easy, and affordable to change, whereas foundation pieces tend to involve a bit more money, so they don’t get changed as often.
Sherwin Williams Kilim Beige
In the above photo, the TV is the foundation piece, and the two plants/holders are the anchors, creating a SYMMETRICAL display (which you’ll learn about shortly).
In this next photo, you’ll see a great foundation piece with two anchors and one filler in the middle (and another example of balance). I might just reverse the candle positions, putting the short one on the outside and the tall one on the inside.
Next up, the balance between the two wood candle holders/candles and the vase/branches is great (I might just trim those branches back a wink on the right side)…
If you don’t have a foundation piece and anchors, buy them; you’ll need them!
BTW, if you need a QUICK brush-up on terms, check this out…
STEP 2: CHOOSE YOUR COLOR PALETTE
When choosing a colour palette, consider the following elements…
- The colors in your foundation piece. If your foundation is simple (i.e., framed mirror), look to your room and fireplace surround (tile/stone) for inspiration.
Texture (branches, plants, woven items, wood, fabric, books).
Sheen (vases, frames, accessories).
One or two main accent colors that visually connect with items in the rest of your room.
Whether inspired by your foundation piece, fireplace brick/stone, or other accents in your room, choose a palette that works with your space. If you have a versatile foundation piece, you can change your color palette seasonally or whenever you get your period, if you’re like me.
STEP 3: CHOOSE BALANCE OR SYMMETRY
People often think that symmetry and balance are the same things. In fact, while they have the same ‘end result’, they each go about it in very different ways.
SYMMETRICAL MANTEL DISPLAY
A symmetrical mantel, if divided in half, would have the exact same thing on the left as on the right – so not only will both sides ‘visually’ be the same, but they will also visually ‘weigh’ the same.
Aside from the small detail on the right, the mantel above shows a symmetrical and simple mantel display, the same as the photo below…
While it isn’t a mantel, this next photo shows a symmetrical display with the two lamps and filler piece in the middle…
The waiting room at Eddins Counselling
A BALANCED MANTEL DISPLAY
This next photo is a great example of a balanced arrangement with the foundation piece and anchors in place…
See this lovely country home here
A balanced mantel, if divided in half, would have different things on the left and right of the center, so the two sides will LOOK different from each other, but the ‘visual weight’ of these items will be comparable to each other. This means one side won’t look heavier than the other regarding accessories and colour/texture placement.
(Visual weight means that items might be different from each other in size and colour, but they carry the same ‘visual weight’ so that one doesn’t appear stronger than the other)
STEP 4: CREATE DECORATIVE TRIANGLES
When accessorizing your fireplace mantel, try to make decorative triangles. These triangles will encourage your eyes to take in the display in a way that appears effortless, with a seamless flow.
There are TWO types of decorative triangles you can create…
THE MAIN TRIANGLE
The main triangle creates the overall flow of your arrangement as a WHOLE, as your eye will take in the top and general outer edges of each main piece.
Your main triangle has a peak with two sides. In this next example, the peak is at the top of the artwork, and the two sides go down to the two arrangements. To encourage the triangular shape, you COULD reverse the placement of the candlesticks (still keeping them on the left side of the mantel, though), so the short one and the books are on the left, and the tall one is on the right as right now, your eye travels INwards to the center of the mantel, rather than following the natural line of the triangle shape.
SECONDARY DECORATIVE TRIANGLES
Secondary decorative triangles establish flow on the lower corners of your main triangle. An effective secondary triangle might be made up of the following:
One taller item is placed at the back.
One medium-height item is placed on one side of the tall piece.
One short item is placed on the other side of the small piece.
As shown in this example above, the left-hand side is an awesome secondary triangle using the anchor pieces, whereas the vase is a single anchor that speaks for itself!
STEP 5: FILL IN THE BLANKS…SLOWLY
Sometimes, all a fireplace needs are its foundation and anchor pieces. Add items slowly and see which ones ADD to the display and which add too MUCH. Consider stacking, layering, groups of three, and triangles when placing your items – less is often more, especially with mantel decor!
Let’s break down this next mantel, to see how we could improve its flow…
There are some GREAT bones in place here, but I DO see room for improvement without buying anything new!
- Keep the clock where it is; it’s awesome
- Keep the vase/branches where they are; just move them to the right about 3 inches
- Leave the speaker; in the real world, we do need to accommodate things like this!
- Move the candlesticks/candles to the right (approx 5 inches from the right edge/side)
- The framed photo behind the candlesticks, move it so that it’s to the LEFT of the candlesticks, acting like a layered backdrop
- Take the ANTIQUES sign away. It’s too big and adds too much visual interest. I’d take away the vertically framed photo as well
- Move the horizontally framed photo to the right of the vase; its frame flows better overall than the other one. You could TRY placing the vertical one behind and slightly to the right of the horizontal frame, but I think it would be too much
- Put a small decorative item in front, between those two pieces
- Notice how the sage green of the florals ties into the candles – awesome, this is what I want to see!
And when it comes to mantels, you can try REVERSING everything. Take a photo of your mantel all done, and then swap everything to the other side and see how it feels; you might be surprised how it changes the flow of things!
THE BIGGEST MANTEL DECORATING TIP
Do you want the BEST TIP for adding home decor to your mantel?
Aside from learning how to decorate your mantel with the above tips, go on Pinterest and search mantels, mantel decor, fireplace decor, etc… I’ve found this to be the BEST way to get the look I want, by seeing a fireplace display I like and mimicking it with my own pieces or newly purchased ones.
Sometimes, NOTHING but a foundation piece is the best choice of all!
HOW TO ADD HOME DECOR TO YOUR MANTEL (ACCESSORIZE)
STEP 1: Place your foundation piece first and anchor pieces second
STEP 2: Choose a colour palette that gets you excited, and that reflects your style and tastes
STEP 3: Decide whether you want balance or symmetry
STEP 4: Create decorative triangles (one main one and two or more small ones)
STEP 5: Fill in the blanks…carefully
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Originally written in 2015, updated in 2023