Surface Tension. That’s what I’ve started calling the recurring row in our house whereby I compulsively tidy away anything practical (read: unattractive) that is left out on a visible surface, while simultaneously allowing vintage books, copious plants, propped-up prints and all manner of miscellaneous knick-knacks occupy valuable surface real estate.
C finds it baffling that keys, wallets and important papers are whisked away out of sight with a passive-aggressive sigh, while arguably useless items are left out.
In fact, more than left out – I incessantly reposition them. Swapping a stack of books here for a single magazine there, rotating prints between rooms and pretentiously repositioning the tendrils on a string of pearls. My name is Maddy, and I’m a serial faffer.
And because I can hardly pass a sideboard without wondering whether it’s missing a rustic wooden chopping board leant ever-so-casually against the wall (“Potts, where’s the chopping board gone??”), I consider myself qualified to put together some tips on styling my favourite sort of surface – a mantlepiece.
So if you’ve ever wondered how to dress a mantle like a stylist, here are nine simple steps that break down the magic formula for balance, proportion, rhythm and shape.
1. Find your mantlepiece (or shelf)
Ours was renovated by hand after we found it at the bottom of our garden. But this isn’t a prerequisite, luckily. Make sure your surface is clean, clear, level and, importantly, stable!
2. Hang an anchor
3. Add some weight
‘Ground’ your shelf with a stocky piece on the left hand side. This should cover around a third of the width, and be smaller than your anchor. A framed print is the obvious choice, but a statement vase or sculpture would be beautiful too.
4. Balance that weight
Now you need some weight on the other side. If you’re into symmetry, go for a matching print (here are some ideas if you like botanicals, minimalism, vintage or modern). I prefer asymmetry (just as well in the house that’s never met a 90-degree angle or a parallel line!) so I like to go with a different silhouette.
Bonus: the golden triangle
Now, between your lovely flat mantle, your anchor and your weight on the left and right, you should have created a beautiful triangle. The human eye loves patterns and geometry, so this super simple rule of starting with a triangle will stop you going far wrong every time you style a mantle or shelf.
5. Build some structure
Looking a little bare? Now we need to block out some of that space. The easiest mistake to make when styling is to overcrowd visually.
But this isn’t about the actual number of items – it’s about the number of competing colours, textures and types of object. By the time we’ve finished, my whole mantle will be covered, but because I’m using some common colours (olive green, sand, black) and textures (greenery, paper), it stays visually pleasing and not overwhelming.
That’s why, for your ‘blocking’ items, you want something that isn’t busy or detailed. Stacks of books work as below, but you could also choose plain ceramics, baskets or ornaments.
6. Vary one element
For blocking out structure, the simpler the better – stacked books, magazine spines, votive candles or plain matching pots will ease the eye while filling space.
For just enough contrast, I’ve used stacked and upright books. Because the colour and texture is the same, the change in position is just enough contrast.
Another example of varying a single factor could be a trio of scented candles with slightly different colours (but keep a consistent palette), or a collection of matching ceramics of different heights.
7. Fill the spaces
Now start to add your filler pieces. These should be smaller than your anchor, your weight and your structural blocks. Now, this is ‘filler’ in terms of the skyline of your mantle – not because they’re unimportant!
In fact, they’re really important to break up boring lines, and are a great way to display some of those smaller curios you pick up (or inherit) along the way. On this same mantle, I’ve used a vintage bronze bulldog and a tiny ceramic owl figure before!
For this particular styling, I’m sticking to botanicals.
8. Break the horizontal
It’s easy for shelves and mantles to get very linear. To soften some of those lines, think about breaking the horizontal. This means have some items that fall below the line of your shelf Trailing plants are ideal for this – or if you don’t want the hassle of keeping something alive, you could tie bundles of dried herbs and hang them at the edge (bonus: they’ll make the room smell good), or trail some wooden beads over your mantle.
9. Make your mirror work harder
If you’ve gone for a mirror as your anchor, you can add to your mantle by considering what will sit in the mirror’s reflection. A statement light fitting or glimpse of artwork on the opposite wall? A row of perfectly-styled hooks? A doorway to your impeccable landing?
There we have it! A handful of ‘rules’ to help structure the styling of a mantle or shelf.
And to prove the system works, here’s the mantlepiece when I updated it for autumn using all the same rules…
If you try your own after reading this, I’d love to see – tag me on Instagram or Pinterest @this1870house