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A circular mirror, antique books and candlesticks give any mantel an elegant look. (Credit: Cindy Schmidt)
A circular mirror, antique books and candlesticks give any mantel an elegant look. (Credit: Cindy Schmidt)

Ah, the fireplace mantel: It’s the focal point of any room. But what happens when you don’t have the slightest idea how to decorate it?

Befuddled, we asked North Fork interior designers and decorators to share their tips about creating a space you can be proud of. 

Keep it simple.

If you’re stumped about how to adorn your mantel, a large painting or mirror is a great starting point, says Martha Zukosky, owner of the interior design firm An Eye For It in Baiting Hollow.

“When a client doesn’t have decorative items to showcase their personality, I usually purchase a good mirror to put above the fireplace,” she says. “That way, you can decorate in front of the mirror and around it. It becomes part of the wall.”

Decorating a mantel can be daunting, says Cindy Schmidt, owner of Rabbit Run in East Marion, but it doesn’t have to be.

“Think of it as a way to show off your design preference, your personality or how you relate to the area you live in,” she says. “A container of tall beach grass or large shells can be paired with a driftwood-framed picture or mirror for a North Fork feel.”

Infuse your mantel with holiday spirit by adding seasonal touches like holly and Christmas stockings. (Credit: Cindy Schmidt)
Infuse your mantel with holiday spirit by adding seasonal touches like holly and Christmas stockings. (Credit: Cindy Schmidt)

Resist the urge to cram all your knickknacks above the fireplace.

“Over-decorating your mantel is like wearing costume jewelry with a beautifully tailored suit,” Ms. Zukosky says. “You don’t want that.”

“Simple is always better,” agrees Lori Guyer, owner of White Flower Farmhouse in downtown Southold.

Instead of going over the top with figurines, Ms. Schmidt says, place objects of various shapes on the mantel to add visual interest.

“Fireplaces and mantels tend to be square and linear, so mix it up with a few curved or round items, like a large clock or round mirror,” she says.

Embrace asymmetry.

“Some of the most interesting displays occur when one item makes an impact and the items coupled with it are off-center,” Ms. Schmidt says. She suggests placing books, candlesticks, sconces, vases, topiaries or family heirlooms beside a mirror or framed photos.

And keep items staggered, Ms. Zukosky cautions. “Don’t line things up in a row,” she says. “You don’t want everything lined up like little apothecary jars in a pharmacy.”

Switch things up now and again.

There’s no reason your mantel can’t change along with the seasons, says Ms. Zukosky, who will celebrate this month’s arrival of spring in her own home by arranging a collection of birds’ nests, decorative eggs and antique books about Long Island birds above the fireplace.

“I never do the same thing every year,” she says.

But there’s no need to stop there, Ms. Schmidt says.

“Use your mantel as a way to celebrate an event, like an Oscars party,” she suggests.

A mantel that incorporates both simplicity and asymmetry with potted topiaries and a large rectangular mirror. (Credit: Lori Guyer)
A mantel that incorporates both simplicity and asymmetry with potted topiaries and a large rectangular mirror. (Credit: Lori Guyer)

No fireplace? No problem.

“Mantels aren’t just for over a fireplace,” Ms. Schmidt says.

You can fashion one in the form of a creative display shelf over your bed, she says, or hang a shelf above a sink or toilet to instantly add extra storage space to a bathroom.

Another option, Ms. Guyer says, is to purchase an antique fireplace mantel from a salvage shop and place a chalkboard behind it.

“You can use it as a headboard, to add architectural interest or as a decoration,” she says.

Try not to overthink it.

Your mantel is a relatively easy way to make a personal and unique statement about your home and your tastes, Ms. Schmidt says. If you have a good time decorating it, you’ll enjoy looking at and living with it every day.

“Mantels are fun and intimidating,” Ms. Zukosky says. “But you will know when it feels right. Then you can just sit back and enjoy it.”

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