How To Style a Mantel Four Ways
Does your mantel look boring or bare? After the holidays, without the garland, stockings, and twinkle lights, all that’s left is the decor from before the holidays. Maybe it looked fine then, but now it feels lifeless.
The post-holiday lull is the perfect time to re-style your decor and try out a new look. It’s also the ideal time to embrace the simplicity of less.
The mantel is a great place to start because it’s usually the focal point of the room. But decorating the mantel is hard because it demands a big statement made on a shallow surface.
It took me years to figure out how to style a mantel properly. If you look back at my early mantel styling examples, you’ll see many mistakes. Now, I’m sharing these mantel decorating tips so that you can skip the frustrating years of trial and error.
The best cure for a boring mantel is a time-tested styling formula. I have four to share with you today.
These four formulas show you exactly how to style a mantel—making a big statement without overpowering a narrow ledge. I’ve illustrated each formula below and added detailed tips to get the look right. Whether your mantel feels too cluttered or too bare right now, these styling formulas will help.
You might also like my free video class: Home Styling 101. The free class includes 12 video lessons, plus cheat sheets and worksheets to help you style every surface in your home.
The Basics of How To Style a Mantel
Before we get to the formulas, every mantel needs these two things:
1. A Focal Piece
Some designers call this an anchor piece. It’s the large wall decor hanging above the mantel. For a more casual look, you can lean the focal piece on the mantel (see the Layered Casual formula below).
It’s important to get the size of this piece right. A good rule of thumb is to choose a piece that is one-half to two-thirds the width of the mantel shelf.
The height of the piece will depend on your ceiling height. If you have low ceilings and a wide mantel, the right piece will likely be a long horizontal rectangle or an oval. If you have vaulted ceilings or a two-story room, you can choose a taller piece, just make sure the width is right first.
2. Large, Interesting Decor
To keep the mantel from looking cluttered, it’s best to use large decorative items. You only need a few large items to fill a mantel. Small items lead to a cluttered look. You’ll notice in most of the formulas below there are only 3-5 objects resting directly on the mantel.
Now, the formulas for how to style a mantel. Be sure to read the tips on each formula, even if it’s not a look you like. Many of the tips are universal and will help you understand basic home styling concepts, which apply to other surfaces like bookshelves, the top of the piano, and picture ledges too.
Mantel Styling Formula #1: Classic Symmetry
The easiest way to create a stylish mantel is a symmetrical arrangement. Whatever you put on the left side of the mantel, you mirror exactly on the right side.
Symmetry works for any mantel and style, but it’s especially suited to symmetrical rooms and formal spaces.
Less is More
Simplicity is the key here. Otherwise, the symmetry looks forced. Again, a few larger pieces look better than lots of smaller items.
Start with a great focal piece, like a striking piece of art or a mirror with an interestingly shaped frame.
Flank your focal piece with matching decor, like a pair of vases, urns, stick lamps, sconces, topiaries, or lanterns.
Add a Living Element
To keep the symmetrical look from feeling too static and predictable, add a “living” element.
Add some faux (or real) floral stems or greenery to the vases. The stems on each side won’t match exactly, but make sure the arrangements are balanced—similar height and fullness on each side.
Other ways to add life to a mantel include flowers, potted plants, and candles. You’ll see examples of each of those in the other formulas.
Elevate Smaller Decor
To finish off the symmetrical look add some decor to the center of the mantel.
In this example, the decorative box elevates the small object, which gives it more prominence. With the added height, the smaller object layers nicely in front of the mirror.
Break the Symmetry
For the hearth, you could continue the symmetrical look, like flanking the firebox with matching topiaries. But most people, even those who love symmetry, also crave a house that feels comfortable and lived in.
So, take the opportunity to break the symmetry on the hearth. Instead of matching lanterns on each side, put a lantern on one side and a similarly sized basket—to hold blankets or kindling— to balance it on the other side. See more about creating visual balance below.
Mantel Styling Formula #2: Balanced Asymmetry
If the symmetrical look is too perfect and buttoned up for you, aim for balanced asymmetry instead.
This look still starts with a central focal piece hung above the mantel, but the decor on each side doesn’t match.
Balance Visual Weight
The most important thing to consider with an asymmetrical arrangement is the balance. You don’t want one side of the mantel to appear lighter or heavier or taller or shorter than the other side.
In this example, the trio of decor on the left side of the mantel balances the large 11″x 14” frame on the right side of the mantel. If the picture frame were smaller, say 5″x 7”, it wouldn’t have enough visual weight to create balance.
Group Objects in Odd Numbers
Decorative objects always look best when grouped in odd numbers, especially in threes.
Here, three objects are displayed together on one side of the mantel. The decorative sphere, tall vase, and bud vase work together because they are varying heights and dimensions.
Alternate Decor Groupings
Avoid having all your groupings or single items on one side of the fireplace. It’s important to alternate the groupings and single items to maintain balance.
In this example, I put a group of three objects on the right side of the hearth below the single item on the mantel. Then, to create balance, I used a single large basket on the left side of the hearth, below the decor grouping on the mantel.
For more home styling tips like these, check out my free video class: Home Styling 101. The free class includes 12 video lessons, plus cheat sheets and worksheets that show you how to arrange your home decor step by step.
Mantel Styling Formula #3: Clustered Collection
Another easy way to decorate a mantel is with a collection of similar items, like candlesticks and pillar candles.
Start with a large, interesting focal piece. Then, fill the mantel shelf with clusters of the same type of decor.
The clustered look is a fun style for holiday decorating—mini pumpkins for fall, bottle brush trees for Christmas, or bud vases or potted succulents in the spring.
Create Clusters, Not Lines
Don’t just line up the objects on the shelf. To add more dimension, cluster them together with some objects layering in front of others. To do this effectively, the diameter of your objects needs to be less than half the depth of the mantel. That will allow you to put some objects in the back and layer others in front.
See more about staggering decor in the Mistakes to Avoid section below.
The key to keeping this look cozy, not cluttered is to vary the heights of the objects. In this example, there are several different height candlesticks scattered across the mantel. There are also some candles (of varying heights) sitting directly on the mantel.
If your collection of objects are all the same height, like figurines, you can use another type of object to create height variation. For example, use stacked books under some of the figurines to create different levels on the mantel.
Mantel Styling Formula #4: Layered Casual
Once you’ve mastered some of the tips above, you can try throwing symmetry out the window. Here, the focal piece isn’t even centered.
The trick is to maintain the balance of visual weight. In this example, the height of the flowering plant helps balance the height of the tallest off-center art piece. The tall, dark candlesticks help balance the visual weight of the black frame.
To keep the look casual and relaxed, use layering.
The frame and small mirror are layered in front of the large art piece, all of which are leaning on the mantel. This grouping serves as the focal piece for this mantel.
You can also create horizontal layers, like the decorative box under the candlesticks. The box creates a layered look in two ways; 1) it sits partly in front of the artwork, and 2) it elevates the candlesticks to give them more presence.
See more about the importance of layering in the Mistakes to Avoid section below.
Another way to layer horizontally is with a stack of flat objects, like books. On the hearth, a small lantern punctuates a tall stack of books. This stack visually balances the larger houseplant on the other side of the hearth.
3 Mantel Styling Mistakes To Avoid
You should have no trouble styling your mantel following the formulas above, but there are a few common mistakes to avoid. I illustrated these with a top-down view of the mantel shelf.
1. Don’t Put Objects in a Line
Creating a line up is the most common mistake. Instead of arranging your decor in a straight line, cluster your objects and stagger them across the depth of the mantel. No, the mantel isn’t very deep, but if you choose decor with a depth or diameter less than half the depth of the mantel that will give you some wiggle room to move pieces backward or forward.
If you have a larger decor piece that fills the depth of the mantel, that’s fine, but group it with other objects you can stagger.
Whenever possible, vary the size and shape of objects grouped together to create more dimension, giving the illusion of more depth.
There’s one exception to this rule; if the objects are identical. You can put identical objects, like three votive candle holders or three bud vases, in a line. For the right style, it creates an eye-pleasing repetition.
2. Don’t Use Too Many Small Objects
This bears repeating. It’s tempting to use small objects because the mantel shelf is shallow. The problem is the mantel is very wide relative to its depth. So it will take a lot of small objects to fill it up, which leads to visual clutter. And, smaller objects tend to look too short on the mantel because they don’t help fill the vertical space above it (see Mistake #3).
Instead of many smaller objects, use a few larger objects. In most of the formulas above, there are only 3-5 objects sitting directly on the mantel. Any smaller objects are elevated on top of another larger object.
3. Don’t Ignore the Vertical Space
The most important space to fill isn’t the mantel itself; it’s the vertical space above it. Choosing an appropriately sized focal piece is the first step. Second, the decor sitting on the mantel needs to help bridge the gap between the wide horizontal shelf and the large focal piece hanging (or leaning) above it.
A few of your decor pieces need to be tall—reaching toward the top of the focal piece, but never taller than it.
If your mantel shelf is very shallow, use flat objects leaning against the focal piece to help fill the vertical space, like a picture frame, mirror, or tray. These flat objects can fill a lot of vertical space without taking up a lot of shelf space. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the Layered Casual look:
See how the mirror in the middle leans on the black frame which leans on the large art piece. Also, the decorative box is sitting in front of the art piece with candlesticks perched on top.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this illustrated guide on how to style a mantel. Which look do you want to try on your mantel?
For more home styling tutorials, check out my free video class: Home Styling 101. The free class includes 12 video lessons, plus cheat sheets and worksheets to help you style every surface in your home.