How to decorate the fireplace in a mid century ranch house?

fireplace mantle DesignDilemmaIn today’s Retro Design Dilemma, Peter asks for our ideas and advice on how to decorate the beautiful fireplace in his 1957 ranch house. He loves the variegated stone work. How should he show it off best? No mood boards or google hangouts from Kate and me today — but tomorrow, we’ll activate the uploader, so you can share your fireplace decor. We might even make some mood boards — based on your ideas. Meanwhile — what are your ideas for Peter? Read on for his question — and more photos. Oh, and P. to the S..: Another pink bathroom saved, cha-ching!


Peter writes:


We have a 1957  ranch with a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace with a wood mantel running the length of it above the hearth. We’ve considered things like a Jeré starburst or a mirror to go above the mantel, but we love the rust, salmon and brick red stone that makes up the fireplace so much we can’t bear to cover it up. I would love to see what some of your other readers have done with their mantels (it is after all the focal point of the living room). Wall art, vases, lamps, pictures? There must be things we can put up there other than our phone chargers…?



Beautiful room, Peter. Those windows are just like the ones in my house — Anderson Windowalls. I need to do a story on them sometime.

In follow up emails, Peter sent me some more photos of his house, which had just one owner before he and his wife moved in. He wrote:

ranch housebirch kitchenpink bathroom

… Here is a shot of the kitchen and pink bathroom with its banjoesque built in, which you can take full credit for saving.  My wife wanted white subway tile until she saw your website.

Golly, I’m sure glad that this pink bathroom was saved — it’s a really beauty. That pink and black liner tile is delicious!

fireplace mantle

Okay, readers, what should Peter do with the mantle?
Will a big starburst or Jeré outshine the stone?
If so, what’s the answer?

  1. Leslie says:

    Thrive is a great company, I am a huge fan. Thanks for mentioning that you have the “Nixon” sofa. It’s perfect and although I thought it resembled the Thrive design I thought it had to be an original mid century piece.

  2. I will upload and show ours tomorrow. We had that same problem kind of sort of. Went with pictures above it, didn’t have the stone on top. Also, different layout, square coffee table pulled away from the fireplace. I keep very few things on the mantle deliberately. It doesn’t look good with the stuff.

  3. Carol says:

    Peter. Hello from way out west. Thank you for telling us more about your wonderful house & its site: of course you want to sit on your sofa looking out on Long Island Sound, not to face into a black firebox that may only occasionally be lighted. On top of everything, you have a screened porch. Life doesn’t get any better. Yours is not a flashy Atomic house, it has reserve. The muscular rusticity of the living room fireplace is actually at odds with the refined brick exterior of your home–& (as you’ve described) with a brick fireplace on the ground floor, but as I see it, this dilemma is its own solution: the builders gave you a built-in wall of bold art when they mortared that stone. Its contrast with the house is like that of any important artwork’s contrast in a room. Don’t put anything at all on that mantel unless perhaps, to one side, a single natural object or abstract sculpture. No doodads, no candlesticks, no discordant materials–except for holidays & parties. I can’t tell from the photo, but the mantel seems mortared-in, which is ultra-cool, & its thinness isn’t wrong but essential for the house.

    P.S.–If I were your decorator I’d suggest a similar ruthlessness for your bookcase: to fill it tight with books, from top to bottom–not a single doodad or treasure, just books. Suddenly your already pretty room wth its fresh, light furnishings & watery views becomes handsome & fascinating. I’d roll up the rug for the beautiful floor & substitute a smaller, crisp rug if wanted, perhaps a softly toned durrie with a thin black stripe. Honestly I’d love to move the Thrive sofa to the window wall & the chair to the other side with the books, but you want to see that view.

    So in essence, for your fireplace: subtract, don’t add. –Easy for me to say! One writer suggested a firescreen & that would be a good idea if it can be the standing sort, tailored, without shine, maybe iron.

    Many happy years in your home.

  4. Jay says:

    This is a good example of a mid century modest home with a nice wow factor – the fireplace wall. The builder had a good eye, the spaces on either side of FP are equal – the left a window, the right a built in book case. Room is balanced.
    To those advocating removal or lowering of mantel shelf, this is easier said then done. If it isn’t surface mounted then it will be tied into either the stonework itself or the wall behind the stone. Structural issues then arise – maintaining the integrety of the stone work, even if is only cut stone pieces, they can start to shift.
    Also, the couch appears to be long and placing it across the room will create a barrier and I suspect that there are also several openings into the room behind the black leather chair, that leaves the window wall and who wants to block that?
    Please leave the stone chimney front unadorned. I like starburst clocks but I don’t think this is the place for one.

  5. pam kueber says:

    I can “see” what you’re suggesting. Sounds good – including all books for the bookcase, and especially the dhurrie with black in it. I do love that shag, though — perhaps it can go in a bedroom?

  6. tess says:

    i like it just the way it is. and if you find something meaningful, gritty & amazing on your journey through life – that’s also aesthetically pleasing to the room’s soul – then it will find it’s way there.

  7. Mary Jo says:

    We have built in stone mantles and a gas fireplace and everything that is there gets HOT. So be careful if you run the fireplace alot. You don’t want to ruin a nice keepsake due to baking.

    Also, I have the same exact kitchen cupboards, including the hardware, and I don’t know how many people have suggested I change them but I love them.

  8. Jay says:

    Ha! The r.e. agent representing the seller of my house was quite a diva. I would have liked to hear her comments about the “datedness” of kitchen but knowing the thrifty seller, she probably said “it is what it is”.

  9. Jay says:

    If ever I am snowbound for days, I will have to catch up on past posts prior to discovering this site. This really made me laugh! Both my parents were born below the Mason Dixon line. ’nuff said!

  10. Carol says:

    Pam, thank you for picturing my thought. You’re right of course, the big rug has its own appeal. I hope Peter has enjoyed the conversation about his house half as much as all of us have! A footnote: on closer scrutiny I see there is a firescreen or perhaps an insert in the firebox.

  11. Elaine says:

    I love that stone, too. Definitely leave the mantel, you will want for the holiday decorations if nothing else. I have a stone fireplace and love it, and did not want to cover it or put holes in it to hang things. I put some things I like on the mantel, nature related, and used paper clip hooks to hand some flying geese across the chimney. They cover very little and go with the stone. A shiny starburst can have plenty of space between the rays to show the stone, so that could work for you. Since it is not a high ceiling, you don’t want it to be too big. You will want some kind of lighting to show off the fireplace. Maybe look into wiring some LED lights for under and above the mantel to shine up and down on the stone.

  12. Mike S says:

    When addressing the need to improve performance by removing weight, Formula One car builders say, “Add lightness”. So, what do do with what you have?

    Put some color on the window wall. For openness, consider sun-blocking film rather than curtains. But if you must have curtains, go with the pinched-pleat variety.

    Keep your mantel, and put one item–or a group of three items–on it at any one time. Swap them for others as the seasons change.

    Add lightness to your bookcase by keeping only the items you use often. For those items you use only occasionally, consider colorful containers in which to put them.

    Place your furniture facing the fireplace. Resist the urge to place any item of furniture against your window wall.

    Add colorful throw pillows of solid or mixed geometric patterns on your sofa and chairs. For your style of Mid-Mod-Colonial home, resist the urge to mix Provincial- or Persian-styled patterns with it.

    Your room is large enough for two separate seating areas. An additional floor lamp will suffice, as would a floor-to-ceiling pole lamp, in keeping with the Mid-Mod theme. A black one would be awesome, as would either an orange, or lime green, or avocado.

    As for an item above the mantel, that’s a toughie. Would reserve that for some must-have piece, whatever it may be.

  13. Marjie says:

    It would be nice if the mantle were beefier, more to the scale of the bigger stones in the fireplace…4 inches or so thick….( You might also consider putting, some wood trim at top where the stones meet the ceiling also to scale w/ the bricks).After that, almost anything would look nice..keep it simple, a nice clock on one side and beefy candle sticks on the other….or a favorite contemporary sculpture or painting…and decorate as you like for the holidaze and the seasons…the little items currently on it might look nicer on your book case. w/ larger scale items against the large stones making up the fireplace.Think more in terms of enjoying the negative space and the nice bricks…don’t fill it up w/ stuff….. I’d be tempted to arrange sofa at an angle instead of along the wall.Paint a light hue on the wall to complement the wood around the super nice windows…..a soft,soft grey …..rust,charcoal grey,and yellow throw pillows for sofa,some retro print in the upholstered chair (you can duck tape the fabric on the chair from underneath until you get around to doing a proper slip cover)….nice room, not every one is so lucky!

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