Make mantel centre of attraction

What you place on a mantelpiece can add real presence to a focal point in the room, writes Kya deLongchamps

IN terms of energy efficiency an open fireplace is a curiosity from the past. Gaping into a room from a wide snaking tunnel to the great outdoors, it directs around 70% of any heat generated by a fire straight up the chimney. The role of a real flame fire as a gathering point and primary comfort still holds our hearts, and we naturally look towards a fireplace, lit or not when entering a room. Closing off the opening in favour of a wood or multi-fuel stove with an insulated flu system is the sane alternative. It’s all about control. Still, in the majority of cases the surrounding fireplace and mantel survive, even if our gaze and the furniture arrangement now praise the television rather than the fireside.


The mantel is in some cases a signature architectural feature topping magnificent pillared supports, and even at worst is a glorified shelf floating over a standard opening.

It’s generally high and quite wide, so give it the status it deserves by adding treasured pieces you can look at for long periods. If the breast is fading into the surrounding wall make it jump out by painting any recess at its sides a darker colour, or paint or paper the breast itself in an energising design.

If the area has no presence at all, think about installing a wider more impressive overmantel to turn an ordinary fireplace into a real feature. Anything from a sleeper to a piece of driftwood or reclaimed mantel will do the job once it’s well supported level and sufficiently protected from the heat below.

You can use any stable object you like to decorate the area. Easy-to-clean surfaces are useful as they won’t harbour every spec of the dust generated by even the tightest stove. It’s worth remembering that tantalising articles may attract children to a high shelf overhanging a hot stove or fire. Always detail a fireplace with an appropriate guard.


Once you’re have the wall colour sorted out, mirrors are a natural choice for mantels. They have not only multiple light but the muscular frames designed for this area have an unapologetic look-at-me line and decorative finish.

Traditional over-mantels stand on the fireplace, secured on the wall by flat mounts, adding to the outline of the surround with a bold vertical thrust, ideal if the ceiling is pressing down in a cramped room.

A stunning period surround set in a high ceiling room can take a majestic overmantel as large as itself, and if you find a period piece leave a ghosted aging glass in place, it really is part of its charm and value.

If the character of the mantel and fireplace surround stand alone, take the mirror up the wall creating some sense of quiet separation. Use a large mirror that reasonably matches the width of the mantle edge to edge, and keep in mind what they reflect as this becomes a virtual ‘picture’. Mirrors like paintings are made to be looked into, so don’t hang it too high.

When you place things before the mirror, their impact is doubled, great for flowers dressing up an unlit fire surround. If you are using a smaller mirror, sconces, lighting or matching framed artwork on either side creates harmony, bringing the eye up from the side elements of the fireplace, and delivering a relationship.


Using symmetry for the hanging pieces, you can replace the mirror with a large piece of artwork in either a picture, wall hung textile or a shallow piece of sculpture. Again, balance the larger piece in the middle on either side, and edge to edge with the mantle below with loosely similar sizes and styles of hanging pieces for visual harmony.

Odd numbers, in this case three (the centrepiece is one and the two flanking making up three) or an implied group of three made up of smaller pieces, works best. We’ll see when adding, freestanding items on the shelf, that odd numbers are a favourite that generally satisfy the eye when placing ornaments.

You don’t have to hang the centre piece of artwork and can rest it casually on the mantelshelf, or even stack a couple of varying size of pictures or mirror on each other, allowing each to be sufficiently seen.

Ensure any unsecured frames are not likely to be tipped forward on a slender surface. When we say ‘artwork’, keep in mind that art is what you value and want to look at. A digital blow up of your child’s first experiment with crayons at Montessori might be just the witty piece you need. Framed up the most humble images can be rendered beautiful.


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