Most of us have fireplace mantels, but we don't know what to put on them. And that's a shame, because the fireplace is a room's focal point...

Share story

Most of us have fireplace mantels, but we don’t know what to put on them. And that’s a shame, because the fireplace is a room’s focal point, and the hearth is the heart of a home.

The best mantel arrangements reflect the homeowner, says decorator Marilyn Wear, owner of Shoestrings design services in Independence, Mo.

“Friends and family notice what’s on the mantel,” she says. “The fireplace is a cozy place they gather around.”

Wear has decked out numerous mantels for year-round display. The main details she keeps in mind:

Scale: Bigger objects make the best statement. “Tiny knickknacks get lost on a mantel,” Wear says. “It’s difficult to see small objects, especially from across the room.”

Color: Wear typically prefers a monochromatic mantel arrangement because it “peacefully pops” against a background. Using one color also prevents objects from competing with any artwork hung above.

Arrangement: She likes to make a “U” pattern on top of mantels. That means placing taller objects on the left and right sides and shorter pieces in the middle.

Seasonal changes

Garden urns and architectural elements make good backgrounds for seasonal items. What you don’t want is to schlep every item off the mantel when the seasons change.

Winter: Add potted evergreens, pinecones and sticks from the back yard.

Spring: Add paperwhites, tulips or forsythia.

Summer: Place a flower, perhaps gerbera daisies, in each of four or five identical vases. Or use pots of identical orchids.

Fall: Add pumpkins and gourds.

Source: Decorator Marilyn Wear

“This makes the eye sweep over it to really take in what’s there,” she says. “It adds interest.”

The Martha Stewart look of “marching objects in a straight line across the mantel” also can work. “That can be a tranquil, clean style,” Wear says.

To further demystify the décor above the fireplace, two homeowners allowed Wear to give their mantels makeovers.

Exhibiting keepsakes

Mary Havenhill of Independence, Mo., collects silver loving cups with Dewar’s labels. (The name for a brand of scotch also is her maiden name.) She also owns multiple silver candlesticks that were gifts from her first husband, now deceased. And she keeps the first card her husband, Jerry Havenhill, gave her in a red leather frame.

Wear brought all the collections together on the Havenhills’ mantel, grouping the candlesticks in the center and loving cups on each side for balance. The card, a classic hunt scene, mimics the hunt scene print above the mantel. “It’s much more interesting than what was there before” — an autumn motif with turkey figurines and pumpkins, Mary Havenhill says.

Wear enjoys using unusual family pieces on mantels, such as Grandpa’s lunch bucket, because they’re meaningful and unexpected. She thinks Havenhill’s collections work well together because they have a traditional look. “They have a history and tell a personal story, creating a conversation piece,” she says.

Framed photographs

Scott and Carrie Lane have a challenging mantel. It’s shallow, limiting what can be placed on top. The Prairie Village couple didn’t know what to use until they found two bronze crane statues for height. Still, the mantel felt bare.

Wear used the cranes and a piece of the Lanes’ pottery, and she added other pottery pieces and photographs in cherry frames. She likes using photographs on mantels. “They are a personal touch like no other,” she says.

On a mantel, Wear says, pictures look best when they are unified by black-and-white or sepia tones. Wear prefers using enlarged candid snapshots and frames them in the same color.

In the Lanes’ house, she used smaller frames because there’s a large art piece hanging above. “I like what she did because she really understood our style,” Carrie Lane says. The house has a modern Frank Lloyd Wright look. “Even though she added pieces, they didn’t look too busy.”