Make your mantel shine this holiday season

Maureen Feighan

A fireplace mantel is more than simply another area to display decor in your home. It makes a statement about your style from the moment guests arrive – and that’s especially true during the holidays.

“The mantel is a focal point,” says Kalamazoo-based designer Angelo Bonita, who for decades ran his own event planning business in Washington, D.C. “It’s the focal point of every room.”

Bonita knows a thing or two about making mantels shine at the holidays. For seven years, he’s worked with Grand Haven-based floral designer Alice Waterous on the holiday decor at Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester. Bonita’s job? Decorating the mantels.

Bonita doesn’t pick out the colors, themes or motifs for the mantels at Meadow Brook’s beloved Holiday Walk but his job is a nuanced one: taking the mantel decor Waterous and her team lay out, which changes every year, and putting it together in a way that sings.

And that’s not easy given that Meadow Brook, the former home of auto heiress Matilda Dodge Wilson and her second husband, Alfred, and their children, is essentially like a museum. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

Nails are forbidden. So what does Bonita use to secure the garland, the starting point for most great holiday mantels? 3M Command hooks. They come in a range of sizes, can hold a decent amount of weight and they come off without leaving any sticky residue or doing any damage.

“I’ve been using them for years,” says Bonita, 75. “...They’re very strong.”

And that’s key with decorating a great holiday mantel. If you need tips and tricks for transforming your mantel for the holidays, designers say it starts with a solid foundation of garland and them embellishing it with teardrops, picks, ribbons or ornaments. You are only limited by your imagination.

But don’t go overboard with the decor either. Bonita, who relocated to Michigan from D.C. 12 years ago so he and his wife could be closer to their sons and grandchildren, says for years he operated his business with a mantra: “It’s never done until it’s overdone.”

Foundation is key

Pre-lit garland – meaning the lights are already intertwined in it – is the starting point for most mantels these days. And pre-lit garland is sold everywhere, including Lowe’s, Target and many local garden centers.

Some pre-lit garland is battery operated. Other types have to be plugged into a wall. Bed Bath & Beyond’s 6-foot Pre-Lit Glittery Garland, for example, requires four AA batteries.

But make sure your garland is secure, whether it’s with Bonita’s beloved 3M Command hooks or nails at each end of your mantel. In his own home, Bonita has two screw eyes at each end of his mantel that are painted white so they can’t be seen.

“I run a heavy wire left to right and greenery can be attached to it,” says Bonita.

At Bordine’s, which offers a range of mantel displays as part of its Christmas shop and even offered mantel workshops this season, some displays are secured to 2-by-4 board so there’s some weight holding them down.

“Everything begins with a good foundation,” says Bonita. Without your garland being secure, “you start challenging gravity.”

Add some zing

Once your garland is in place and secure, it’s all about the embellishments, designers say.

QVC host and designer Lisa Robertson, who has her own line of Christmas decor, relies on teardrop swags to embellish the garland on her fireplace mantel during the holidays.

“If you have these (garland and teardrop swags), you can do an unbelievable mantel,” said Robertson in a YouTube video that demonstrates how to put together a mantel.

Bordine’s recommends adding foliage extenders such as pine, ribbon and artificial flower stems to give a mantel more texture and heft.

“You gotta make sure whatever you do has balance,” says Richardson in her YouTube tutorial.

Bonita agrees: “If you have two of something, you want A on the left and B on the right.”

Ribbon or beads are a great way to tie a mantel and Christmas tree together with the same color or theme. At Meadow Brook, Bonita custom weaves the ribbon into the garland so it all flows together.

“Take yards of beads and drape them from left to right,” suggests Bonita. “The beadwork can fall below the mantel and enhance the theme or the frivolity of the garland.”

But don’t use the ribbon too early. It could get lost in your mantel display if you incorporate it too early.

Homestyle columnist Mary Carol Garrity says using artificial flower stems or picks will “give your mantel display more visual punch.”

Include “long, strong picks that overhang the sides and front of the fireplace,” advises Garrity, owner of Nell Hill’s. “Work in picks that contrast with the base garland on your mantel to bring in more pizzazz, like red berries, silver leaves, bare sticks and pine cones.”

Bonita says one way to give your mantel height is with twigs or branches. In one room at Meadow Brook this year, Matilda’s bedroom, he used styrofoam to help create that.

“I needed elevation because of the flatness so I brought in blocks of styrofoam” which he used to adhere flower stems, said Bonita.

As far as using real greenery for your garland, Bonita advises against it, especially if you have a functional fireplace. It can be a fire hazard and it’ll dry out quickly. He believes real greenery is better for outside holiday decor.

So take your mantel this holiday season, add some layers and make it magical.

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan