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File it among design’s greatest existentialist questions: decorating the fireplace mantel. The holidays aside, the fireplace mantel decor can confound even the most seasoned of decorators. A thin profile makes the mantel more of a perch than a shelf (read: a hotbed for clutter), while fireplace facades can create cloying decorative constraints. Still, the mantel endures as one of most homes’ most prominent millwork elements, and the desire to make one show-stopping endures. To help, we’ve collected work from nine designers who know how to handle a mantle. With mantle decorating ideas for the minimalist, the perfectionist, the antiquarian, and more, you’re sure to find your ideal mantel culture.  

Design by Eclectic Home New Orleans / Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

The Minimalist

If the question “what should I put on top of my fireplace mantel?” rouses a fight-or-flight-style response to keep it bare, chances are you’re a minimalist. While there are times when it’s apropos to let a mantel go totally au natural, an oversized piece of artwork is a smart way to evoke simplicity without leaving your mantel completely in the nude. In the room above by Eclectic Home New Orleans, designer Penny Francis crowns a mantle with a towering painting. Adding to the sleekness of this modern mantel decor idea is an easy-to-overlook detail: the mottled background of the painting echoes the fireplace’s marble facade.

Design by Kobel + Co Interior Design Studio / Photo by Bill Matthews

The Art Accumulator 

Have you accrued more art than you know what to do with? Designers love to employ art as mantel decor for an array of reasons, but key among them is the ability to use multiple pieces in one arrangement, courtesy of the layered lean. As illustrated in the room above designed by Kobel + Co, art layered rakishly over a mantel spikes a room with an ineffable cool. If you fancy partnering disparate images like the ones Kobel + Co did, take care with framing. Frames in the same color, or featuring similar molding, can make even the most paradoxical pics feel like perfection.

Design by studio CAK / Photo by Regan Wood

The Reflector

Those already familiar with matters of the mantel know that placing a mirror over a mantel is a classic move. While mantel ideas with a mirror aren’t the most avant-garde arrangement, per se, they are an invariably good idea. (For one, topping a mantel with a mirror makes a room feel leagues larger.) In the room above, Christopher Kent of studio CAK shows how to make a mirror feel more neoteric than generic. First, forgo the usual suspects. (Trumeau mirrors or arched brass Rococo mirrors tend to be commonplace.) Instead, opt for a round mirror. Additionally, rather than center your mirror over your mantel, offset it like art. The effect will make your room feel a bit more lawless than most.

Photo by Laurey Glenn

The Perfectionist

Squares tend to invite symmetry. If you’re among those who feel enticed to play out their symmetrical whims on the fireplace mantel, consider yourself a perfectionist. The look, illustrated in the room above belonging to everyone’s favorite Southern tastemaker, Patricia Altschul, requires a decorative balancing act. To keep the eye engaged, try arranging taller decor toward the ends of the mantel, and shorter decor toward the center. You might also want to do as Patricia did and consider a mirror rather than art. A mirror reinforces symmetry, while art featuring asymmetrical compositions can break the spell. 

Photo courtesy of Jenny Wolf Interiors

The Curious Connoisseur 

Whether you’re a gatherer of geodes, a fancier of feathers, or a varietal beachcomber, chances are, you need more places to display your loot. Thankfully, a mantel located at eye level is the perfect place to post up curiosities that demand to be examined at close range. The trick to making natural curiosities look like legitimate DIY mantel decor and not clutter? Do like designer Jenny Wolf does in the room above and corral like elements together. Use bell jars to add more presence to pocket-sized finds, or pedestal them with books. Lastly, don’t ignore the unifying impact that a graphic textile—in Jenny’s case, a framed UK flag—can make.

Design by Eclectic Home New Orleans / Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

The Monochromist

For those who appreciate the pacifying powers of monochrome, mantel decor lends itself remarkably well to the technique. For the most dramatic impact, do as Penny Francis of Eclectic Home New Orleans did in the room above and match your decor to your fireplace facade. Penny opted for a  monochrome menagerie that matches the marble mantel below, but consider vases, decanters, and even books in a single colorway. If you’re on the hunt for fireplace mantel decor to team with a TV, few ideas pair as smoothly as monochrome decor does. 

Design by Rita Konig

The Souvenir Saver

The majority of world travelers revel the chance to put their global escapades on display. Most turn to curio cabinets and bookshelves to stow the souvenirs they’ve sourced abroad; however, a mantel shelf can easily be fashioned into a souvenir shrine of sorts. As always, when working with diminutive tokens it’s a fine line between collected and chaotic. Thankfully, the reigning queen of bucolic English style, Rita Konig, shows us how it’s done in the room above. First off, do display souvenirs en masse. While two or three small items will be dwarfed by the scale of a fireplace, dozens become visually striking. Also, consider surrounding the fireplace with small artwork. The continuation of small scale in the room above makes the mantel decor look intentional, not like an afterthought.

Design by Suzanne Kasler Interiors / Photo by Peter Vitale

The Antiquarian

Unapologetically devoted to antiques? Being pro-provenance doesn’t mean having to deck your mantel out like a period piece. Rather, take a page from designer Suzanne Kasler, who designed the impeccable mantle above. Proving that antiques can still be adventurous, Suzanne greenlights glamour by only using only antiques with high-wattage metallic finishes. Similarly, a composition that trends toward a center focal point rather than symmetry freshens the look. True antiquarians will also appreciate Suzanne’s ingenious idea for putting a mate-less candlestick to work. 

Photo by Tim Barber Architects / Photo by Joe Schmelzer

The Hobbyist 

Have a collecting hobby that keeps you strolling swap meets and scrolling auction sites for hours? Chances are those collectibles deserve treatment beyond bins in the basement. If so, take a page from designer Tim Barber who is responsible for the cozy hideaway above.  While the room above doesn’t contain a traditional fireplace, it does contain a mantel. Decked out in nothing by globes, the mantel feels unfussy, modern, and playful. Should you be on the hunt for fireplace mantel decor ideas that work well with TV, consider this idea, too. In the scenario above, the homogeneity of the globes doesn’t compete with the TV.

Design by Kati Curtis Design / Photo by Eric Piasecki

The Reserved Bibliophile

If asked what intimidates us most about decorating a mantel, most would point to the mantel’s status as a focal point. Yet some of the most moving mantels are also those that are poignantly reserved. Designer Kati Curtis makes a case for the virtues of a quiet mantel in the room above. Outfitting a bedroom mantel simply with a Blenko decanter, a small stack of books, a sculpture, and a quirky photograph, the mantel is as direct as it is eclectic. Let it be a reminder that when it comes to mantel decor, understated should never be underrated. 

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September 20, 2021

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