When I found out that my apartment came with a fireplace, I freaked out. Not because I can use it for so warmth and comfort (I have yet to use it), but because I was excited to decorate the mantel.
In all of the nicest, most legitimate-feeling homes, it seems like there’s always a fireplace. And the fireplace always is topped with the nicest, most thoughtful vignette on top of it. But when I started decorating mine, I quickly realized that it’s not as simple as just throwing a ton of pretty stuff together and calling it a day. Although many beautiful examples I see are perfectly “cluttered,” everything is actually very intentional.
How do you create this cluttered but not really cluttered look, you ask?
try and try again
Honestly, the best general advice I can give is to set it up, step back, rearrange, and repeat. If you want to try something, test it out. You can easily move it away if you don’t like it. You’ll surprise yourself sometimes how good something looks that you doubted at first.
If you have a creative eye, which I’m assuming everyone who reads this blog does, you’ll know when it’s off. Then just keep trying til it looks good. Backing up to look at it from afar really does help you to see it from the perspective of a guest walking in.
So like I said, that’s general advice. And I know that is super vague and may not be helpful if you don’t even know where to start. I’m going to give you tons of tips below to get you going, but view it all under the lens of that first pointer. Just be flexible and take a step back every time to try something new to assess.
find some consistency
Like with most things in design that seem like they should be cluttered and overwhelming but aren’t for some reason, it’s because there is some amount of consistency.
You may have some tall things, some short, some figurines, some prints. What will bring it all together is if they are communicating with each other in some way. The main ways to do this is through color, material, or theme.
Take my mantel, for example. There is a slight theme of human form (the face planter, the statue, and one of the prints), but the main thing that brings it together is the color. There are some pops of orange in the two prints. And there is a theme of silver in the decorations. Black, however, is the main color that brings everything together, anchoring it on both ends as well as in the middle with the frames.
A way that you could do this with materials is making wood a dominant theme throughout. Even if you have different stains of wood, it could work. Or you could do wrought iron. Or plants.
In general, to bring tons of random objects together in a way that makes sense, they just have to tell a consistent story.
it needs to be balanced
If you are going to make your mantel completely symmetrical, it will automatically be balanced. But if you want to play with asymmetry, listen up.
I am asymmetry’s #1 fan, but in order to go asymmetrical, you have to make sure there’s still balance.
Balance is achieved by the overall weight in the zones of whatever space you’re working on. So although silhouette couldn’t be split right down the middle and look the same, if you were to put each side on a visual scale, they will be about even.
It’s easier to explain it with an example.
Although I do have the same candle holders on either end of my mantel, the rest is largely asymmetrical. The collection of three items on one end are generally taller than the collection of three items on the other end. (Quick tip: always group things in odd numbers). The balance is achieved through 1. an equal number of items and 2. the large piece of art on the side with the smaller items.
one focal piece
Although I have seen many amazing looking mantels without a single focal point, this is the easiest way to ground your mantel. You start with one large piece — whether its mirror, work of art, statue — and work your way out.
This is an easy thing to use as inspiration for the rest of the items. Think of what you like best about it. Its color. Its material. It’s texture. The mood it exudes. Then use that and pair it with the first tip to create consistency.
For example, if you have a large, distressed vintage mirror, you place that in the center and take inspiration from its gothic romanticism. Then, you place other delicate vintage items around it and some dried flowers.
Note: make sure that whatever theme you do doesn’t clash with that of the rest of the room it’s situated within. It can be slightly distinct but still needs to make sense.
make sure there’s rhythm
One of the most striking things about a lot of mantel vignette is the mix of tall, short, wide, and thin objects.
However, you need to make sure that there is a natural rhythm and communication between the different heights. It’s a little chaotic if you are visually zigzagging between super short and super tall objects. Of course, use things of a variety of heights, but make the change gradual or put some space between extremely contrasted objects.
layer it on
It is definitely an option to leave everything on one plane. If you want a neater, cleaner look, you can absolutely spread things out a little more and not overlap them at all.
But if you find yourself looking at your creation and just feel a little blah and want some more excitement, layering is the way to go.
It could be as simple as a candle peaking up in front of a mirror or the leaves of a plant crowding into a painting. Or you could do a stacked mini-gallery and have several framed art pieces huddled together.
Go light on this at first and build up the layers slowly. You don’t want to go overboard to the point that it looks chaotic. And you also don’t want to be blocking too much of one of your items. Just be very thoughtful as you’re laying things and refer back to tip #1: set it up, step back, readjust, repeat.
other quick tips
- Add lighting! This can be candles (LED if you have flammable stuff surrounding it), fairy lights, a small lamp, or even sconces mounted on the wall.
- PLEASE try to avoid mounting a tv above your fireplace unless you have nowhere else to put it. It steals the shine away from the mantel. You could still do some decoration under the tv, but it’s just not the same.
If you want to see my process of decorating my mantel, feel free to check out my IGTV video below and follow me on Instagram! And enjoy the following inspo pictures.
keep it homey, homies