Art Gray

Think outside the firebox for a sleek and stylish look

Jil Peters and Peter O. Whiteley,  – December 6, 2008

Still the focal point of many interior living spaces, the latest fireplaces look anything but traditional. Although their inner workings are largely standardized ― most new models contain prefabricated fireboxes ― the front can be much more expressive.

As long as you follow building codes regulating the distance that combustible materials must be from the firebox opening and the distance a mantel shelf can project from the wall, you are free to decide how you trim out, or decorate, the area around the firebox.

From glass and steel to tile and stone, the material options are broad and enchanting. So read on and let the following examples inspire you to curl up by the fire.

Shadow play

A heavy oak-and-marble fireplace ― the result of an unfortunate ’80s-era renovation ― once sat between the living room and the canyon view in this Los Angeles home. Everyone agreed it had to go, says architect Alejandro Ortiz. His solution: a see-through fireplace.

Ortiz installed the new firebox behind a sheet of sandblasted glass, which, like an architectural shower curtain, turns the firebox and chimney into a ghostly silhouette. Behind the glass lies the firebox, completely exposed. The 7- by 4-foot steel base, which is painted black, functions as a raised hearth and was designed to store firewood on one side and magazines on the other.

DESIGN: Alejandro Ortiz Architects, Los Angeles (310/313-4611)


Four-part harmony

The serenity of this living room arises from the simple clarity of the fireplace design. The front is divided into four distinct rectangular segments: the slate hearth, which is flush with the floor; the fireplace opening; the wood-storage box that is built into the wall; and the projecting fir mantel above that caps the composition.

DESIGN: Becca Cavell, architect, and Joe Schneider, Portland (503/248-0162)

Nested boxes

Architect Mark Horton used a 15-inch-deep, boxlike steel surround to give a small fireplace ― which seemed undersized relative to the room it was in ― a larger presence. He shifted the surround to one side to make the fireplace appear more centered in the room. The simple, clean-lined structure, which integrates the hearth and mantel, is made of bead-blasted stainless steel with a waxed finish.

DESIGN: Mark Horton/Architecture, San Francisco (415/543-3347)


Made-to-order modern

The choices in fireplace fronts made of concrete ― a quintessentially contemporary material ― are ever expanding. These three manufacturers offer a particularly good range of options. Most concrete surrounds must be custom-sized to firebox dimensions, so cost can vary widely (typically between $2,200 and $6,000). Labor and complexity will also add to the total. For more information on contemporary fireplace designs, check out Ideas for Great Fireplaces (Sunset Books, 2004; $15).

Flying Turtle Cast Concrete The company emphasizes a handcrafted approach to integrally colored concrete in a variety of vibrant hues; 209/530-1611.

Doverra Simple rectilinear shapes, some of which resemble picture frames ― such as the company’s Clybourn and Ravenswood mantels ― are made with fiber-reinforced cement; 847/285-1902.

Sonoma Cast Stone Specializes in colorful, lightweight concrete in a range of textures; 888/807-4575.