How to Style a Mantel (or shelf or table) Like a Boss

First of all I’m just gonna get this out of the way and say that all photos and designs in this post are my own. I’m too lazy to put a photo credit under every picture, especially when I took them all myself. Disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer and I have an old iphone 6, so feel free to judge the quality of the photos, but I did the my best. One day I’ll invest in a fancy-pants camera, but for now, my humble iphone will have to do. 🙂

Today I want to talk about styling. Styling is great, because you can change the whole vibe of a room without spending a dime. It’s basically rearranging the stuff you already have into new, pleasing configurations. I am constantly re-styling my apartment because it feeds my design appetite without hurting my bank account. But sometimes it can be really tricky to turn my stuff into an instagramable vignette and it feels like the designers I follow must be doing some sort of secret witchcraft magic to get such eye-pleasing shelfies. Not true! There are actually a few tricks that can make styling a shelf or mantel much easier and I’m going to break them all down in this post.

Here is what we’re working with (my living room):

Now I’ll share my three easy-peasy styling hacks using various lewks on my mantel as examples. Get ready to slay the #shelfie game!

Trick #1: The Rule of Three

This isn’t really a big secret and you may have heard this before applied to other contexts, but stuff just looks better in odd-numbered groups. Three things grouped on a shelf looks more pleasing to the eye than two or four. The same goes for five. Basically- odd numbers are your friend. Here’s my mantel with a grouping of three plants:

And see how the group of three on the right hand side looks better than the pair of two on the left?:

Here’s another grouping of three:

Trick #2: Vertical + Horizontal + Sculptural aka The Rule of 3 a la Emily Henderson

Interior designer and stylist Emily Henderson discusses the rule of three in her book Styled (which is GREAT btw) and she adds her own very helpful twist. She suggests that when picking your three items, you select:

  • Something vertical
  • Something horizontal
  • Something sculptural to tie the two together

This is great advice and results in a grouping that feels varied yet pulled together. Henderson explains that when items are too similar in shape and size it creates visual chaos because the items compete with one another instead of working together to create a cohesive vignette or visual story.

Here’s my attempt at applying this trick:

The ginger jar is my something vertical, the cigar boxes are my something horizontal, and the antler is my something sculptural to tie the to together. Notice that I am counting two cigar boxes as one object here; that’s because these rules are meant to be guidelines but there is lots of room for creative interpretation and you shouldn’t feel constrained by them. When I’m designing, I also go with my gut!

Here’s another example where I used this vertical/horizontal/sculptural trick:

Alright- on to trick number three!

Trick #3: Layer it up, bb!

You’ve probably encountered the layering trick in fashion, but you might not know that it works just as well in interiors. Have you ever spent forever trying to put together the perfect outfit that *looks* like you just threw it on? That whole ‘cool without trying’ thing is something that the best fashionistas (and fashion doods) and interior designers have in common. Here’s the secret tho- they are totally trying. But they have achieved that effortless appearance by using layers to create a collected look, so it seems like it wasn’t all put together at once. It seems like that last piece was just thrown on, when it fact it was probably carefully curated. OK so in practical terms what does layering mean when applied to decor? It means overlapping frames, putting some items toward the front of the shelf and others farther to the back, stacking and leaning so it all looks more casual and like it isn’t trying so hard.

You might have noticed that I did not layer my plants in the shot I shared earlier and as a result this looked feels contrived and not quite right. The only thing that sort of saves it is that I had different heights happening which breaks it up visually and keeps it from being to chaotic:

Here are a few examples where I was more successful because I employed the layering trick:

OK before I go- a BONUS TIP! Let’s say you have a mantel (or shelf) and you just don’t have anything you’re really loving at the moment to put on it, or you have a couple little things but it looks totally empty and dumb and you don’t have the time/money/energy to worry about filling it right now. The answer is to draw the eye away from the empty shelf by creating another point of visual interest below it. How, you might ask? By adding a tassel garland! These are so easy to make; I really need to get it together and write a how-to post about it already, but in the meantime I’m sure youtube would love to teach you. Here’s my mantel gussied up with a tassel garland:

And if the room seems to have magically changed colors, don’t worry you aren’t going crazy. These pictures are from this past winter before I painted it white. And this tassel is now hanging from the shelf above my bed. It’s cleverly drawing the eye down to distract from the fact that the shelf is hung too high. At least that’s my opinion. The height of the shelf was cause for great debate in my household earlier this year and the compromise we settled on was to not move the shelf but to add the tassel so that the giant space between the shelf and the bed didn’t bother me every time I walked into the room. Sometimes great design ideas are born from design dilemmas! Here’s the tassel in its current home:

OK so to recap:

  1. The Rule of Three
  2. Something vertical + something horizontal + something sculptural
  3. Layers are your friend

And now, because I believe in showing how the sausage is made, here are the outtakes of the book lewk that just didn’t work as well as the others in my opinion. Can you tell which tricks I was ignoring when I put this together?

Alright I hope this inspired you to live your best shelfie life and I would love to hear which mantel you liked best! Comment to let me know 🙂


  1. This is fantastic!! I love how all the shots are your own and you’re really in there trying out all the different techniques. I think that brings a real human touch to it all. I will comment for real on the post, but just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed it! Especially helpful to see each technique on the same mantel—it’s like doing a science experiment and having the “control” part. Way to go!!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I think mantles and shelves are very difficult to get just right. I found a good balance on mine 2-years ago and have been loathe to change it every since! You have given me courage to try something different.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s