Ohhhhh, mantels. How can a plank of wood be so troublesome to decorate? Too much, not enough, not right — or not even your style are the common complaints we hear. We asked a handful of designers around town for their best advice when it comes to decorating your mantel for the holidays. Designers Lee W. Robinson of The Lee W. Robinson Company, Ben Palmer-Ball of Digs Home & Garden, Nancy Rankin of Blooms by Essential Details and Robin Cole of Robin’s Nest Interiors all offered their expert opinions on this matter.
Their advice had some common themes: Symmetry, greenery, pine cones, fruit, lighting, decoration and texture. Let’s break them down and get the how-tos on each!
Decorating Your Mantel: Holiday Edition
Nancy Rankin from Blooms by Essential Details explained to us that there are two camps of mantel decorators: the people who want a symmetrical mantel, with both sides completely matching, and the asymmetrical people, who have both sides different. Either way, there needs to be an anchor piece in the middle of the mantel in the way of a mirror, wreath, piece of art or large centerpiece. For the sides of the mantel, you can use topiaries on both sides for the symmetrical camp or two different objects or groupings of objects on either end for those who prefer asymmetry. Take a look at these beautiful examples of each:
Robin Cole from Robin’s Nest Interiors loves greenery on a mantel, but she advises that it needs to be substantial. She uses a mixed garland of cedar and pine. Lee Robinson uses natural greenery as well, usually cutting magnolia and holly from his backyard to place on the mantel. Ben Palmer-Ball of Digs says that “nothing beats a magnolia garland or some loose fir boughs (or both) draped along the top of the mantel with some branches or stems dripping over the edge.” He does bring up a good point when decorating with greenery, though, and that is to take care that it is not too close to your hearth, so it doesn’t catch on fire. All the designers we asked said they used a mix of artificial and fresh greenery and that it was a matter of personal taste, similar to Christmas tree selection.
With fresh-cut greenery, it is important to spritz it with water periodically to keep it fresh. When magnolia starts to dry out and turn brown, it “looks just as pretty dry as it did fresh,” according to Nancy Rankin at Blooms.
All the designers we asked mentioned pine cones as part of their mantel decor. There was an affinity for the frosted pine cones from Ben Palmer-Ball and Nancy Rankin, who also recommended the oversized huge pine cones that really make a statement and work for any holiday from Halloween through New Year’s. Lee Robinson has natural pine cones for the Thanksgiving holidays, and then spray paints them metallic for Christmas and winter. (See our article about that here.) Any way you choose, make pine cones a part of your holiday decor repertoire. If you don’t have pine cones lying around your yard, they sell them at all craft stores.
Decorating with fruit (and even vegetables) is also known as della Robbia style and harkens back to Colonial Williamsburg days, when wreaths and decor centered around all of nature’s bounty and beauty. Fruit, whether artificial or fresh, is a wonderful addition to your mantel. Lee Robinson uses della Robbia style on his mantels, centerpieces and wreaths for Christmas, opting for apples, pineapples, lemons and limes for their fragrance and color. Ben Palmer-Ball also loves the “naturalistic” look. He loves “the idea of inserting dried or artificial fruit, say oranges with decorative cloves, bright green apples or pears, and maybe a couple of pomegranates.”
The designers were mixed on lighting. Some love lighting their mantels, such as Robin Cole, who says, “Your garland should be lit to create a warm atmosphere. If you don’t have a plug, there are battery-operated strands that work great for these areas. You can add more lighting with candles in all shapes and sizes. You can mix candlesticks with hurricanes for an interesting look.” For a simple source of light, Ben Palmer-Ball places high candelabra on either end of his mantel.
Some designers love adding ornaments as a way of glitzing up their mantels, especially to add an element of shine or even another texture to them. Nancy Rankin loves to use red mercury glass on her mantels, while Ben Palmer-Ball and Lee Robinson both like feathers, Ben opting for feathered bird ornaments, while Lee adds feather plumes in with his greenery.
After reading about all the different elements of mantel decor, it’s important to incorporate different layers of texture throughout your mantel. You can even be as specific as using different textures for different greenery, such as the large magnolia leaves mixing with the rough pine and the delicate boxwood. Also, fresh flowers, such as amaryllis and paper whites, twigs, branches and berries, are another way to have a naturalistic mantel with a lot of different visual points and textural elements. Add fruit for color and a variety of textures, ranging from soft to shiny to scaly. Add ribbon for adornment, and ornaments and glass to amp up the shine. Lastly, add lighting if you want to give the entire place a glow. As Robin Cole says, “The best rule of thumb? You can never layer too much on your mantel!”
Does the task seem so daunting now? While I am usually the first one to run away from a decorating job, this breakdown of how to make the mantel festive suddenly seems easier to me. Here are some final words of advice from all these great designers.
Nancy Rankin claims this is the best Christmas decor tip ever, and it’s from her mother: Take pictures of your house decorated every year, and keep those pictures in a binder. Then each new season, take out the binder and use it as a blueprint for your decorating. Each year, she tweaks the design, but follows the layout from years past, thus diminishing lots of stress.
Invest in good craft supplies.
Lee Robinson suggests that you invest in good craft supplies, such as strong shears, floral wire, a good glue gun, wire ribbon and pipe cleaners. And keep them organized in one place to avoid multiple trips to the craft store during your decorating process.
Temporarily ditch your regular art.
Ben Palmer-Ball states, “If you have artwork over the mantel, you might stash it away or find a new location for it during the holiday season, replacing it with a large-scaled wreath as a festive focal point — a wreath doesn’t have to be reserved for your front door.”
Once we learn how to do this decorating job, the rest of the house will be easy, right?