Ask Design Mom: Decorating the Mantle

March 27, 2007

Ask-Design-Mom Question:

Dear Design Mom, My family just moved into a new apartment and it has a fireplace with a mantle in our main room. I’m wondering what ideas you have for decorating a mantle? The first thing (and only thing really) that pops into my head is picture frames and candles. Not a totally bad idea, but I’m wondering if that’s my only option. In my case, there is also a very large mirror behind the mantle (not mine, it came with the apartment and I can’t take it down). Anyway, I love all of your ideas so I was just wondering if you had any on mantle decor. Thanks so much for your advice & your blog. — Beth

Design Mom Answer:

Another excellent question! Thanks for sending it in Beth. And let me start by saying that I think anyone with a mantle is super-lucky. Think of your mantle as the perfect place for an ever-changing display of the seasons or even your moods. As usual, I’ll give you a few suggestions, but I hope Design Mom Readers will add their own favorite tips on how-they-decorate-the-mantle.

One idea is to have your mantle function as a catch-all for any pretty little things in your home. If you’re life is busy and full, own it, and fill your mantle up with the crazy: assorted picture frames in a variety of styles, and pretty cards you’ve received, and a tiny pitcher with flowers in it, and some interesting little jewelry box you set aside earlier in a closet, etc. Then lay a branch in the background of cherry blossoms your children spotted on a Spring walk. Make it as busy and interesting as your life. When you walk by it, if an item irritates or tires you, remove it. Add or subtract, or shift things, around as the mood strikes.

This photo is a good example of kind of an ordered crazy on a mantle. Lots and lots of little things that you could add too or subtract from or rearrange.

Or. If your life is too crazy, make the mantle a place of simplicity and order. Try a simple, seasonal, symmetrical display. Something like this: take 7 or 8 glass votive holders, the 2-inch ones you can pick up 4 for $1 at Michaels or Ikea, and use them as tiny vases. Set them neatly in a row, centered on the mantle, with several inches between each vase. Fill them halfway with water and set identical single blooms in each one. 7 yellow daffodils. Or 7 pale pink tulips. Anytime you’re tempted to set something else on the mantle — even temporarily — resist. Reserve it as a place of true order that you can sit and study when you need to be renewed. Pick up new blooms on your weekly grocery trip.

Another ordered variation would involve begging, borrowing or buying 3 identical vases. I like a simple square glass shape, maybe 6 or 7 inches across and 8 or so inches high. Center them on the mantle, again, with a few inches between each vase and fill the bottom couple of inches with charcoal grey smooth rocks — the kind you’d find in an orchid display. If rocks are a little too zen for you, fill them with fall leaves, Christmas ornaments, wheat grass, fresh flower arrangements, whatever.

Imagine the sideboard in this photo as a mantle and you’ve got yourself a tranquil, ordered, symmetrical display. If your house has a more traditional or casual feel, you could still mimic this photo. Just pick out two lamps in a style that would be more appropriate. The concept would still be the same. The fruit in the center doesn’t even need a container necessarily. You could just line up some gorgeous pears, like the ones in the Martha photo at the top.

If you’re not a symmetrical kind of person, another option would be to let your mirror be the main focus by keeping the center area of the mantle empty and just concentrating some details on the sides. Maybe a tall ceramic vase to the left — pretty with flowers or a branch in it — or pretty standing empty. Then add a group of three low and earthy items to the right.

Pretend this shelf is a mantle. The large, tall vases would look wonderful to one side of the mirror, with the low stacked books and the aged, textural box to the left.

If this kind of decorating makes you nervous, you’re in luck. Find a catalog that appeals to you — maybe Crate and Barrell or Pottery Barn — and look at the mantle displays and shelf displays you find in their pages. Feel free to copy or imitate or take inspiration from what you see.

I saw this photo at Pottery Barn. The display isn’t on a mantle, but it would look just as good or even better if it was. You could take inspiration from this photo and gather your own collection of lanterns — from tag sales, from Target, from hardware stores, from the mall — and set up your own display. Different finishes, different shapes. Even hang one or two at varying heights. The candles and lanterns reflected in your mirror would look fantastic.

Frankly, it’s hard to go wrong. Especially if you consider your mantle decorations as temporary and ever-changing. I hope those ideas help. Good luck, Beth!

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 love.boxes March 27, 2007 at 8:30 am

Love all those ideas, especially the top photo. So pretty.


2 Bek March 27, 2007 at 10:39 am

This is a tricky one for me too…. and I have used any and all of Design Mom’s ideas…. One thing that we like to do is have a large picture frame (poster sized) that sits on one side and it becomes home to a rotating series of pictures based on the season. For Valentines Day, my kids made a collage w/ candy wrappers, for summer, we drew swim suits, for the fall, we have leaves or occasionally a fall print. It is always changing….

P.S. Michaels has the square vases super cheap almost all the time…


3 Mamma March 27, 2007 at 11:03 am

As usual I LOVE your ideas.

This is such a terrific blog.


4 Carrie March 27, 2007 at 11:37 am

I’m hoping that you’ll be posting rock climbing party pics soon!


5 Allison March 27, 2007 at 11:54 am

As far as filling glass jars or vases or votive holders…I use beans. Dried beans from a market. You can get all sorts of colors. They’re pretty cheap, too.


6 jordan March 27, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Great ideas Gabrielle!


7 Beth March 27, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Thank you, thank you. These are great ideas. A good place for me to start. I really appreciate the time you put into my question.


8 Missy March 27, 2007 at 3:44 pm

Coffee beans look great in glass jars or black or white rocks look good too.

We have an enlarged letter that our last name begins with up on our mantel intermixed with pictures in frames.


9 Anonymous April 1, 2007 at 3:31 pm

I was thinking about my dreary mantel in a low light den, and found inspiration and hope from Design Mom. Thanks!


10 Care July 7, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Candles are intrinsically connected to many events in our lives, such as birthdays, holiday dinners and religious celebrations. Recently, however, candles have become a part of our everyday lives adding warmth style and mood to every room in your home. See how the candles have managed doing this.


11 Casey MacKenzie Johnson November 30, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Your blog is beautiful! I wished you lived out in Northern California so you could come help me pick out new carpeting!!! Keep up the beautiful work – it's appreciated!


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