8 Steps To a Stylish Mantel: The Mountain Range Effect

Mantel Styling Tips

Mantels Shouldn’t Be Scary

You may have heard the term “manscaping” (the removal or trimming of hair on a man's body for cosmetic effect), but have you heard the term “manTEL-scaping”?

Most of us love the idea of having a fireplace in our home…one that comes complete with a mantel to decorate. But what in the world to put on top of that mantel? That’s a question that can bring about a whole lot of needless fingernail biting and anxiety. It shouldn’t. Enjoy that mantel—it’s a fantastic place to experiment in your home! Try out different pieces and see what you like. Switch things up seasonally. Go minimalist or go maximalist and decide what you’re most comfortable with. But please, please don’t be afraid of your mantel!

Really, I’m here to tell you that there is not one right way to style a mantel, but I’m also here today to share one way with you. Because if you’re like me, it’s easiest to tackle a new design project when you have a recipe to follow. So, today we’re going to test out a recipe for your mantel. That recipe? It’s called “The Mountain Range Effect.”

Once you’ve read this, try this mantel recipe out at home, see if you like it, then let me know how it worked out for you (even better, send us photos of your creation! You know we’d love to see all the mountain ranges you come up with!).

The 8 Ingredients To Create Your Mountain Range:

  1. Proportion (Or “Everything I Need To Know, I learned in Kindergarten”)

  2. The Mountains (plus a brief word on relationships)

  3. The Centerpiece

  4. Curves and Shapes

  5. Layers

  6. Horizontals

  7. It’s Alive!

  8. Balance (not necessarily symmetry)

  1. Proportion (Or, “Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten”)

The empty mantel: A blank piece of paper

The empty mantel: A blank piece of paper

O.k., now take a look at your mantel. Think of that big, blank space above the mantel as one giant piece of paper. Remember back in kindergarten and beyond, when your teacher handed out a piece of paper and told you to draw a picture on it? Chances are, s/he also told you to make sure you fill up the whole paper. And while that didn’t mean you had to clutter your paper up with a million little doodles, it DID mean that there shouldn’t be a family of puny stick figures floating in a vast sea of white. Whatever you drew needed to be in proportion to that piece of paper.

Well, same thing here. You want the display you create on your mantel to be scaled to the size of your mantel. The composition you create needs to be big enough. Don’t arrange a line of small picture frames along the edge and leave 4 feet of blank wall above. FILL UP THAT PAPER!

2. The Mountains (and a word on relationships)

O.k, now that you’re thinking in terms of proportion and scale, you need to think about which items to display. I want you to imagine you’re creating a mountain range collage with your items. If you were given that blank piece of paper by your teacher and decided to draw the Rocky Mountains, you would draw some really tall mountains, some short ones, some round, some pointy, some foothills in the fore ground…that kind of thing. And the same holds true for your mantel: You want to create peaks and valleys, some mountains in front, some further back, some tall and some shorter. So start gathering things that might work for your mountain range—artwork, bowls, pottery, a large piece of coral, maybe an antler, decorative boxes, candle holders, brass trivets, small sculptures …shop your house. See what treasures you have that might be worth a moment in the limelight on your mantel. You’re not going to use all of them, but it’s fun to have a collection to pull from to see what works best together. Lay everything out on the floor or coffee table so you can experiment as we move through the recipe.

How the Pieces Relate: Take a look at your collection of items. Do they relate to one another? They don’t need to match, but there needs to be some common thread that ties them together (I’ll point out how I tried to identify common threads as I show you my selections). Don’t worry so much about this now, but keep it in mind as you select each piece to try.

3. The Center Piece: Find Your Mount Everest

A vintage black and gilt framed mirror is my Mount Everest

A vintage black and gilt framed mirror is my Mount Everest

To get started, I like to pick one large center piece—a Mount Everest type of piece. And my favorite thing to pick: a mirror.

Why a large mirror?

  • It bounces light around the room, making the whole space brighter

  • The reflection can make a space feel bigger

  • A mirror is pretty much a neutral. As your one big piece it can stay the same all year round. You can mix up the smaller items you display there to create a different feel in the room—the mirror won’t completely dictate what you pair with it.

  • Mirrors are a great way to add a touch of vintage to your home (and you know we love vintage!). Look for vintage mirrors at estate sales and rummage sales. Most older mirrors will be pretty heavy—that, and glass that has a beveled edge are good indicators that your mirror is actually old and not a cast off from Homegoods.

    (Interesting side note: believe it or not, I hadn’t moved my mirror in the 6 years we’ve lived in the house (it’s very heavy and I was worried I’d break it and give myself 7 years of bad luck), but guess what?! When I did move it to take photos of the mantel for this blog, I discovered we have an outlet on our mantel!!! How did I not realize that before????) Oh, and luckily I did not break the mirror…yet!

Make sure your mirror or whatever your center piece is, is big enough. Rule of thumb, if you’re placing one large piece above your mantel, it should be approximately 2/3 the length of the mantel. Mine here is not quite big enough (and for this blog I switched it from its usual horizontal position to vertical just because I wanted to test it out—and I can’t decide which way I like it better—you’ll have to let me know your thoughts in the comments). But, even though my mirror doesn’t abide by the 2/3 rule, its heavy black/gilt frame gives it some good heft visually. Once I add some other pieces to the mantel, it’ll be less obvious that it’s a bit too small.

How It Relates: This mirror works well with the black brick surround. The gilt detailing also relates to the brass andirons and fireplace tools we have. So there is a commonality of color and finish going on here.

4. Curves

A voluptuous vase of tall pussy willow adds curves, height and drama to the composition.

A voluptuous vase of tall pussy willow adds curves, height and drama to the composition.

Be sure to mix in some different shapes on your mantel. You don’t want it to be all angles. I like to put a large, tall, curvy vase like this up there and change up what’s in it depending on the season. Not only do I like the vessel’s shapely curves and delicate blue and white pattern, but I also like how tall the spray of pussy willow is, and how it expands outward (the pussy will also helps with ingredient #7 “It’s Alive”…)

How It Relates? In this case, the vase is more of a contrast than anything else. It lightens up the scene, keeping it from being too heavy and dark.

5. Layers

Layering the Mantel.jpg

Layer smaller pieces of art in front of the large center piece. In an actual mountain range, the peaks don’t all line up in one even row, some extend back into the distance and others are closer to the foreground. Same goes for your mantel mountain range. Layer artwork in front of your centerpiece. You can try adding a couple or just one.

How It Relates? The brass of the frame echoes the other brass tones in the scene. The lighter colors in the Japanese woodblock print pull in the light blue and white of the large vase. Again, this is a lighter piece, and keeps the whole composition from becoming too heavy and dark.

6. Horizontals

A vintage gunpowder horn adds another curve to the scene, but would be better if perched on a pedestal, like a decorative box. The box would add some needed horizontal lines to the composition.

A vintage gunpowder horn adds another curve to the scene, but would be better if perched on a pedestal, like a decorative box. The box would add some needed horizontal lines to the composition.

With all the vertical I have going on, it’s important to add some horizontal. Which I didn’t do a very good job with here! Ideally, I’d have a decorative box or something similar to create a pedestal for my gunpowder horn (more curves). Note to self: at upcoming estate sales, be on the lookout for decorative boxes (rosewood, lacquer, Florentine…). They make good pedestals on mantels and bookshelves.

7. “It’s Alive”

Add something organic to your display. That might be something alive now or recently (like plant, branches, flowers), or something that was at one time alive or part of something alive ( a large piece of coral, antlers, a large conch shell…). In my display, I included the pussy willow branches and the powder horn, which most likely is made from a cow, ox or buffalo horn—and so it’s organic.

How the powder horn relates: Its dark and light parts pick up the parchment colored matte on the artwork as well as the black from the mirror and dark of the branches.

8. Balance (not necessarily symmetry)

To balance the large porcelain vase on the right, I added a glass hurricane perched on a rosewood stand on the left side of the mantel.

To balance the large porcelain vase on the right, I added a glass hurricane perched on a rosewood stand on the left side of the mantel.

I’m a big fan of balance, but I don’t need everything absolutely symmetrical. For example, if placing a light on either side of a sofa, I might have a table lamp on one side and a floor lamp to balance it on the other side—but not have two table lamps that match exactly.

On your mantel, see which you prefer. If you like symmetry, you might have two matching vessels filled with greenery or flowers on both sides of the mantel. If you prefer balance, you’ll add something to the each side of the mantel that won’t match exactly, but balances out the scene.

I added the large glass hurricane with a candle inside.

How it relates? The glass of the hurricane relates to the mirrored glass in the centerpiece, the curves relate to the curves of the large blue vase, and the pattern of the intricately carved rosewood stand the hurricane sits on relates to the pattern on the blue and white vase.

And that’s the recipe—there’s my mountain range! What do you think?

For fun, here’s another mantel-scape I played around with. You’ll notice different artwork, a different hurricane, as well as the mirror positioned horizontally.

A slightly different mantel scape: mirror positioned horizontally, rosewood lantern, and Singaporean batik artwork.

A slightly different mantel scape: mirror positioned horizontally, rosewood lantern, and Singaporean batik artwork.

And finally, just to let you know that the Mountain Range Effect is just one way to style your mantel, in this mantel-scape I went much more minimalist to create an entirely different look:

Here I tried out something completely different to see how I liked a minimalist mantel-scape: just a couple of pieces of studio pottery and a round gourd vessel.

Here I tried out something completely different to see how I liked a minimalist mantel-scape: just a couple of pieces of studio pottery and a round gourd vessel.

Over to you! Let us know in the comments how your mantel experiments went. We can’t wait to hear!

—Jen