Q: We've just moved to a large old house that has a fireplace in the living room. The mantel needs to be replaced, but we don't have a clue about what sort of piece to purchase. For starters, can you tell us whether the fireplace needs to be the focal point of the room?
A: While it's impossible to ignore something as imposing and, potentially, as attractive as a fireplace, it doesn't necessarily have to be the most dominant feature in a room. Rather than striving to establish the fireplace as a focal point, your efforts would probably be better devoted to ensuring that it blends with the setting's overall styling.
A large room doesn't need to have one all-commanding centerpiece any more than a well-dressed person has to depend on a single "drop-dead" item of clothing. Pleasing couture and good interior design have a lot in common in this respect. A successful ensemble, whether for a person or a room, results from a fine sense of balance and proportion.
In your case, a pleasing effect will best be achieved by properly integrating the various elements in the room, including the fireplace. Color, form, texture and light all need to be orchestrated to create a successful overall look. That's not an easy task, I grant you -- especially if the room is not being modeled on a particular period.
Assuming that you do have a general notion of how you'd like the room to look, it's easier to start with something already present in the space. This need not be an element as important as the fireplace. Almost anything will do, as long as you like its form or color.
A piece of the surround -- a decorative carpet, for example, or a wallpaper pattern -- can point you in a promising direction. And once you get past that difficult beginning, I think you'll find that the setting will come together much more readily.
Here's a photo of an elegant room that may provide you with some inspiration and ideas.
This look, created by John Inglis Interiors of Fairfield, Conn., could have been produced in a variety of ways. As it happens, however, the Louis XV marble fireplace served as the designer's starting point.
Its softly curving lines and peach coloring influenced the choice of other styles for the applied moldings, window coverings and seating pieces. The other furnishings, too, were selected to complement the fireplace, which was designed by Heritage Mantels.
Please note that the room's style does not have to be completely consistent to be successful. Here, contemporary artworks and Asian decor add a pleasingly eclectic touch to a setting that is mainly French in flavor.
As you shop around for a new fireplace mantel, remember that it doesn't need to be big and bold. The key criterion to keep in mind is that the mantel should be in proportion to the room and blend with its decorative style.