The holidays have come and gone. Yet winter lingers, and we in the Pacific Northwest are left with several more months of cold rain, early sunsets and gray days.

To lift your spirits and escape the moody months, look no further than your hearth. 

Sure, you can build a fire to warm up your living room or den. But don’t stop there. Focus on your fireplace’s unsung hero — the mantel above it — and heighten its aesthetic appeal to make it a wintry centerpiece that anchors your room. Here are seven ways to manifest mantel magic, regardless of whether you own a gas, wood-burning, electric or even nonfunctioning fireplace.

Select a muted palette. Keep key mantel pieces muted, then make seasonal swaps rather than wholesale changes throughout the year, suggests Tessa Kluetz Pernell, a Tacoma-based home stager and interior designer. Consider soft greens, light neutrals and deep, moody earth tones for a sophisticated winter color palette that complements neutral decor.

“In the winter, naturally, we want to bring in as much light and cozy decor as possible to offset the gray, gloomy days,” she says. “Light-colored, soft textiles and candles or lamps are a must.” Then add contrast with darker accents. On a mantel shelf, this might look like white candles, a beige figurine, white branches, art or family photos in a dark frame and a stack of darker, earth-toned books.

Arrange simply but intentionally. “When we think about styling a blank space to become a statement zone, the tendency can be to overstyle it,” says Seattle-based interior designer Allison Lind. “When I’m fireside with a glass of wine, I want to enjoy the flickering flames, not lock my eyes on the latest HomeGoods loot.” She suggests styling the mantel as you think you should. Then pull two or three items away. Return one at a time until the mantel feels (and looks) just right.


Lind suggests placing a taller item on one side, such as an attractive vase holding oversized or arched plumage. On the other, balance it with meaningful decor — a souvenir, family heirloom or pottery. A stack of vintage books with a pretty candle or air plant on top can also provide visual “warmth,” she says.

Amy Vroom, a Seattle designer, suggests varying elements such as color, texture or greenery, along with arranging items of varying heights to keep the design interesting. She advises creating connections via style, theme or color — for example, using shades of green throughout the arrangement to mirror splashes of green elsewhere in the room.

If purchasing new pieces, consider matching the metallic tones on mantel items to the metal finishes of your lighting fixtures. Vroom advises decorators to consider “the color story” the room is telling. “Tying those (color) elements into your mantel design keeps the space consistent,” she says.

Gas inserts are the most low-maintenance option for fireplaces. They are also convenient, with remote controls that sense room temperature. (Getty Images)
How to make your fireplace more effective, efficient and better looking.

And remember that iconic winter decor isn’t restricted to the holiday season. There’s no rule forbidding vintage snowshoes above the mantel, or adorning the space with twinkling white lights, intricate snowflake garlands, colorful felted trees or rustic metal snowflakes. Glassybaby, the local maker of handblown glass candleholders, recently launched yellow-hued rechargeable tealights that can glow in their pretty holders all winter long — a decorating solution that provides the dancing light of a flame without the risk of fire.

Bring the outside in. A scavenger hunt around your neighborhood can produce green boughs, prickly pine cones, rosemary springs or a berry-filled branch, Vroom says.


For a dramatic statement, Pernell suggests spray-painting branches or other outdoor items white, then placing them in a large vase or across the mantel shelf.

Shop for silvery-green eucalyptus to fill the living room with a lovely aroma, or pick up a midwinter wreath that features eucalyptus and evergreens. Some indoor plants flower in winter, such as bright-red anthurium, sweet-smelling jasmine, durable and cheerful kalanchoe, and amaryllis bulbs. Just ensure they stay well-hydrated and don’t get too hot when near the fireplace.

Make the most of minimal. Contemporary mantel shelves can be minimalist (less than the standard 8 inches) to nonexistent. If you have a narrow ledge, place objects such as vintage bowling pins or tall candlesticks against the wall on the mantel. Add a small trailing plant to add depth without taking up a lot of space, Vroom suggests.

A large mirror set or art hung above a narrow mantel draws the eye upward, Pernell says. You can also create a statement above the fireplace with a collection of mirrors, hats or woven bowls. “By grouping the items, you create a focal point,” drawing attention away from the small mantel, Vroom says.

Vroom’s own home gallery wall could be replicated over a fireplace mantel. Her wall features one seasonally rotating space that includes a hook, to which she ties twined bundles of winter branches and berries, spring grasses or autumn lavender. “Essentially creating a bouquet that adds dimension and life to inanimate objects,” she says.

Create warmth without a fireplace. No fireplace? No problem. Vroom suggests designing a “moment” in a corner to create an impression of winter conviviality, where, for example, antique or vintage candleholders can cluster along a console or coffee table. In a modern home, group tapers of varying heights or mix and match sleek candleholders, Lind says.


To create an at-home getaway area, add comfortable seating and a basket filled with blankets, and place reading or task lamps nearby, Pernell suggests. “These create warmth and coziness when you don’t have a fireplace to style,” Pernell says.

If your fireplace is not functional, fill the cavity with unlit candle groupings, a basket of logs or other seasonal decor.

Update the mantelpiece. If you want your fireplace to pop, paint the mantel a darker color than nearby trim and walls, Vroom says — charcoal gray or black are two trending statement picks. If you have a dated brick mantel and no budget to tile over it, paint it to match the wall color.

Or consider a full DIY brick fireplace face-lift, either by painting or whitewashing the brick, limewashing to brighten the bricks’ hue or resurfacing with a skim coat for an all-new look, suggests Pernell. If you rent or are pressed for time, Vroom suggests covering dated fireplace tile or brick with heat-resistant stick-on tiles.

If you’d like a new mantel altogether, check sites like Houzz or Task Rabbit to find local woodworkers who can custom-fabricate a mantel specific to your space, Lind says. Or look at reuse and salvage stores or on Etsy for pre-built options, floating shelves or upcycled, hand-hewn beams.

Rearrange the room. Reposition your seating to face the fireplace to better appreciate your newly designed winter mantel. If you have a fireplace that is extremely asymmetrical within the room, create balance by playing with height and scale. Add a tall plant next to the mantel or an off-center piece of art above it, Vroom suggests. “Layer in a vase with tall branches and a few of your favorite collectibles to balance out the asymmetrical nature of that room,” she says.

Some people hang a TV above the fireplace, but this doesn’t always work well. “If the room allows, I’ll divide the space into two sections,” Lind says. A sofa might face the television, while another seating area offers an intimate, relaxing space facing the fireplace.

“Ignoring a fireplace altogether crushes my soul a bit,” she says. “If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace in your home, find a way to embrace it. Even if it’s just [adding] a small chair you get to sit in occasionally to enjoy the warmth.”