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Secrets from a stylist: How to decorate your fireplace mantle

Photos by Dan Bishop

November 2014

Home design and custom millwork: Joe Johnson, Old World Craftsmen Inc.

Interior design: Stacy Wild Nelson, designCODE llc

Artwork: Edgewood Orchard Galleries, Fish Creek, Wis.

The classic, interesting shapes of these three Haeger pottery pieces are reminiscent of forms seen in still-life paintings. A large museum-style collection of lantern fly specimens completes the scene. Lanternfly mosaic art available exclusively at Warren Barnett Interiors, Brookfield. Collection of Haeger pottery & peacock feathers found at Antiques & Uniques on Main, Waukesha.


Fireplaces make natural focal points in a home. Yet, it seems to be a decorating dilemma for many a homeowner. How much stuff is too much? Is art a must? Should it feel balanced or more playful?

Of course, how you decorate your mantel should be a reflection of your homeís overall style. As I always say, accessorizing your home with meaningful pieces always leads to great conversation. When we photographed this fireplace, I just had to use the homeownerís art for one of our vignettes. I loved the story and sentiments tied to the painting.

Here are some tips (no hard, fast rules) that may guide you when youíre ready to give your mantel a face-lift.

Shapes and Sizes

A variety of shapes and sizes will add visual interest to your mantel display. Keep it interesting by mixing some larger statement pieces with smaller items, without creating clutter. Or use a grouping of items with varying heights. I usually start the process by placing more items than I need on the mantel. Next, I play (by moving items around I can see what feels right, what is working and what I need to eliminate). Lastly, I stand back and review. Sometimes the last look calls for another edit. You donít need a lot of items to create visual impact. Just a couple of beautiful forms may be all you need to create a still life. Iím constantly inspired by museum art. What makes a still life painting so engaging? A great painting is about shapes, color, lighting, texture and balance. Your fireplace mantel can be your very own expression of art.

Home design and custom millwork: Joe Johnson, Old World Craftsmen Inc.

Interior design: Stacy Wild Nelson, designCODE llc

Artwork: Edgewood Orchard Galleries, Fish Creek, Wis.

These matching clear glass urns on each end of the mantel draw the eye toward the center, a painting with significant meaning to the homeowner. Adding just a few small items completes the clean look. Art: Homeownerís own, gifted by the artist. Artistís work is available through Edgewood Orchard Galleries. Urns and small blue malik box available at Peabodyís Interiors, Brown Deer.


Vertical and Horizontal

Think about vertical as well as horizontal lines. A fireplace mantel is naturally horizontal by design, usually a single horizontal plane. Add vertical interest by drawing the eye up. When Iím working on photo shoots, part of my job is to create an interesting composition (in collaboration with the photographer, of course). I often need to add contrasts of vertical and horizontal elements to balance the composition. The same principles apply to a fireplace mantel display. If the roomís ceiling is low, horizontal art may work best. But if the ceiling is high, you will need to select art with height. Proper scale is key.

Visual Weight and Harmony

Consider the visual weight and harmony of the items you choose. For instance, when you want to accentuate the art centered over your mantel, use glass or Lucite accessories to subtly draw the eye up, but not distract from the main focus. Even if the glass is heavy, it is clear, so the visual weight is light. In addition, the accessories you use should feel harmonious with one another. Seashells work with an ocean scene, but would look out of place with an equestrian scene. Peacock feathers and butterflies are both elements of the natural world, so they feel in sync. Our holiday urn has a complementary shape to the pillar candlesticks. Harmonious doesnít mean "matchy-matchy." Harmony in design is personal and subjective. Take the time to intently look at your design and make sure it feels right.

Donít be afraid to think outside the box. There are no requirements that say you must hang art above the mantel. If your mantel is deep, try leaning and layering a group of art pieces in a variety of styles and dimensions. Or forget about art and showcase a collection of beautifully shaped pottery in a variety of heights or create a statement with a mixture of layered art and select objects.

Most important, have fun and keep experimenting. Itís not rocket science. Itís a creative process.



This story ran in the November 2014 issue of: