Fireplace Decor: Hearth Design Tips

Top designers mix up the mantel, creating graphic, asymmetrical or three-dimensional arrangements easy to replicate in your own home. Here are five ways to make your mantel marvelous, and heat up the decor of any room.
By: Susan Kleinman

Photo By: design by Nicole Sassaman

Space for the Seasons

Instead of hanging art on the wall, designer Raji Radhakrishnan of Raji RM & Associates in Brambleton, Va., likes to lean pictures of various sizes on the mantel. "Odd numbers of things always look better than even numbers," she says, "So I would recommend three pieces of art — go to four and five only if they are really spectacular." For the best effect, Radhakrishnan likes to place the largest painting or drawing on the mantel first, slightly off-center, with the second and third pieces (approximately half to two-thirds the height of the first) slightly overlapping in front of it. "In addition to giving the impression that the pieces were accumulated over time," she says, "leaning objects allows you to tuck in mementos or seasonal objects very easily." A mirror gives height to a trio of framed art in Radhakrishnan's room. Photo by Raji Radhakrishnan.

Artistic Walls

If you want to hang art above the fireplace, consider replacing one painting with a series of nearly identical pieces hung in a grid, starting right above the mantel and going up almost to the ceiling, like the art featured in this Kenneth Brown-designed room. "Think about an arrangement of black and white photography, or prints by the same artist," says New York-based interior-design stylist and writer Jorge S. Arango. "If you arrange them purposefully, the frames themselves create a pattern, almost like a very bold — and very original — wallpaper."

See, Touch, Admire

Whether hung on a wall or propped up, the things above your fireplace don't need to be two-dimensional. In fact, in a contemporary home where there is no shelf at all above the fireplace, says designer Raji, "you absolutely need a three-dimensional sculpture, because a flat thing like a painting will almost disappear." Art galleries and museum shops offer lots of sculptural choices. But don't be afraid to think beyond officially-designated objets d'art. New York-based interior designer Amie Weitzman has mounted antique weathervanes and giant African currency above her own fireplaces; the effect, she says, is offbeat and dramatic. Design by Gina Fitzsimmons.

Cool and Collected

While one or two great objects can certainly work well above a fireplace, mantels are also the perfect place to showcase larger collections — as long as you edit carefully. "If you have a collection of something that's very similar, such as ancient jade disks or pieces of driftwood... with very similar forms," says stylist Jorge Arango, "you can place them evenly across the mantel." If you want to mix more than one collection, he says, "stick to just a few materials: If you have mercury glass, you can you mix it with some clear apothecary glass — but that's it. Don't mix in ceramics or wood, because it will start to look cluttered." If you want a more colorful arrangement, go for items that are similar in size, scale and origin. Antique Chinese snuff bottles in different colors and materials can work very well together. Or try rainbow-hued Scandinavian cased glass vases, or brightly glazed majolica. Because the pieces relate well to one another, the look will be cohesive even if the shapes and colors vary greatly.

Bold Makeover

If you haven't found anything you want to showcase above your fireplace — or if you just want to keep things as minimal as possible — you can also create mantel drama simply by painting the wall a dramatic color. "With a bold color behind the fireplace, all you really need are some pretty tea lights to make the mantel the focus of the room," says New York-based interior designer Roderick N. Shade. Whatever approach you choose, says Shade, "go for high impact when styling your mantel. It really sets the tone for the rest of the space." Design by Nicole Sassaman.

Shop This Look