In vintage houses, especially, the mantel begs to be adorned with something festive and creative. Professional holiday decorators find inspiration in the room. No need to start from scratch; it is valid to incorporate elements that sit upon the mantelshelf all year—in fact, they give continuity to the festivities and keep it personal. Then, play off hues and motifs in the wallpaper or rugs. If the room is already “busy” with pattern, focus on greenery only, or on a single minimalist theme. On the other hand, if the room is subdued in quiet colors, take the opportunity to add a pop of red, blue, gold, or silver. For bling, vintage ornaments shine, as do objects in silver and brass.
You’re not restricted to decorating only the shelf. Roping, garlands, beadwork, and strung cranberries may be swagged. If balance requires adding height, include a wreath, a platter, tall topiaries, or candlesticks with tapers. Other than incorporating nature, few rules apply. Even in a sparely decorated home, this time of year calls for a moment of exuberance.
Sandra Sigman, floral designers and owner of Les Fleurs in Andover, Mass., says she uses pushpins, tacks, and hooks to ensure that decorations are stable. Brace any breakables. If yours is an open hearth, keep flammable materials well away from the flames.
Eucalyptus wreath and baubles
In photographer Kindra Clineff’s own ancient house, an upstairs fire-place has a narrow mantel shelf “more like a trim board.” Sandra Sigman added sparkle with small vintage ornaments and sterling-silver candlesticks. Ornamental pots holding wire art frame a bountiful eucalyptus wreath. Blue tapers do a brilliant job of accenting the blue of the leaves.
Winter by the sea
This is another of the five fireplaces in Clineff’s home. Floral designer Sandra Sigman noted remnants of blue paint on the original paneling and built a coastal vignette on a bright-blue mantel recently added. She layered seashells, bleached fern, seeded eucalyptus, chamaecyparis, and smilax. She placed a globe-thistle wreath above: “There’s so much here, we didn’t need a bow.”
Platter and topiary
The 1683 Stanley–Lake House is the home of photographer Kindra Clineff. This shallow Rumford fireplace, in a 1750 addition serving as the dining room, was decorated by Sandra Sigman. An ironstone platter is the centerpiece, with herbal myrtle topiaries adding staggered height. Weighted reindeer lend formality. Greenery is spruce with draping smilax (which stays green and crisp even without water). Pinecones are a wintry touch.
In a Colonial Revival house, metal vases add sparkle and cradle protea and echeveria. Berry-laden juniper sprigs are tucked into the tiny balconies of a vase in the guise of a strawberry planter.
A 17th-century mantel inspired a festoon of fresh citrus and cinnamon sticks tucked into a textural palette of holly and conifer greens. Golden chamaecyparis echoes lemon rinds; pinecones join dried wheels of blood orange. Everything is secured with pushpins to the narrow shelf. Cellophane is laid beneath, to avoid moisture or sap damage. The unadorned grapevine wreath adds height.
For the holidays, Caroline Boniello asked her friend the designer and author Terry John Woods to decorate the mantel in the family room of her 1997 Georgian Revival house. The two share a love for muted beauty. The mantel composition echoes the colors in a Warren Kimble painting, and softens the mood with roping of white pine and a strand of tiny twinkling lights. A pair of handmade carved wooden crows adds balance.
In Portsmouth, N.H., Strawbery Banke’s Curator of Historic Landscapes Erik Wochholz interprets the Victorian era in the Goodwin Mansion, where the parlor has an 1840s black-marble mantel and a gilded mirror. Dried blossoms such as peonies, Montauk daisies, and roses from the summer garden are staged on the mantelshelf for holiday events. Silvery dusty miller and wormwood complement the darker colors.
When artist and interior designer Terry John Woods was renovating his own ca. 1820 parsonage, he put a “mantelshelf” over the kitchen sink. Ironstone dishes and pitchers create a chorus line in his signature white-on-white style. Apple-tree prunings in each pitcher add texture and a silhouette of branches against the pearly wall. Lemons are spots of color.