Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Your Fireplace Mantle Is A Little Theater

Family Room Mantle - Winter 2013
There's a two-sided fireplace in our house, with one side in the great room and the other in the family room adjoining the kitchen. I think of them as theatrical opportunities, little stages to celebrate each season and add personality by rotating a changing group of accessories, old and new, fine and funky. Some things are permanent, and some come back at the appropriate time each year, like the stockings that hang at Christmas, but the displays are never exactly the same, and for me, that's part of the fun. I don't strive for design perfection, I care more about associations with people and places that have meaning to us, and things Roger and I simply enjoy.

The family room is a homey space, and the things I place on this side are in casual, asymmetrical arrangements, like the one you see here. There are copper pieces that came from the home of my beloved Uncle Bob and Aunt Joanne, including one that I use as a container for some black pussy willows, two Fitz and Floyd chickens, a picture of a Tiffany window that I had framed years ago and some ivy trailing from a ceramic container. No two items are the same, so I used repetition of color and materials, a variety of shapes and heights, plus a touch of green, to make it look reasonably cohesive, and to coordinate it with the rest of the family room.  For example, the blue mat in the picture is the same blue as in the area rug, and there are other copper pieces and Fitz and Floyd creatures nearby.

On the living room side, it's a different story. The space above the mantle has three permanent occupants, a papier mache carnival mask of the sun and the moon that was a present from Roger the year we happened to be in Venice on my birthday, and two cement sconces filled with silk greenery. The basic arrangement is balanced, making the look more formal. All I do is add a few seasonal items to the sconces, as you see below: 

Great Room Mantle - Autumn 2012

Great Room Mantle - Winter/Holiday 2012

Even though the design on this side is more formal, tweaking the contents of the sconces with the seasons keeps it from looking static, and takes only about ten minutes.

How to Give Your Fireplace Mantle A New Look

If you'd like to update the look of your mantle, here's how to go about it: 
  • Decide what approach suits you and the room. If you want a formal, traditional look, consider a symmetrical arrangement with one or more pairs of items, such lamps or candlesticks, placed on either side of a large focal piece, as I did in the great room. If you like informality, create an asymmetrical design, as in the family room. You can still use a pair of items, just don't put them on either side in a mirror image, and use an odd number of things in total.
  • Consider what, if anything, will hang above the mantle. Think beyond the expected large mirror or painting. I like maximum flexibility in the family room, so I keep the space open and lean a mirror, tray, plate or painting against the wall, instead of hanging it.  This allows me to use objects in a variety of heights, and easily change them.
  • Coordinate the mantle with the rest of the room. It's a good place to repeat color used in furniture or other accent pieces, or to use something from a collection featured elsewhere in the room.
  • Use a combination of materials, including metals, glass, ceramics, art, etc. to make the display more lively and interesting. Vary size, height, texture. 
  • Include one or more types of organic materials. Place a trailing plant to spill over the edge of the mantle (one of my favorite things to do), and also use something upright, like flowers or branches.  I also use dried grasses sprayed with metallic paint, which makes them last forever. 
  • Layer and overlap objects.
  • Use "lifts and levels", a merchandising term that refers to placing props in a display to create areas of different heights that add interest and create a focal point. You can use a small stack of books, for example, to do the same thing when your design needs height, or you want a smaller object to be more prominent. 
  • Consider scale. Don't use things that are too large or too small for the space. If you want to display smaller items, cluster them so they read as a single, larger object. Placing them in front of a larger object such as a plate helps with the illusion, and is a way to use layering to solve a design problem.
  • Repeat color, materials, shapes, etc to create rhythm and build a theme.
  • Use contrasting color, materials, shapes, etc. to make individual pieces stand out.  
  • Use a variety of textures, rough, smooth, shiny, matte.
  • Experiment, but practice a little restraint. A few well-chosen things are preferable to a crowd. When you're shopping in your home or in a store, don't be limited by the original, perhaps utilitarian use of the item. Re-purpose it as decoration. There are no horses in our house, but next to the family room mantle hangs a brass and copper currying comb from England, another gift from Uncle Bob and Aunt Joanne.
  • Stand back and check the composition of your design, from time to time. You can't tell how well you've done unless you look at the mantle from a distance. I like to leave the room and do something else for a while so that I have some objectivity when I look at the mantle again. 
Start thinking of your fireplace mantle as a little stage, and see what productions you can create. Have fun with the process and change the display with the season to keep it lively and interesting.

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