Interior Design

4 Ways to Give Your Mantel a Whole New Look, This Weekend

March 17, 2017

I love mantels. Maybe it’s because of how defined and relatively small the space is—they just seem like an area you can have a little more fun in, or experiment with a little more than you would other corners of your home. Plus, there’s something inherently shrine-like about them, which gives anything you place there a new, pointed significance.

I’m constantly restyling the mantel in my living room, layering in pieces from all corners of the house as the seasons (and my moods) change. It’s also a great way to reevaluate items that have become invisible (is this framed print worth featuring front-and-center on a mantel, or am I just keeping it because I hung it two years ago and haven’t really thought about it since?).

Here are four mantels I’ve put together recently, a breakdown of why they work, and how you can pull off something similar in your own home:

1. Simple Contrast

Photo by Liz Johnson

Balanced doesn’t always mean symmetrical. The big statement here is made by pairing an oversized framed print (I had one of my husband’s photographs of our favorite music venue turned into an engineer print at Fedex Office for about $5) with a tiny one.

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All the black-and-white right angles are broken up with a piece of curved driftwood from the beach, plus a vase of simple white tulips. Bonus design wizardry: The differing size of the tulip stems mirror the frames behind them.

2. Layered Collections

Photo by Liz Johnson

I love not hanging frames. It’s one less thing to do, the piece doesn’t feel married to any one location, and it has this casual feel that can soften what is often a really formal focal point. Plus, layering allows opportunity for fun interaction between pieces: Faces can peek out from behind posters, patterns can overlap with family photos.

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Top Comment:
“Red tulips in a vase only last so long , even in Holland. I could not replicate that at home in Germany because we tear the windows open to let fresh air in twice a day which sweeps everything off the sill and I can't do it here in Georgia because my cat claims that spot for sunbathing and chipmunk watching.”
— Karin B.

Above, I’m showing off a few of what I call my “casual collections” (things I keep buying or being attracted to, seemingly without being aware of how many of said item I already own): animal bones and antlers, religious iconography, wooden artist forms—even a record I’ve had on repeat recently. Your mantel can be a great way to simply showcase what you’re into at the moment. Also, this is me officially giving you permission to mix wood finishes. Just tell yourself it’s eclectic and own it.

3. Graphic Greenhouse

Photo by Liz Johnson

Ah, the Stendig calendar!, beloved by designers everywhere. I like how it brings a little bit of office utility to a living space. And again, a single big piece can have so much impact. (I could see another oversized print, or even a cool vintage flag or woven wall hanging working just as well.)

Here, it’s softened up by groupings of potted and cut greenery from around the house and yard.

4. Monochromatic Minimal

Photo by Liz Johnson

When in doubt, group a bunch of similarly-colored items together! Obviously I went with whites and creams here (with the negative space of the white wall becoming a matching element, too), but any color would be equally as striking.

Hanging things from the ceiling is a great way to bring in height when the mantel is more low-slung. These paper lanterns were originally from my son’s nursery—I’ve always loved the effect they have when grouped organically, like you’re hanging out in a cloud. This would also be great for a winter mantel that doesn’t scream, “these are my holiday decorations!!!”

Just remember: The thing about an ever-changing mantel… is that it’s ever-changing. It’s okay to put something together, stand back, and think, “Hmm… Is that weird? That might be weird. Is it too asymmetrical/stark/layered? Hmm.” Mantels are often places you walk by several times a day, so you can really live with these vignettes, scoot things around, or wake up the next day with fresh eyes and start over. It’s all part of the process, and it hones your eye, your style, and your trust in your ability to own and experiment with that style.

And if you don’t like it, you can always change it.

This article originally ran last April but it's back to inspire your seasonal spruce up on the way.

How do you style your mantel? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Karin Byars
    Karin Byars
  • Kim B.
    Kim B.
  • Emily
  • Kathleen Shannon
    Kathleen Shannon
  • Caroline Lange
    Caroline Lange
stereotypical oldest child


Karin B. March 30, 2017
I spent some time in Holland and walking through neighborhoods you could see the most magic displays on their wide window sills of art, greenery, and treasures. I did not want to stop and stare so my friends dog went on many slow walks so I could monitor the changes in the displays. Red tulips in a vase only last so long , even in Holland. I could not replicate that at home in Germany because we tear the windows open to let fresh air in twice a day which sweeps everything off the sill and I can't do it here in Georgia because my cat claims that spot for sunbathing and chipmunk watching.
Kim B. March 28, 2017
That Cain's poster caught my eye! Fantastic photograph by your husband capturing the Tulsa skyline - and brilliant idea to enlarge it like that! Nice to see a little piece of home this morning (I live in Paris where there ain't no Cain's if you know what I mean!!)
Emily April 7, 2016
Liz, this makes me want to go rearrange one of my little short craftsman room dividers right now. New ongoing art project: check.
Liz J. April 7, 2016
Yes! So glad it inspired you. I never realized until you (and Kathleen, below) pointed out how well this all could apply to built-ins, windowsills, shelves...
Kathleen S. April 6, 2016
It's all perfect! And perfectly imperfect! I'm so inspired to re-arrange my mantles, bookshelves, and even my window sills.
Liz J. April 7, 2016
Oh my god, I want to write about wabi-sabi now (and my new favorite, hygge)!
Amanda S. April 8, 2016
Caroline L. April 6, 2016
"graphic greenhouse" is my entire aesthetic in two words.
Liz J. April 6, 2016
Right?! That mantel made me realize I need more plants. I want to turn my ENTIRE HOME into a greenhouse now.
B April 6, 2016
It's mantel.
Liz J. April 6, 2016
SO embarrassing. (I just spell-checked "embarrassing," in light of everything.) Thank you. We're on it.