We think the rule for decorating the mantel is ... there are no rules. Just a few guidelines and general structures. Otherwise, the mantel is the perfect spot in your home to express your personality and showcase the unique things in your collection.
Before you begin, clear off your mantel to give yourself a clean slate to work with. Then envision a general color palette. You can choose to accent what's already happening in your room by leaning into your existing color palette or by opposing it. For example, a collection of terra cotta vessels is a beautiful accent in a blue room. If your room is all white, a collection of deep brown objects on your mantel is très chic.
Once you decide on your color palette, choose a structure. There are a few general structures you can follow to guide you.
To a stylist, a symmetrical arrangement is not so much about matching two sides of a vignette as it is about balancing the two sides. In the image above, you'll notice that the two halves of the mantle have different objects, but each cluster is roughly the same size. That creates a visual balance that's more interesting than a pair of urns or a pair of candlesticks. If you want to create a more traditional form of symmetry, add a large piece of art or a mirror in the center to anchor your clusters.
Choose a focal point such as a painting or a mirror. Accent it with one carefully chosen decorative piece (think urn with branches or a very special candlestick.) Then stop. When the items are carefully selected, two pretty pieces are enough.
It's a classic stylist trick to use one thing in multiples to make an impact. Choose something you love and have in abundance. Pillar candles, vintage stoneware pieces, brass candlesticks. Add as many of the item as you can stand. You cannot overdo it.
The mantle is the perfect place to display a collection of small to medium-sized objects and art. And a freeform arrangement gives the mantel the look of having been edited and added to over time. To give a freeform arrangement the best impact, start with a color palette:
warm neutrals as in the image above allows you to add ceramics, brass, paper, beeswax
shades of green can include ceramics, glass, plants, flowers
all white can include china, clear glass, french books, mercury glass
Once you commit to a color palette, you'll find it's easy to find things about the house to add to your arrangement.
Then start collecting things from around the house that fit your vision. You may find you need to fill in a few blanks, but we always recommend starting with what you have. Then arrange your mantel according to the structure you chose. Once you think you have it, use the classic stylist trick of photographing your work. Study the photo for blank spots, or things that look out of place, too small or too large. Make your adjustments et voila! Finis.