How to style your giant mantel

Chicago homes are often defined by built-ins – bookcases, hutches and sideboards carefully crafted out of wood and tucked into vintage apartments and condo spaces, bungalows and even new construction homes for sale. The conundrum is how to style your mantel and still maintain storage space, especially during the holiday season.

We asked the experts, home stagers and stylists Stephanie Mandrell and Erin Szott of Style & Edit, to guide us through a mantel makeover.

Here are their simple tips to help you style your mantel from barren to breathtaking, from packed-full to high-design.

Kill the clutter

Just because you have an eight-foot stretch of empty space does not mean you should cover every inch with photo frames, faux flowers and a thousand dust-collector tchotchkes.

“When it comes to style, less is always more,” Mandrell advises. “Whether we are talking about your closet, wardrobe, or you home, you never want it (or yourself!) to look or feel cluttered.”

To start getting serious about your mantel’s style, take everything off, clean it and then edit it down only to the pieces you love most.

Style by the numbers

“Our motto is 1, 3, 5,” Mandrell says. “Working with odd numbers creates balance and sense of space.”

Group items together or create a standout centerpiece made up of odd-numbered items. Next, add dimension with 3-D works of art, vases, candles or antiques.

Shop in your own home

Mandrell and Szott overhaul clients’ wardrobe by shopping in their closets, just like they would a luxury boutique.

They apply the same strategy to styling homes before they go on the market.

Elevate the treasures you’ve been hiding away on shelves or in storage, including sculptures, mirrors, framed photos or art, and even stacks of oversized books.

Add an on-trend (or delightfully old) focal piece

If you want to buy something new to make your mantel really shine, Mandrell and Szott advise stepping outside your style comfort zone – just enough – and pairing vintage with modern, and new items with ones you have.

“Mid-century modern is a popular trend right now, which means you can find a great starburst pretty much anywhere,” Mandrell said. “That said, we love to mix old with new and recommend hitting up a local antique shop (or two!) for a great sculpture, book ends, or vase that speak directly to your own personal style.”

Go green

“Add greenery. A great succulent or houseplant provides balance and energy, especially if you are in tune with Feng Shui, as it calms the fire energy (of a fireplace),” said Mandrell.

Drape your mantel with plants you have or repot together into larger vessels that fit the size of your space.

Make your own holiday style rules

“You don’t have to stick to traditional holiday colors,” Szott added. “Mix it up with a color scheme that you love to give a fresh look to a holiday mantel.”

The stylists love vintage bottlebrush trees on a mantelpiece at the holidays. Combine those with a big antler, perhaps spray-painted green or red, and you’ve pretty much nailed it.

Finally, forget perfection!

All those designers you see on television have had years of practice on hundreds of homes, so don’t expect to get it exactly right on the first try just because you watch their shows every night.

“Trial and error is a part of the design process, so don’t get frustrated if you need a few takes before getting it right,” said Mandrell.

“We think one of the biggest mistakes people make is trying too hard by overdoing it. Always remember, less is more, even on a larger mantel. Allow the space to breathe and remember to breathe yourself. The process should be fun and the final product should make you happy.”

Written by Jessica Ashley
Jessica Ashley is a writer, coach and the voice of Single Mom Nation and its sister podcast. She wears inappropriately high heels to the playground, is mom to a teenager and a threenager and lives with her chef boyfriend on the north side of Chicago.