When unadorned, a fireplace mantel often feels as though it’s crying out for … something. But what? Your mantel can be a beautiful place to show off your style, but if you keep adding to it every time you get a new frame or knickknack, it can also become a cluttered mess. Here are helpful techniques you can try to decorate your mantel with elegance, fun and personality.
A mantel looks smart with one perfectly sized piece of art hung above it when the widths of the frame and mantelpiece are precisely the same. Without a custom mantel or custom piece of art, however, this perfect match isn’t realistic, and a piece that’s just a little off will look awkward.
In most cases, when using a large piece of art, it’s best to choose one that is about 65 to 80 percent of the width of the mantel, for an elegant fit that looks correctly proportional.
The height of the piece can vary, although it’s generally best to leave a few inches of breathing room. For a tall piece, hang it centered on the wall between the mantel and ceiling, as shown in the previous image, or lean it casually against the wall right on the mantel. For a short piece, give it 2 to 4 inches of space above the mantel.
If you’re using a small piece that fills less than half the wall area above the mantel, try sitting it asymmetrically to one side of the mantel, for a casually elegant effect. It makes the size feel intentional instead of looking just plain too small.
An asymmetrical approach works especially well combined with a beautiful brick or stone wall (or another textural material). The negative space defined by an asymmetrical piece puts the emphasis on the wall material, almost as if the wall itself were the art piece hanging above the mantel.
This principle works in traditional interiors as well, even if it’s sort of a modernist idea. Simply place one or a few small objects off to one side (roughly about four-fifths of the way across), and the eye gets magically drawn to the center. Just make sure the fireplace cladding is attractive enough to stand up to scrutiny.
If you’re using a large piece asymmetrically, it’s usually best to fill in the other side with a contrasting piece so that it doesn’t come off looking lopsided and awkward. A large framed piece (an artwork or a mirror) and a vase with flowers or dry branches is a classic and easy combination.
I’ll pause here to acknowledge that a big flat-screen TV is a popular accouterment above a fireplace. This combination can look terrific, but it can have its downsides too, and it isn’t without controversy.
This often places a TV a bit higher than the optimal sightline, so it’s not ideal for lots of TV watching. (It can be a great height for watching TV from a nearby kitchen, however.) It also runs the risk of severe heat damage to the TV from the fireplace, so you’ll want to make sure that the mantel is deep enough to shield the TV and make up for the proximity.
If you position the TV off to the side of the fireplace instead, it can usually sit a little lower, so you won’t get a crick in your neck from looking up. If you don’t have the wall width available, consider using another wall entirely.
When clustering several small items on a fireplace, it helps to have some structure to guide you. One idea to try is a loose pyramid or triangle.
By putting the tallest or largest object in the center and building the smaller items out from there, you develop a sense of symmetry even if the objects aren’t truly symmetrical. Layering items in front of one another builds out your pyramid and gives lots of dynamic energy to the composition.
Shift around the pieces until the composition feels just right, but don’t get too fussy — asymmetry isn’t meant to be perfect.
A circular approach is like a pyramid approach, only with a round piece (usually an artful mirror) anchoring a center around which other pieces radiate.
It isn’t about re-creating the circle perfectly, just using the curve as inspiration for an elegant composition that communicates a sense of visual order.
For a totally different approach, you have the contemporary collage style of hanging art in a way that appears almost random.
Cut life-size stand-ins for each frame out of paper, then tape them up to figure out a composition that looks right before you commit to putting nail holes in your wall. Try lining all the pieces up as much as possible, then shifting some a few inches to one side.
Some modern homes use a low mantel instead of one over the fireplace. In this case, try embracing the lowness and place nothing higher than the top line of the fireplace. This keeps the visual emphasis low to the ground, perfect for a hip lounging destination.
Mix and Match
Ultimately, one of the best ways to decorate your mantel with personality and interest is to use items that add different shapes, tones and textures. By mixing framed pieces with collectibles, statuettes and the like, you create a sense of depth and variety, and tell a little personal story.
Items to consider include ceramics (like plates and other china), glass vases, fresh flowers, certificates, plaques, trophies, statuettes, candles, jars, bookends, firewood (a particularly attractive log off the pile), stones, fireplace tools and lamps.
Mix and match some favorites, try out different ways of organizing them and use the above ideas as a guide to help you — but never as hard-and-fast rules. Ultimately, a sense of welcome and personality is most important to your mantel, so have fun. Your fireplace is meant to be relaxing and enjoyable, so let your mantel style reflect that.
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