Design 101: Styling Mantles

By Paul Miller

Interior Designer, IDS Professional Member

There is something about the mantle that inspires us to be expressive and creative. For centuries the hearth has represented the essence of comfort and security, keeping the cold at bay even as it draws friends and family together in a shared experience.  As architecture became more refined and then accessible with the rise of the middle class in the nineteenth century, fireplaces became as elegant as any piece of fine furniture in the room.  In contemporary design, the hearth may sometimes be a monolithic slab of stone or stucco with no shelf, but generally homeowners want that ledge to decorate.  Yet decorating mantle shelves is often described as a challenge by many of my clients.  Here I unpack some of the mystery around styling this iconic focal point.

The Basics

As with much of visual composition, decorating the mantle is made easier if one honors the principles of design: balance, harmony, rhythm, contrast, emphasis, and proportion.  Below are examples of symmetry and asymmetry that I created with some help from my team in the studio. 

While the symmetry on the left is graceful, the asymmetry on the right typically is more pleasing over a longer period of time.  Note that the asymmetry of the art itself adds relief even to the image on the left. The row of red vases creates a repetitive rhythm along the shelf, while providing a strong, isolated color for contrast and emphasis. In the image on the right, the white space in the art in the bottom right corner creates a void that is proportionate in weight to the mass of the obelisks on the right; the balancing act of asymmetry is typically achieved by leveraging what is present with what is absent.  

One framed print, two marble obelisks, and three small red vases shown side by side on the same mantle; one styling models symmetry and the other asymmetry. The former is generally considered more traditional or formal than the latter.

Problem Solving

Sometimes the mantle itself is not in scale to the room. In the image below, a pair of impactful floor lamps help to give the tableau greater horizontal mass. The inverted triangular arrangement of the art provides a strong vertical counterpoint, with a pair of art glass vases on aged books filling in the void at either end of the mantle shelf.  A team of iron horses provide contrast to the mass of the other pieces.  Each object here pulls its weight to provide a composition that has good harmony and proportion.


This composition was crafted with what was on hand in the studio; with creativity and an open mind, very often aesthetic problems can be solved by putting existing puzzle pieces together in a fresh and thoughtful way.


Mix It Up

Our final mantle tableau was created against the backdrop of the ever-popular wallpaper mural in our studio.  This example helps to show how the formality of symmetry can be offset with playful color and unexpected contrasts.  The watercolor study is incomplete and fairly bohemian in contrast to its gilded frame.  Edging into the photo to left and right, a contemporary lounge chair and floor lamp provide stylistic contrast to the patterns and silhouettes on the mantle.  Here we repeated the use of three smaller objects in the center of the tableau to provide a restful rhythm to offset the energy of the wallpaper.  In design it is often true that uneven numbers like three, five, and seven appear more artful and organic.  

Pattern and silhouettes abound in this composition, which emphasizes the use of color and pattern to offset formal symmetry.

Practice Makes Perfect

The fundamentals of design provide the framework for all visual composition, but rolling up your sleeves and experimenting is the best way to figure out what pleases you.  Raid every surface and cabinet in the house to pull a host of accents to use in developing your own mantle scape and be willing to live with an arrangement for a while, allowing yourself to be surprised by the effect as you enter the room at different times of day and in different moods.  In my own home, the mantle display might change two or three times a year; I think the detailing in a room needs to be reinvented from time to time to keep the design fresh.  You may have the right items on the mantle, but need to move them around a bit, redistributing the balance or rhythm to improve the look.  The beauty of the mantle shelf is that it offers a host of opportunities for creative expression.  

Enjoy the process!