Smarter Living

February 28, 2014

Warm up to the modern fireplace

Sometimes elegant, sometimes architectural, often romantic, a fireplace – with a handsome mantel or as part of a whole wall – is a focal point in interiors. It’s a magnet for intimate seating, with sofa, chairs, ottomans and coffee tables likely to gather around.

Sometimes elegant, sometimes architectural, often romantic, a fireplace – with a handsome mantel or as part of a whole wall – is a focal point in interiors. It’s a magnet for intimate seating, with sofa, chairs, ottomans and coffee tables likely to gather around.

These days, fireplaces can be installed in nearly every room of the house, as well as outdoors, largely thanks to direct-vent gas technology, which was introduced in 1987. Where wood-burning fireplaces are tethered to chimneys, direct vent requires a double layer pipe (to bring direct air from the outside and expel combusted air) that can be run virtually anywhere. And today, the “log” choices are much more realistic than early models.

But another seismic shift has been the advent of what the hearth industry calls the linear fireplace.

You’ve probably seen it in magazines, and it’s a popular style at designer showhouses. Like the move from a 4:3 to 16:9 format in TVs, this propane or natural gas-fired fireplace is long and lean. The rectangular insert is set into a wall, framed like a piece of art or frameless. Often the flames themselves create a dancing, mesmerizing pattern. The fire bed sometimes is dressed with sparkling glass, pebbles or beachy stones.

Another category is the vent-free fireplace, which is said to be nearly 100 percent energy-efficient. As it requires only a hole cut into a wall, vent-free fireplaces are up to 75 percent less expensive to install (starting at around $2,500).

Since these rely on indoor air for combustion, however, there is some debate about indoor air quality. Needless to say, these do require installation by a gas or plumbing contractor, but most manufacturers will tell you that with proper installation, there shouldn’t be any problems.

In addition to gas models, bioethanol technology also has been touted for its environmental friendliness because it burns cleanly with no smoke, sparks or fuss. The options range from handcrafted freestanding pieces of “fire” furniture to grates for traditional fireplace conversion to firebox inserts for custom built-in designs. Bioethanol is a renewable liquid fuel whose combustion produces heat, steam and carbon dioxide. EcoSmart’s ethanol-burning models are priced from $500 to $10,000.

Stunning installations include feature walls – where the linear fireplace takes center stage – asymmetrical placements or teamings with high-definition TVs. Their shapes can even be round and two-sided, just like some options with aquariums.

Many people with traditional wood-burning fireplaces are changing over to new technology for more efficiency and ease. Some, who don’t want to sacrifice real wood logs, combine with gas, so there’s an option of working both ways (gas-assisted wood burning).

Ultramodern styles

While remote controls have been available, Heat & Glo introduced a Wi-Fi enabled gas fireplace controlled app at the Building Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. Now you can warm spaces before coming home or check to make sure the fireplace was turned off before you left. In addition, there are some first-to-market safety features, including a child lock and hot glass indicators.

More ultramodern styles are on the docket as well, including Heat & Glo’s new model called REVO – a slender, 7-inch-deep profile that comes in square, horizontal and vertical shapes that can be hung on the wall like art. It features the company’s patented razor burner, which produces a particular pattern and a reflected glass interior. Multicolor LED accent lighting also is available.

Similarly, a stylish vent-free model from Napoleon features a torch flame design with porcelain reflective radiant panels. Shown on its website ( in a contemporary bath, its burner comes with decorative glass embers. Safety features include an energy-saving “no pilot” gas valve control system that automatically shuts off the supply. Accent lights to mount underneath and above are optional.

Mantels and surrounds

If an inherited traditional mantel seems old-fashioned, you can change the finish or paint it and visually lighten up the surround with tile or stone. Where brick walls may date a fireplace, an update with paint or even a new stone or stone veneer face will do wonders.

Chicago designer John Wiltgen has retrofitted many existing fireboxes, combining antiques with new technology.

“We consider fireplaces a pivotal element of design,” said Wiltgen. “They can be stylish examples of one-of-a-kind functional art and architecture.”

A few years back, Eldorado Stone, which manufacturers stone-lookalike materials for cladding, introduced a series of composite mantels that have the heft, scale and look of stone without the weight and cost (prices start at about $1,500). They come in a range of styles, including some beautifully classical profiles as well as more clean-lined designs with mitered corners. They’ll stand out on a plain or textured stone wall.

One of Eldorado Stone’s newest mantels is an elegant hand-finished surround called the Dylan. It’s composed of real limestone aggregates and hand-finished in a four-step process that makes each piece one of a kind. It’s a crisp design that easily transitions between traditional and modern decor.

Tile offers still another option not only for surrounds, but also for dressing fireboxes. Motawi Tileworks, a Michigan-based boutique artisanal company, shows a variety of examples for tile mantels as well as tall feature walls. All of the tiles are done by hand – trimming, sanding, dipping and glazing – with each piece handled 28 times.

No matter which style you choose, you can create a gathering spot that offers visual warmth as well as welcome heat when it’s cold outside.

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