20 Mantel and Bookshelf Decorating Tips

Be your own decorator. In just a few hours, turn a cluttered, style-less mantel or bookshelf into your living room's showstopping focal point.

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November 25, 2014

Photo By: Design by Ana Donahue

Photo By: Stacey Brandford

Keep It Classic

Designer Emily Henderson gives these bookshelves a timeless English-library feel by grouping similarly bound books and mixing in a few old cigar boxes and vintage finds, like a rotary dial telephone, brass eagle bookends and a bronze horse. An antique library ladder, leaned against the bookcase, isn't functional but adds to the look.  

Sum Up the Room's Style

Designer Ana Donohue chooses the less-is-more option when decorating the mantel in this midcentury-modern-meets-global living room. A pair of Oriental porcelain horses reflects the room's global theme while the convex sunburst mirror adds just the right mod touch.  

Add Functionality

Symmetry and a serene gray palette are key to this room's casual elegance. Designer Joel Snayd framed in the area above the mantel to house a flat-screen TV; built-ins flanking the fireplace complete the traditional look and provide handy storage and display space.  

Create a Gallery Wall

This living room's low mantel and high ceiling create a wide expanse of empty wall space perfect for displaying designer Emily Henderson's eclectic mix of favorite objects. Her informal approach to grouping the frames (no pesky measuring needed) makes it easy to rearrange on a whim.  

Keep Scale in Mind

Designer Sarah Richardson makes a statement with a massive antique crest hung above the mantel in her vaulted living room. Originally the logo for and part of Scotiabank’s architecture, the crest reads "Strength, Integrity, Service." The antique's chipped paint suits the room's color palette perfectly while its size is just right to visually fill the space.  

Make a Bookcase Pop With Paper

The sunny morning room in this D.C. design house gets high marks for designer Marika Meyer's use of subtle texture in the draperies, rug, furniture and bookcase, where a chocolate-and-cream trellis wallpaper draws your attention to the objects on display.  
From: Marika Meyer

Celebrate the Seasons

In designer Layla Palmer's home, the living room mantel is the first thing guests see upon entering. So, she puts it to good use by swapping out elements to reflect the time of year. Layla fills the stoneware pitchers with seasonal greenery or fresh flowers and updates the chalkboard with favorite messages and quotes.  

Think Outside the Box

When styling a bookshelf, don't limit your collection to the shelves. Frames and objects hung so they overlap add sculptural interest and allow you to display large items. Design by Emily Henderson  

Be Slightly Off Center

Take a cue from designer Sarah Richardson and give a traditional living room updated style with frames hung asymmetrically above the fireplace. Tall branches in an Oriental vase to the left of the frames fill the void and create balance.  

Coordinate With Paint

Painting a bookcase's interior to coordinate with the room's decor adds just the right pop of color. For a cohesive look, pull a color from nearby upholstery, pillows or the rug. Design by Lynn Morgan  
From: Lynn Morgan

Create a Layered Effect

A salvaged iron gate creates a textural backdrop for this rustic vignette. Stacks of vintage books, black-and-white photos and a tall glass vase filled with branches complete the look. Overlapping frames always look great on a mantel, especially when they have different orientations — horizontal and vertical. Pairs of items are a sure bet, too, like the small vases of roses and lanterns used here.  

Vary Scale and Height

Rather than simply line up items on a bookshelf (boring!), create small groupings that combine similar items in different sizes, colors and textures. Use stacks of books, as designer Emily Henderson did here, to elevate your favorite collectibles and add color.  

Add a Mirror

Hanging a mirror above the mantel is a go-to look that always works. Here, designer Shirry Dolgin selected a nickel sunburst frame for a contemporary look. Designer Erinn Valencich suggests: "Any fabulous frame can be turned into a mirror by your local glass shop or framer. For a softer look, ask if they can give the mirror an antiqued or mercury-glass finish."  

Honor Your Home's Location

In case guests of designer Sarah Richardson's summer house weren't feeling the home's waterfront vibe, the massive ship model on the mantel should set them straight. Although this is a trick that designers use most often for vacation homes, it's worth trying out in any home. Just select an item that reflects your area's history, topography (mountainous, desert or coastal) or major industry (for instance, textiles, agriculture or steel) and proudly put it on display.  

Put Your Passions on Display

In essence, the mantel is simply a shelf — and, most often, the most visible spot in your living room, making it prime real estate for displaying your interests. Photophiles will love this mantel, which showcases the owner's collection of early box cameras, graphic prints, and books on photography and modern art.  

Less Is More

Designer Brian Patrick Flynn proves that a fireplace can remain the room's focal point with even minimal decoration. The walls are covered with graphic fabric, which looks fantastic but draws your eye away from the fireplace. The solution: Painting the overmantel the same charcoal gray as the fabric's background and limiting the fireplace decoration to a retro sunburst clock for a look that's balanced.

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Go Back to Nature

Designer David Bromstad added an unexpected touch to this otherwise traditional white bookcase by framing the shelves with large pieces of weathered wood suspended on metal rods. The wood's organic shape and smooth texture adds a sculptural element while drawing attention to the bookcases themselves.  

Mix It Up

Fireplaces that project out from the wall are ideal for flanking with a bookcase, a cabinet or both, as designer Anisa Darnell has here. She kept their heights, color and basic framework the same for a consistent look. To draw attention to the fireplace, she covered the overmantel in reclaimed barn wood and added exterior lanterns instead of interior sconces.  

Color-Code It

Forget the Dewey Decimal System; designer Courtney Novogratz let color be her guide when arranging this bookcase. By also varying the book heights and alternating between upright and horizontal placement, she created a sense of rhythm.  

Keep It Monochromatic

Show low bookshelves some design love by using a repetitive color scheme — note how nicely the vintage zinc crates pair with the brushed steel table lamp — and varying the scale of items on display. Hang shelves above to make a small bookcase appear taller. Design by Anisa Darnell  

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