Boost Your Mantel Decorating Confidence with Denise McGaha’s Tips

Luxury living room with Christmas tree and black mantel
Photography by Stephen Karlisch

Interior designer Denise McGaha appeared in our latest holiday issue. And now you get a chance to read all her best tips on creating an edited and beautiful mantel in this exclusive Q&A. Keep reading for her insight, and be inspired to create a stunning display in your own home!

SH: Many feel trepidation when attempting to decorate a mantel. How would you boost a person’s confidence to assure them that they can do it?

DM: You’ve got this! It’s really nothing to stress over. Remember that it’s all about layers. Start with your anchors and then fill in around them. It is meant to be fun, and it can be if you just loosen up and keep those in mind. Then just jump in, and have a good time!

SH: What is the first thing you take into consideration when decorating a mantel?

DM: What you first want to consider is whether you want to employ symmetry or asymmetry in designing your mantel décor. Then stay consistent with that, and that will keep you in line with a beautifully executed mantel.

Moody living room with neutral mantel
Photography by Stephen Karlisch

SH: How do you choose a theme?

DM: I start with color. If I am using real greenery, then I use colors that are like nature to complement the base of color that they bring. Right now, I am loving chartreuse, goldenrod, and cream in particular.

SH: What do you think gives a mantel that wow factor?

DM: Scale. It is really important, and I love mixing tall vases or candlesticks along with draping greenery on the top and cascading down the sides of the mantel.

black marble mantel
Photography by Stephen Karlisch

SH: What do you suggest people should shy away from using too much of?

DM: Try to refrain from using too many ornaments and flashing lights on the mantel. They feel forced. I prefer to leave them on the tree and allow the mantel to highlight a crackling fire and continue the color scheme of the holiday décor in the room with ribbon or natural accents. The focus should be on the fire, not the mantel.

SH: What is your trick in getting things to stay in place on the mantel?

DM: I love using command hooks to hold stockings in place, as well as to hook the garland. Heavy candlesticks or vases can also act as a base to tuck in garlands or berries on the edges of the mantel.

SH: How long should a display stay up for?

DM: I plan my decorating on the entertaining calendar. But let’s be realistic…holiday décor in February is confusing. I usually decorate my mantel several times during the holiday if I’m using fresh greens. They come down by the week after New Year’s Day. Some years, I have taken decorations down the day after Christmas…and other years I have kept them up until January. What’s important is that decorating or un-decorating shouldn’t take up time that could otherwise be spent with family and friends celebrating the holidays.

SH: What are your thoughts on topiaries?

DM: I adore topiaries. I love using them in holiday displays. They create height and add texture to mantels, tables, and other areas where I am decorating.

contemporary living room with mantel
Photography by Dan Piassick

SH: Which greens do you prefer to work with?

DM: I love to work with fresh cedar, magnolia, and even pine. I also like to mix ilex berries in with my greens. They can really transform the overall look. I especially love the tangerine-colored varieties.

SH: How do you feel about lights vs. candles on a mantel?

DM: I always use candles to mimic the color tones of a fire. Mixing bright electric lights with the color tones of a fire just doesn’t work. It is so much more pleasing to the eye to use natural vs. artificial light.

SH: What is a mistake that you feel people tend to make when decorating their mantel for the holidays?

DM: When people keep everything at the same height. It is too flat. There really should be varying heights of greenery and accessories to keep things interesting.

Christmas mantel close up
Photography by Dan Piassick

SH: What do you suggest to people who have limited resources in decorating a beautiful mantel?

DM: All you really need to do is just gather beautiful greenery or branches and keep it simple. It only takes a bit of fresh greenery to make a big difference.

SH: Is it okay to include artificial items in a display?

DM: Yes, but I always mix fresh into an artificial arrangement to give it visual texture and the scent of the holidays. The intertwining can work well.

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