Mantel Decorating Ideas: 4 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 that 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, 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!
Of course, a fireplace like this is always nekkid!
And 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 patient if things aren’t perfectly magazine ready!
STEP 1: Place your foundation piece first and anchor piece(s) second
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 a beach themed room, 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, the one 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 the premise of balance. For example, you could put a vase with flowers on one end of the mantel and two smaller candleholders on the other end with a small decorative item in front of them – as long as their visual weight is similar to that of the vase.
- Smaller artwork
- Decorative box
- Stack of books
- Vase with/without flowers in it
- A plant
- Mantel clock
I would love if this clock were just a BIT bigger, to be a bit more proportional to the wall space it’s on
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.
See this lovely country home here
In the last photo, it’s the TV that’s the foundation piece, with the balanced decor around it (you’ll read about balance below).
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 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)…
Long story short, if you don’t have a foundation piece and anchors – go buy them, you’re going to need them!
BTW, if you need a QUICK brush-up on terms, check this out…
The 3 Main Rules of Accessorizing and Decorating: A Quick Read
STEP 2: Choose a colour palette
When choosing a colour palette, consider the following elements:
- The colours in your foundation piece. If your foundation is simple (ie: framed mirror), then 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 colours that visually connect with items in the rest of your room
Whether you’re inspired by your foundation piece, your 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’ll be able to change your colour 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.
A 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, 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, same with the photo below…
In this next photo, while it isn’t a mantel, it shows you 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 would LOOK different from each other, but the ‘visual weight’ of these items would be comparable to each other. This means that one side won’t look heavier than the other when it comes to 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 trianglular 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 placed at the back
One medium height item placed to one side of the tall piece
One short item placed to 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!
And because I realized I can add some MORE helpful info for you, there’s one more step!
STEP 6: Fill in the blanks…slowly and carefully
Sometimes, all a fireplace needs are its foundation and anchor pieces. Add items slowly and see which ones ADD to the display and which ones add too MUCH. Consider stacking, layering, groups of three and triangles when you’re 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 some room for improvement without having to buy anything new!
- Keep the clock where it is, it’s awesome
- Keep the vase/branches were they are, just move them to the right about 3 inches
- Leave the speaker, in the real world, we do need to accommodate for 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, it’s 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!
How to Create a Well-Decorated and Accessorized Mantel
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
Check out my E-Books and Online Decorating and Color Consulting Services
The Right Height to Hang Artwork Above Anything – Including a Mantel!
6 Budget-Friendly Ideas to Update Your Home
5 Ideas to update your Fireplace
How to Decorate a Bookshelf: 4 Guidelines to Follow
Originally written in 2015, updated in 2019
I am thinking that our mantel with ALL FAMILY PICTURES must be incorrect. So I should stick with accessories only?. Where do pics go??? We have 7 grandchildren!!. ????????????
Hi Cindy! I’m a big believer in home feeling like HOME, so if those family pictures make you happy up there, you should keep them! However, if you are wanting a change, you could consider doing a gallery wall instead!
Thank you, Kylie! This is awesome information.