How to decorate a mantel

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designed mantel place
A visual triangle adds structure and balance
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How to decorate a mantel in 5 easy steps

The fireplace is a natural focal point. How you arrange the mantle can have a significant impact on a room from pulling together a subtle theme to accentuating a contemporary or modernist style. Think of the surface area as furniture rather than an architectural detail and you'll be more inclined to make it your own.

How to decorate a mantel sounds easy enough, but it takes restraint to keep this a clutter-free, stunning area. The first step is to start with a blank canvas. Clear off every item and start new. Nothing gets the creativity flowing like a fresh start.

You don't have to be a designer to select and arrange home accents with a sense of balance. There's a simple formula for creating strong visual appeal on a simple surface. Interior designers often refer to this technique as a “visual triangle” because it includes a tall center piece and smaller items on both sides.

The five components of a beautiful mantel are:

Large center piece: Anchor the arrangement with a big mirror, painting, sculpture or other piece of eye-catching art. This is the high point of the triangle and serves to ground the other items.

Move the eye: Candles are popular on mantles because they're both decorative and functional. When lit, the flame warms a room while drawing a viewer's eye up and down. Secure candles of various sizes on holders of varying height for added interest. Other types of accents that serve this purpose include lanterns, flowers and branches with blossoms.

The appearance of weight: A single item with visual weight lends balance to an overall arrangement. Attractive, weighty items include a vase, vessel or table sculpture that's not as tall as the center item, bowl with pine cones or colorful stones, or antiques like an old brownie camera on top of a short pile of same-size books.

Layer: Place your weighted item slightly in front of the large centerpiece. Layering this way adds depth no matter how narrow the surface area. Once the basic visual triangle is built, use a few accessories like photographs, art and seasonal pieces like pumpkins to bring color and cohesion to the composition.

Vary the height: The trick for how to decorate a mantel is using items of various heights to keep the viewer engaged. While movement of a candle pulls the eye up and down, using multiple accessories of different heights pulls the eye across the whole arrangement. The effect is sometimes known as a “wave” because items go up and down and up again.

Stay with the seasons

The most stunning mantels tend to look stagnant over time. Give your home a new look and keep it fresh by simply changing up a few items every season. If you have a vase, use fresh flowers in spring and summer, branches in fall and winter. Switch out the artwork from a winter wonderland, to a photograph of footprints in the sand come summer. Replace pumpkins with snowman candles then seashells.

There are no hard rules on how to decorate a mantel. Sticking with the visual triangle is a simple way to design a space with a sense of structure. You can interpret the formula anyway you like. Use a flower arrangement as your big center piece, a mirror for movement and a tall lamp to vary height, for example.

If you have a television mounted above the mantel, invert the triangle by placing the shortest item in the center and two taller items like candles or vases on the sides.

Many people tend to display things they like on a mantle and leave it at that. Do an experiment and arrange these items as a loose triangle with layered accessories. You may be surprised to find the surface completely transformed by this new arrangement.

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