Not only are fireplaces the centerpiece of many of our fall and winter memories, but they’re also the centerpieces of our living spaces. Whether your fireplace boasts a dramatic stone mantel or a modest brick surround, it’s likely the room’s focal point. That’s why it’s one of the most impactful design updates you can make! For inspiration, we tapped several interior design experts from around the South — check out these 10 tips they’re keeping in mind for styling fireplaces and mantels this season.
Let the architecture inspire the mantel.
Stunning marble mantels with ornate carvings look fabulous in a century-old Victorian, just as a grand stone hearth suits a soaring mountain house. And that’s because the style fits the home’s aesthetic. Stephanie Wallace of Stephanie Wallace & Associates, a Nashville-based design firm, explains, “A fireplace should be architecturally correct for the house it is in — my favorite material is the one that fits the house.”
“This is the original fireplace from 1930 when the house was built,” says Stephanie, noting that it works because it feels appropriate for the home. “I replaced the painted wood mantel with a live edge piece of walnut, which seemed more authentic. The antique horse is something unexpected.”
Consider built-in storage — but not the kind you think.
No, we’re not talking built-in bookshelves here.
Fireplaces are meant to be used, which means having lots of firewood on hand throughout the winter. While you could run outside to the wood pile whenever you need to throw a few more logs on, building wood storage directly into the hearth makes it much more manageable. It’s also an organization fanatic’s dream to see these neatly sorted compartments.
Lean into the ‘old-world’ feel of a fireplace.
Historic interiors are having a moment, and this update on a 1960s fireplace creates a distinctly old-world feel. “This bedroom fireplace was painted brick with a small ledge. I stuccoed the wall and created a narrow mantel by adding a piece of wood,” explains Stephanie. A vintage dog painting, effortlessly set against the mantel, furthers the mysterious nostalgia.
Anna Still, co-owner of Birmingham-based Still Johnson Interiors, adds, “We currently love more traditional mantel shapes. If you are renovating, consider keeping the original mantel. In a new build, think about selecting a new mantel that mimics historical shapes.”
Avoid over-decorating …
Gone are the days of layering candles, sculptures, and objets d’art on your mantel. Stephanie says, “I do not like a mantel that is overly busy with a painting, candles, and objects. It gets too fussy, distracting, and dated. Simple or unexpected is the way to go.”
“For more modern spaces, clean-lined mantels that are simple in design allow art to be the showstopper,” explains Sara Ray, ASID, founder of Sara Ray Interior Design, a Nashville-based design firm. In the living room pictured below, a singular piece of art echoes the colors on the sofa.
… unless it’s for the holidays!
You can throw those minimalism rules out the window as soon as the holiday music starts to play. Stephanie is on team “embrace-the-overabundance” when it comes to decorating in December. “All bets are off when it comes to holiday decor. Garland is a must; I love vintage Santas or glass trees filling up the mantel,” says Stephanie. She then layers in votives for an even cozier, warmer effect.
Bring the outdoors in.
Matilda Reuter Engle, proprietor at Middleburg Hospitality in Middleburg, VA, loves to see a holiday mantel that connects to seasonality, especially when it comes to foliage native to the region. “Bringing the outdoors in not only adds a touch of organic beauty to our homes but also fosters a profound connection to the environment, especially during those winter months when outdoor gardening takes a back seat,” explains Matilda. This organic look gives the mantel a sense of time and place.
Matilda adds, “A key principle guiding my design philosophy is the act of foraging. These elements ground the decor in authenticity, capturing the season’s true spirit and creating a cohesive, layered design that feels as though it was crafted specifically for this moment in time.”
Match the mantel to the walls …
“For a crisp, updated look, paint the mantel the same color as the walls, but in a satin or semi-gloss finish,” says Anna Still. In this outdoor fireplace, the white brick creates a continuous line throughout the structure, letting the fireplace become part of the landscape. The result is a space that feels lighter, brighter, and airier.
… or go with a stark contrast
If you’d prefer your fireplace to stand out rather than become part of a cohesive wall landscape, try painting it in a contrasting hue to the wall. In this room, black offers a bold, stately appearance against an otherwise soft, neutral space. It looks like an intentional, well-thought-out design element rather than appearing as if it doesn’t fit in with the palette.
Flank the fireplace with furniture.
You’re probably used to seeing built-ins on either side of a fireplace, but Sara Ray likes to shake up the status quo by using furniture instead. “For something unexpected, consider using two matching furniture pieces instead of built-in bookcases,” she says. “For tall fireplaces constructed of heavy materials, like stone, choose large-scale furniture to keep the space visually balanced.”
The result is a warmer, more collected look — plus plenty of seating so you and your guests can enjoy the fireplace.
Update your fireplace from wood to gas.
If you’re looking for an easier way to use your fireplace, converting it to gas will allow you to flip on “cozy” with just a switch. “The conversion to gas-burning coal sets allowed for the preservation of the classic aesthetic and charm of the original fireplaces while also ensuring safety and compliance with modern standards,” says Matilda Reuter Engle. She notes that gas fireplaces are more convenient, produce fewer emissions and pollutants, eliminate the risk of flying sparks and chimney fires, and can still aesthetically resemble coal or wood fires.
The initial cost to switch a fireplace to gas is expensive, but the safety and environmental concerns could make it worth the splurge.
Want to tap into more interior design trends? Find inspiration in our Interior Design Trends section.