You know why I like wearing dresses?  They’re easy.  You pop that baby over your head and you still have time left in your morning to get angry at your wrinkles and ignore the dishwasher that needs to be unloaded.  With pants or skirts you have to deal with tops and tucking or untucking and belts and all manner of obstacles and potentially disastrous combinations.  With a dress, you’re dealing with one item. Simple.

It’s easy to look at fireplace mantels the same way and just do what’s easy.  Enter the $200 mass produced print of some weird blob next to another slightly less weird blob, that you found at Homesense one day while shopping for socks.  It’s big, it’s easy and it’s cheap.  Plus the colours match your living room and it’s a picture of something therefore it must be art.

Not necessarily.

I’m not dissing anyone who buys prints or paintings from Homesense, I have some in my own home, but it really is the easy way out and I want you to know there are alternatives to slapping a print or mirror on you mantel and calling it a day.


If you read the article featuring me in The New York Times a few weeks ago (I will never EVER tire of saying that) you know I like to decorate with things that mean something to me.  Objects that hold memories or meaning in one way or another.  And yes, the dead plant that’s been on my basement windowsill for the past 5 years is deeply, deeply meaningful to me. Also I’m afraid there’s a gang of centipedes in the dirt of it so I refuse to touch it.

So when my friend asked me to help him out with styling his mantel and bookcases it didn’t surprise me that his biggest worry was that he didn’t have any art.  People assume that’s what you need on your mantel; a big painting.  But if you’re just grabbing something at a department store to fill the space, it’s probably a better idea, in my mind anyway, to fill that space with something that really means something to you.  We went hunting at the Christie Antique Show for a few things for his house and we both gravitated towards the antique tools.  Him because he likes tools and building things and me because I’m attracted to warm, worn wood the way most women are attracted to bright, shiny objects.  I’m the only woman in history who thinks the ideal engagement ring is an antique pine button blued to a piece of vintage barbed wire.

We picked the pieces you see above for a cost of somewhere around $100 total.

This is what we were starting with.  A completely blank space other than some weird, thin, finishing trim in the form of a rectangle over the mantel.  The picture was taken before Christmas, hence the Nutcrackers guarding the fire.  You’ll notice they’re elaborately dressed.  It probably took them half the morning just to pick out their outfits.

To get a starting point Amos (my friend) put the tools up in the centre of the trim because that’s what made the most sense because it was something to obviously frame in the tools.

It looked insignificant and stupid.  K.  Now we know that.

I had him try putting some pictures on the mantel to fill the space below but that ended up just looking busy.  We were doing this through iMessage by the way.  Me directing and being bossy and he listening to what I had to say then giving it a shot.

Since I wasn’t there I took matters into my own hands and started Photoshopping.  It was obvious the tools just weren’t being bossy enough. They needed to take up MORE space to have more impact.  So I wanted him to remove the trim and space the tools out further.  But removing the trim meant having to repaint not only the wall over the mantel, but possibly everything because the new paint wouldn’t match the old paint.

My next venture into Photoshop-fixing the mantel was to add one of the other things we picked up at the antique market, a skateboard.  Skateboards are another thing he collects and loves.  See?  Meaningful.  A skateboard on my mantel would just be stupid.  But on his mantel it works because that’s who he is.  Remember that little tip as you’re browsing through the perfect rooms of Pinterest thinking “my house doesn’t look like that”.  No. It doesn’t.  Because you have a real house filled with real things and it reflects you.  Your home might not look like it can be featured in a magazine but as long as it represents you and feels like you, that’s what really matters.  Unless of course you’re total disaster.


Just to throw a wrench into the whole plan I sent off this photo of a completely different look at got no … response … at all.  I kindda like it, but I’m guessing he didn’t, which is perfectly fine.  It’s his room, his mantel and he’s the one who has to like it.

Around this time I remembered that he had one of those prints.  Those mass produced Homesense type prints, but it was in metal with a rusted looking metal frame.  The actual picture was a little bit grim but the frame would the perfect size for the mantel and kindda great.  He checked to see if the frame could be removed from the print and it could so I suggested he put the metal frame around the tools to give them bulk and importance.  He added in a couple of his own touches and the result is perfect.

If that isn’t art I don’t know what is.  Not only is it beautiful to look at it tells the story of the person who lives here.

Clearly it’s a serial killer who escapes into the night by skateboard.

What the mantel doesn’t say is, I picked this up while buying socks.  We in fact picked it up while buying french fries.

The mantel works for a few reasons.

  1.  Everything looks great against a white background.
  2. Straight lines are repeated.
  3. There’s a fairly equal distance between everything.
  4. Even though there’s a lot of wood it all has different colours and patterns in it.
  5. There’s a repeating mixture of materials (metal and wood) that keeps everything consistent without being boring.   The metal frame is very important to bringing this look together because it pulls in the metal from the tool heads and also echoes the rusty colours in the woods and axe head.
  6. What takes this mantel from nice to exceptional is the skateboard.  It’s something COMPLETELY different from everything else on the mantel, and frankly completely different from anything you’d ever expect to see on a mantel.  The skateboard updates the look from being “country” to being eclectic and also those red/orange wheels …

In a few weeks I’ll feature the whole room with tips on redoing bookcases and making things cozy.  Because that’s what we all want isn’t it?  A house that’s cozy and makes everyone feel welcome the moment they walk in.  Well that’s what I want anyway, and anyone who asks me for my help had better want it too because that’s what they’re getting.

They’re getting that, a lecture on Homesense prints and a request to please carry a dead plant up from my basement.



  1. Jody says:

    Saw the article in The Spec today by Kathy Renwald on his house. He has done an amazing job. Love the opened staircase. love the transom above the front door. Love the reference in the article to the framed antique mallets and hammers.

  2. Paula says:

    Great post! I really liked how the mantel turned out. I totally agree that you”re home should reflect you. Our house has all kinds of personality. It was fun to read the NY Times article too. Kerri Fivecoat Campbell that was also in the article is a friend & originally from near where I live. It is so cool that you have something from the Ramones! Love them.

  3. Dana says:

    That looks amazing! My woodstove is in a corner, and the stovepipe goes straight up to the ceiling *in front of the mantel*! I have a heck of a time trying to decorate it. Pinterest is no help.

  4. SusanR says:

    The end result is FANTASTIC!

  5. Jody says:

    I suck at doing mantles. I’ve considered hiring a professional just to do my mantels. (Did you see what I just did?)

  6. debra cusick says:

    Great story, and thank you for revealing that as designers, every first swing isn’t a Grand Slam. Like everybody else, we have to play sometimes before the “Ahhhh, that’s IT!” moment occurs.

    I must say, though, that the minute you started on the simplicity of dresses, I knew you’d be seguing to mantels.

  7. Mary W says:

    I adore this fireplace – especially the skateboard! It is perfect as an ‘odd’ match to the tall handle opposite the frame. I love that I notice tiny rust colored wheels – only non-linear thing to look at like a sparkle. I love that it is personal and really love the color combo and texture. Bravo for the two of you working this out together. I DO NOT enjoy looking at a designer home with nothing alive/personal inside. It seems no one lives there except working people that come in to clean or hang something or straighten an unread but cool looking book. You deserve the NYT article.

  8. Karen says:

    You are wrong to use barbed wire for your ring. Everyone knows, or should know anyway, that an engagement ring should be made with a link from an antique toy boat anchor chain.

  9. marilyn says:

    i really like it no matter how it is spelled..i have always felt that decorating your home should always be about your favourite things ..if not then its just a house

  10. Elaine says:

    You did a great job, Karen, and I enjoyed your explanations as you worked through the mantel/mantle process. Amos is one lucky guy!

  11. NinaMargo says:


    Karen, do you do mantel housecalls? Please?????

  12. LINDSAY CUDINI says:

    Thanks Karen, I will keep hunting….


  13. judy says:

    I’m so depressed,I tried to see you in all of your competent wonderfulness and It tells me that content is not available for “my location”. Now Canada…Canada! knows better than to allow the inmates of their southern border nation to gain access to their sacred sanity. Nope, better to ostracize those who can’t manage to put sane persons in positions of such power that the earth itself shivers and quivers at the magnitude of what a stupid fellow can f**k up next.

    The USofA is now “evidently For Sale” to the highest bidder. Care to drill in the Grand Canyon anyone. Step right up and submit your bid cause we got a “billionaire?” business guy who knows the art of the deal…….Yikes!!! I’m going back to my Banky now and a bottle of something alcoholic. Wake me when this is over…please….sob……….

    • Karen says:

      Was it the radish post you were trying to see Judy? If that’s the case, I had accidentally published it 2 days earlier than I should have so I blocked it until when it’s supposed to go up on Wednesday. Not to worry. The Canadians haven’t banned you. :) Just I have, lol. ~ karen!

      • judy says:

        It is you appearing as a co-host with two guys who I used to watch and can not remember their names….old age…it’s a b…….difficult?

  14. LINDSAY CUDINI says:

    Hi Karen:

    I have to ask where you get all those great antlers you have throughout your home. You have real as well as not real (silver). I have asked the folks around where I live to look for unused antlers for the last couple of years but nothing.


    PS: Do those crossed spoons serve as a holder for your ironstone platter?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Lindsay! I got the antlers from a variety of places. The smaller ones I inherited from my grandfather. They’re olddddd. The big, huge one you sometimes see in various places in my house I got at a flea market. The deer’s head with antlers is from an auction. :) ~ karen!

    • judy says:

      all antlers are used….I think?

    • Jennie Lee says:

      What you need to do is find a deer hunter who doesn’t use all their antlers. (If they kill one or more deer a year, they can run out of room for them!) I have a few from yard sales, too. Besides decorating, they can be made into things like buttons and keyrings and even jewelry. You’d be surprised how shiny antler can get, just from handling. I have a piece that’s as shiny as glass!

  15. Linda in Illinois says:

    Excellent job !

  16. susang says:

    what do I do with a 96 inch mantel on a 14 foot stone chimney? did I mention that the mantel is 96 inches on one side? the other 2 sides are 60 inches each. right now I’m treating the smaller sides as part of another part of the room with just personal items.

  17. Terri Dates says:

    I just want to see your engagement ring…

  18. Alelena says:

    I don’t have a mantel and I don’t have a fireplace. Nutcracker figurines would make it into my house only over my dead body (even if I had a fireplace).

    The rusty frame is not bad, but I find it a bit too chubby and visually heavy. I liked best the first take, with the tools just framed by the think molding frame that already was in place.
    I need to find a similar skateboard (it looks fairly small). Just last night, I promised to on my Instagram friends, a small terrier living on the coast in Florida, that I would find him one.

    I don’t think all HomeSense prints are bad. Yes, there is a lot of awful ones but if you keep going and looking, there is a nice thing once in the blue moon. It is the source for B&W photographs (if you are not a Rohtschild heir) for a very reasonable price. Once, I was dying to buy a Kara Rosenlund’s photograph. My enthusiasm for the piece quickly dissipated once I found out she wanted $290 for a 11″ x 14″ print. The size I wanted, 32″ x 48″ was $790.
    I didn’t really care that it was a Kara Rosenlund photograph, it was the image I wanted. Yes, I could afford it. But, I know that my taste changes periodically and maybe in 2 years, i will get sick of it. I don’t regret having not gotten it.

    I found a huge print (stretched canvas on wooden frame) with almost an identical image at HomeSense, for $280. I purchased it and after my speculation I returned it. It was huge, it was big that I almost feared that it was too big for the sectional above which I planned to hang it (the sectional is 110″ wide). Again, I was worried that my taste will change and then I will be stuck with a $280 piece ($345 actually, or so, after taxes) that I won’t be able to sell.
    Well, my taste has not changed and I regret not having kept the canvas

  19. Katie C. says:

    I love it!

    Can you take me to the Christie Antique Show and help me redecorate my house? My main decorating theme these days seems to be toys toys toys… And they mean very little to me.

  20. Ev Wilcox says:

    If the skateboard was lying on it’s side it might be more, uh, more….

  21. Nicole says:

    I don’t have a mantel! Or a mantle! I’m going to have to be satisfied with not putting Home Sense prints on my ordinary walls. *pout*

  22. Rose says:

    Thanks for allowing us into your home Amos. Now it’s got me thinking I should decorate from a man’s perspective (once in a while). Tools, weapons, swords, machinery, vintage, kilts and sporrans?

  23. Christine Ulyate says:

    Agreed but I don’t like the skateboard…………………………………………

    • Karen says:

      Well then you’re mental and we can no longer be Internet friends. You are shunned for the next 35 minutes. ~ karen!

      • Christine Ulyate says:

        I have been called mental more often than sane so no harm!!
        Are my 35 minutes up now? :-)

        • brenda says:

          well that was very brave – I think you might have spoken at the 34.5 min mark Christine … by my watch (but maybe Karen’s off calling Amos to go help with the centipeded plant and didn’t notice)

  24. dana says:

    I love old tools like you do. Old yelloware bowls are right up there, too. Theres a crock next to my stove w about 25 old seasoned well used wooden spoons, a mallet, and a couple of old wooden potato mashers. My hubs made a mistake which nearly cost him his life when we moved here last fall. He put a wooden spoon in the dishwasher! My kid gets a kick out of it when I use one of the potato mashers as a microphone when my favorite jams come on the stereo.

  25. Grammy says:

    That final picture is just perfect! The substantial rusty frame does wonders, taking one of the tools out of the frame was just the right touch, and yes, the skateboard makes the whole mantle more interesting. Amos is lucky to have a friend like you, and it seems that he really should offer to help you with that dead plant in the basement.

    • Karen says:

      You know I didn’t even think of that. You’re right! I shall text him immediately with the request. ~ karen

  26. MaggieB says:

    Really enjoyed being taken through the thought process as well as visuals. The result is so stylish and original!

  27. Brenda says:

    I love it and yes Billy – a sarong is perfect for first thing … I want to put a tall skinny candle on the end of the skate board (but I’m not sure what colour)

  28. Paula says:

    Looks great; how are the hammers affixed to the wall?

  29. Valerie says:

    Love it – looks interesting but clean.
    Thank God a television above the mantel was not suggested.

  30. Diana says:

    The shelf above a fireplace is a mantel, not a mantle.

    • Robert says:

      Mantel comes from the anglo-french mantle that appears to be earlier by two centuries so… call it a wash?

      About the skateboard, I feel like it dissappears against the wall in the photos so I’m not entirely sure about it.
      And yes, Karen, you should never get tired of mentioning you NYTIMES article, and when the time comes also repeate ad nauseum being a New York Times Best Seller Author!

      • Karen says:

        ;) If I can’t spell mantel/mantle how will I *ever* become a bestselling author? In real life the skateboard looks great. :) It’s everyone’s favourite part. The reason it disappears a bit in the photos is because you’re looking at it head on as opposed from slightly higher (where someone’s eyes would be atop their head, which is higher than the mantle/mantel) ~ karen!

    • Karen says:

      I’d blame it on a typo but I did it 21 times. ~ karen!

  31. Sarah says:

    How did he attach the tools to the wall?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Sarah. At first we (he) tried industrial strength velcro because the tools are SO old they’re fairly light wood. That worked for a while but slowly ended up falling down. So he ended up drilled small pilot holes through the handles and nailed them into the wall. ~ karen!

  32. Sue says:

    So totally cool! You made it look so simple and logical!
    So, if I send you a photo of my coffee bar, will you tell me how to unclutter it. I know I have too much, but it all just speaks to me!
    Maybe I just need to add some more coffee ups . . .

  33. Christy M. says:

    What a great idea. Simple and yet , what an interesting focal point. Totally not the ‘same old’ either. Now I am inspired.
    Off topic question…. how do you feel about painting an original brick fireplace?

  34. billy sharpstick says:

    I usually just wrap a sarong around me when I get up. The garbage men and the neighbors have gotten used to it. If I really need to dress up to go out, say to home depot, I’ll choose an appropriate kilt.
    Are those hammers mounted so you can get them down in a hurry if you need them to hammer something or defend yourself in a home invasion? (Maybe you could sneak a samurai sword in there somewhere)
    While you’re at it, could you try photoshopping in a painting of those sad kittens with the huge eyes, or maybe a black velvet elvis?

  35. Carolyn says:

    I love, Love, LOVE the hammers! and the final arrangement looks amazing!

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