Decorating a mid-century fireplace – help!

Here is a tricky design question. Susan writes:
Hi Pam,
After two years, I still cannot figure out what to put on these shelves that are built into my fireplace!  They are 10.5″ wide and 5.75″ deep, and they are spaced about 11.5″ apart (vertically, from the top of one shelf to the top of the next, if that makes sense).  I thought I’d pose the question to you (and possibly your readers), since I can’t be the only one struggling with this…
Susan, aka Kitty Mommy
Readers — what do you think? How can Susan decorate this space?


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  1. Mark says

    How about those clusters of grapes made out of colored resin and stuck to pieces of driftwood?
    Those, and a couple of the tall orange glass vases and the flying ducks, you would be set!

  2. Lynn-O-Matic says

    Susan, please let us see what you come up with. I’ve got my fingers crossed you won’t cut them off. I absolutely adore them (sorry, Gavin!). They just scream “mid century.” I’m a pottery fanatic, so I can imagine what fun I’d have finding the right pieces to fill the shelves.

    The insert, OTOH, may be period appropriate, but I don’t love it. Is it a replacement? It looks slightly too small for the opening–or maybe those aren’t shadows and the brick just needs a good cleaning? Have fun with this. I wish I had such a decorating dilemma!

  3. Susan, aka Kitty Mommy says

    First off, thank you for the suggestions…of what to put on the shelves! They are staying, btw (removing them was never an option). Gavin, this style of fireplace and these kind of shelves were very popular in midcentury ranches in the Mid West. When we were looking at houses, I saw fireplaces like this in every midcentury ranch we saw. The shelves are concrete, btw, so sawing them off would look horrible, because they’re not made of the same material as the rest of the fireplace.

    As far as the fireplace doors go, I would suspect that they are original because virtually nothing in this house has been updated (except when absolutely necessary, like the refrigerator). They do fit, but there is some soot that has discolored the stones above the opening. On a side note, what would you clean them with? I’ve put it off because I didn’t know what was safe to use.

    Thanks again and, if you have any other suggestions, please let me know! I will send an “after” photo to see what you all think…

    Susan, aka Kitty Mommy

    • Kersten says

      We have a similiar fireplace that has one high shelf, and I’ve struggled with the same “size” of object question. Since we have a bit of an asian theme in our house, I found a great saki set, and it fit perfect up there. Many are suggesting pottery, which this kind of fits into. It is fun to switch it out when something new grabs my attention. Have fun with it!

      • Gavin Hastings says

        Those firedoors became very popular in the early 70’s during the first Oil Crisis. They were popular because you could close the doors of the fireplace at bedtime- without all your homes’ heat going up the chimney overnight. They are still popular and MUCH more expensive than a simple screen.

  4. Googieagog says

    The original owners next door to me had a very similar fireplace, though wider and with five or six shelves. (Current owners have ruined the house, so the original rock & shelves are probably gone now.) On each shelf they had displayed a different piece of ’50s Royal Haegar pottery, all in white. It looked great — not too highbrow, not too kitschy, and period perfect.

    Me, I’d go the natural history museum route and display things like fossils, mineral specimens, cypress knees, agates, geodes etc. That stuff never goes out of style.

  5. Claudia says

    A designer’s viewpoint: Whatever you put on there, remember that scale and color are important. The fireplace is heavy, blocky stone in a neutral color. So the items you place there should have a strong presence of their own and should prferably contrast somehow with the background. I would avoid anything with a lot of pattern because that might contrast with the wonderful texture of the stone. Something that plays against it is best – I liked someone’e suggestion of retro vases.

  6. MidCenturyMeg says

    I saw a wall sculpture on Etsy ( and it struck me that it could be an unusual and eye-catching idea to hang something over each mini-mantle rather than doing the obvious. Or, using the mantle to carry a theme through, place shells on the mantle beneath a large hanging shell, polished stones beneath a photo of beach stones, a nativity scene beneath a crucifix – the possibilities are, of course, endless.

  7. Genjenn says

    You know those vintage wall hanging sets of three brass flying ducks or seagulls ? They’re readily available on ebay (search term Syroco). I’d mount one bird one the front face of each shelf. To make it really hip, I’d try to find a way to put a small light behind each one. I think that would look amazing!

  8. Zoe says

    We have basically the same thing on our fireplace in our 1955 ranch (we have 4 shelves and they aren’t quite in a line like yours). During Christmas, I hang wreaths from the shelves, which works well. The rest of the year, I have three small oil paintings that just fit on each shelf. They are kind of tricky because anything too small will look out of proportion with the rest of the fireplace – so finding something with enough visual weight is key. A lot of little things can look cluttered – I think a few larger pieces in a color that contrasts with the stone looks better.

  9. DW says

    The small bonsai idea is nice. For a tight budget (and greater color impact) try using medium sized canvases from local craft store (9×12, 11×14, etc.) paint three different flat colors from the SW retro color pallet using those that fit your decor. Colors should be impactful choices — ones that will draw in the eye.

  10. suzanne sheldon says

    I definitely think those shelves need three different vintage or non vintage (that compliment the style) glass vases. You can find true vintage on ebay, etsy, or at vintage shops and flea markets. You can sometimes even find interesting bottles/vases at tjmaxx. Ok taking another look, some ceramic pots, one on each shelf, would also be a nice look. I might pick an earthier neutral glaze, because I love earth tones. However, you could choose an accent color(s) that are repeated in your living room. If you can find these things very inexpensively you could change them out with the seasons or when you need a change of scenery. You’re lucky they came in three-aestheticly pleasing.

  11. says

    I have this same fireplace only more massive if you can imagine that. I am going to put very simple, clean lined pottery vases on my shelves. They will all be the same color – either cream or that off green. USA, Frankoma or something along those lines.

  12. Travis says

    I know I’m about two years late in responding to this, but my answer is I think it would look cheesy to put something on every shelf. It’s already quite predictable. Imagine how much more inspiring it would be to have only one item on the lowest shelf. That item should be a simple bud vase that showcases the latest season in your garden- be it a slender graceful sprig of flowering crab apple, or some long tufts of ornamental grass- whatever is available. Even in winter, a well chosen leafless twig can look amazing. Also, you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace that can accommodate a wide range of proper insets. Look at a matte black Jotul, eg.

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