What Everyone Ought To Know About Decorating a Mantel

Try doing what designers do the next time you decorate a mantel, shelf or the top of a sideboard or console table in your home. 

In my previous house, the flat screen TV hung above the mantel so I didn’t decorate it. In the lake house, I have had lots of fun in the years we have lived here getting to decorate the mantel for all seasons and go a little overboard when decorating it for Christmas.

spring mantel using recycled glass bottlesLast Year’s Spring Mantel

I liked how I decorated the mantel for spring and summer last year. So much so that I was going to do the same thing again this year, but since I like to change things up, I decided to only use two of the items from last year and then shopped my house to find “new to the mantel” items as I didn’t want to purchase anything new.

an empty mantel waiting to be decorated.

What I did next is the best thing about decorating. I simply started to place the items I collected along the mantel, keeping a few principles of design in mind.

When decorating anything, it is all about playing with the objects and moving them around until you like what you see.  No rocket science or mathematical algorithm needed. That is why I like decorating so much…it is all visual. :-)

The elements and principles of design are the building blocks of all design. I keep them in mind whenever I decorate. They come in very handy when you are decorating a mantel.

The Elements of Design:

The elements of design are the things that make up a design.

  • Line – The linear edge created where two shapes meet.
  • Shape – A shape is a self contained defined area of geometric (squares and circles) or organic (free formed shapes or natural shapes) materials. A positive shape automatically creates a negative shape.
  • Direction – All lines have direction – Horizontal, Vertical or Oblique. Horizontal suggests calmness, stability and tranquillity. Vertical gives a feeling of balance, formality and alertness. Oblique suggests movement and action.
  • Size – Size is simply the relationship of the volume occupied by one shape to that of another.
  • Texture– Texture is the surface quality of a shape – rough, smooth, soft, hard, shiny, etc.
  • Color – Color is light reflected from objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue or its name (pink, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is).

The Principles of Design:

The principles of design are what we do to the elements of design. How we apply the principles of design determines how successful the design is.

  1. Balance –  It’s the weight distributed in the design by the placement of your elements. Symmetry/Asymmetry
  2. Proximity – Proximity creates relationship between elements. It provides a focal point. Proximity doesn’t mean that elements have to be placed together, it means they should be visually connected in some way.
  3. Alignment – Aligning elements allows them to create order and a visual connection with each other.
  4. Repetition – Repetition strengthens a design by tying together individual elements. It helps to create association and consistency. Repetition can create rhythm or a flow to the grouping of items.
  5. Contrast – Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposing elements (opposite colors or value light/dark, or direction – horizontal/vertical). Contrast emphasizes or highlights key elements in your design.
  6. Space – Space refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within elements. Both positive and negative space are important factors to be considered in every design.

Making sure you consider these elements and principles will ensure decorating success on your mantel no matter what collection of items you use.

How to Decorate a Mantel Like a Designer

You may not have the same items I do to decorate, but you can follow the same design principles in your house with your stuff. The steps are the same and not just for mantels, but any shelf, table, dresser or sideboard top where you come up with an arrangement that is pleasing to your eye and complements your decor.

Supplies to gather to decorate a mantel the way a designer does.
supplies needed:
  • Gather items that you love and already own – try to gather items of different sizes, shapes, textures, and color, keeping in mind the elements and principles of design.
  • You can gather an entire collection or parts of it.  I used a few white pitchers, but consider using candlesticks, books, flowers, vases, plates on plate stand, photo frames, plants in pots…. just about anything.
  • Don’t limit yourself to “decor” pieces only. I added the window sash and the blank canvas to create something unique. Last year, I used glass bottles destined for the recycling bin.
First step when decorating a mantel is to clear everything off

1. Start with an empty space – clear everything off, even items you plan to use.  You want to build the mantel decor layer by layer, stopping when you like what you see.

Start decorating a mantel by placing the largest item or layer first.

2. Add something flat and large along the fireplace wall. It can be hung up or simply leaned. I am using a blank white canvas since I have a lot of white on the other side of the room and want to create a balance of color throughout the room, not just on the mantel.

  • Maybe you have a large piece of art, wreath or a large decorative tray in your kitchen that you can use.
  • Notice I placed the canvas off-center to the left.
  • I bought the blank canvas with a 40% off coupon at Michaels. It measures: 24″ x 48″.
Layer different color items in layers on mantel
3. Next I leaned an old glass cabinet door that I found in curbside trash. I painted it navy blue last year.
  • I set it off center like I did the canvas, but to the right this time. You can see the two pieces are slightly wider than the fireplace opening underneath.
  • Again you can use a large piece of framed art, sign, wreath or another flat large decorative accessory to create this layer.
White and navy blue decorated mantel for spring.

4. Now comes the fun part, placing and moving the items you gathered along the mantel in different ways.

  • This design is balanced in a symmetrical fashion. I used the same color for the smaller items and repetition of 3 on each side.
  • Notice that the last white item on each side is in line with the ends of the canvas and the glass cabinet door, but you can move them in for a more condensed design – just make sure each side is moved the same amount to keep the symmetry going.
  • Pink and green add a color contrast against the navy blue and white.
  • The sheen on the glass and the ceramic pitchers are in contrast with the rough textured stone fireplace wall.
  • Need to add more height to an object – use a stack of books to raise the height of any item.

Not sure this placement of items works for you, keep moving the items around…

Tips for decorating a mantel

…move the flower pitcher in the center on the right. Switch out a medium sized item (pitcher) for a smaller one.

Fireplace-mantel decorating tips

Line the items from smallest to largest on each side to create a pyramid.

Decorate a Mantel Like a Designer using the elements and principles of design.

Or do the exact opposite to create an inverted pyramid with the same items that are lined up in front of the canvas and glass cabinet door.

One of many ways to decorate a mantel for any season.

Or create two pyramids.

You get the idea… any of these placements works since the principles of design are in play.

Keep Moving Items Until You Like What You See

Using a collection of white pitchers to decorate a mantel.

Remove the largest item on the left and replace with another large item so you still have a balanced design.

Mantel decorating tips for homeowners.

Remove items to create asymmetry on the left side only using 2 items.

creative mantel ideas

Lessen the space between the items, move the largest to the end or the opposite end. Once you move items, stand back to see if you like the rhythm or flow.

decorating tips for fireplace mantels

Simply line 3 items on each side with the largest to the right on each side… or to the left. It doesn’t matter what side, just what looks right to your eye.

mantel decorating tips

When you keep the principles of design in mind… you have a lot of options.

Fireplace mantel ideas and decorating tips

So now that you know how the elements and principles of design will help you decorate your mantel like a pro… go have fun creating yours… and don’t forget… use these design builders when you are decorating or designing anything in your home. They are not just used for decorating mantels.

More Fireplace Mantel Decorating Ideas

Decorate a Mantel Like a Designer using the elements and principles of design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. I really like the canvas and window backdrop and I’d love to do something similar. However, my fireplace is in the corner of my living room, making my mantle a large triangle. There’s not a flat wall for me to lean anything against-just two walls coming together at a right angle. Would you have any suggestions on what to do in that case?

    1. Diane Henkler says:

      Hi Jennifer – I think what I would do if I had your mantel, would be to make a custom sized frame with a canvas or fabric stretched across it that will fit across your mantel in a snug way. Like it was a wall. paint it the same color as the wall. You can then decorate in front of it as it would be a straight across surface to decorate. Figure out the depth of the mantel you would like exposed. Mark it with a line of tape. Measure that distance – wall to wall. Make the framed canvas this long and as tall as you want.
      Let me know if this makes sense.

  2. Beautiful and very creative ideas. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Shelby Hill says:

    Well, of course, I follow about 99% of your ideas to a T, however, I am not liking the dark brown hearth on your fireplace….can I be ultra-picky or what???? I imagine you are thinking of showing dirt or ashes (maybe the part where the fire burns could be left brown) but, it screams DATED to me….

    High of only 51 here today so not into a spring mood yet…..
    I shall try to balance this whiney comment with 12 positive ones – promise!


  4. I found this post so helpful and informative. This will be really helpful in my home. I have a mantel on a floor to ceiling rock fireplace with built-ins on each side. Each built-in has eight shelves. I have a difficult time determining if I treat each built-in as an individual or do I treat all 16 shelves as a whole. I have a great deal of antique items but have difficulty balancing it all. You do such a wonderful job exacting your concept both in writing and using visuals. Do you think you could address my situation on your blog? I am reluctant to fill the shelves with books as I have a full wall to wall library in another area of my house.

  5. Great post, maybe now my mantle will look cohesive. Thanks so much for everything you teach me. I have learned so much.

    Glad Ed is doing well, and your grand daughter is precious

    I also cannot believe it has been 3 years since you moved to the lake house. Time flies.

  6. Thank you, Diane! This is what I’ve been needing forever – a comprehensive, easy to understand guide to decorating my mantel. I’ve tried copying mantel designs I’ve seen in magazines and on blogs but I have never been able to capture the “right” look on my mantel, something always looks, well…off. I really think I get it now, thank you! Your spring mantel is simple, bright and beautiful. The white canvas and navy “rescued” cabinet door (only you, Diane) are the perfect backdrop for your lovely collection of white ceramic pots and pitchers. Perfect!

  7. Excellent post! If I had teachers like you maybe I would have done better in school.

  8. Mary Ann Howat says:

    You are so talented. I just have a large oil painting my friend painted and use that all year.

    I need to de clutter as the older I get the more I need to say goodbye to excess stuff. Some of my books are decluttering books. So sad.

  9. This was so informative! Very helpful too!