Sunday, February 27, 2011

Modern Fire - Love Hate

One of the most common requests I receive from clients, second to kitchens,  is to redesign an outdated fireplace (or to add a brand new one).  Just like any other architectural detail of a home, (staircases, doors, mouldings etc) fireplaces create character in an interior.  In well designed interiors, architectural elements like fireplaces and staircases should look like they 'belong' to the house, the style and character of the exterior structure of the home should be in sync with the interior architectural elements.  By in sync, I mean they should have the same character or.... thoughtfully and intentionally different so as to create a juxtaposition of style (not just randomly different).

Hands down my absolute number one favorite architectural feature in a home is an open wood burning fireplace.  There's nothing more appealing to me than the way a fireplace anchors a room or the warmth and ambience that's created from a crackling wood fire.

This is my idea of a perfect fireplace.  I love the simplicity of the space, the high contrast of the black mantle against the white walls, and the Eva Zeisel tea pot is definitely calling my name (I covet anything EZ).

Contrary to the notion that wood burning logs are only for 'traditional' spaces, this contemporary fireplace design illustrates how even the most modern loving trendsetters can bask in the glow of a crackling wood fire without hanging a fake looking flame on the wall. 

In my experience with designing fireplaces for clients it seems most people associate the concept of wood burning logs or a mantle or a hearth as being 'not modern', but you can see from the images above and the ones below, this simply isn't the case.  There are many ways to achieve a modern fire other than installing a linear gas burner in a wall.  Here's a look at some other favorites and examples of what I consider modern fireplaces..

This wood burning fireplace is modern perfection.

 The fireplace in Klaus Neinkamper's contemporary home as seen in Canadian House & Home has a sparse simplicity to it.

Modern classic.  Love everything about this fireplace.

I LOVE the contrast of an antique (heritage) fireplace with modern furniture and accessories. 

With all this in mind, you might understand why I find it so challenging to comply with the requests I receive for 'modern gas fireplaces'.  Not just the occasional request,,,,literally every client I've had over the past 5 years has requested a modern log-less fireplace - you know the units that don't have a log set, just the linear flame amongst some river rocks or glass beads.  I'll be as honest here as I am with each of my clients who've asked for one when I say I personally, honestly, really, really don't like them (hate is such a strong word).  I don't think they have the character of wood burning fireplaces in any way, to me they simply look like flat screen tv's,  but I think the biggest problem I have with them is they're so often, done so wrong.  Just like flat screen tv's, people are struggling with how to integrate modern gas fires into their homes in a way that looks appropriate.

There's nothing appealing about this modern fireplace to me.  A fireplace that looks like its floating on a wall always looks fake to me.  Its the character of a fireplace that I love, and this has none.

Again, I'm personally not drawn to this concept, you have to consider when the unit is turned off what are you left looking at? I'd rather have a great piece of art on that wall and some candles on the table.  This just leaves me cold.

I explain my point of view to clients and even though I show them other modern gas options that look more like classic wood burning fireplaces...I simply fail to convince them to change their minds on this issue. Just like men are dead set on having their jumbo size flat panel tv's and there's no talking them out of it,,,,many couples seem to be dead-set on having these ultra modern flame-only fireplaces.  First time homeowners, move-up homeowners or empty nesters, everybody wants them.  Regardless of the type of house they live in or the style of their decor, they all want them and I lose the battle every time. Ultimately, I surrender and 'Tim Gunn' it best I can.

There are many manufacturers making log-less gas fireplace units but frankly I don't find them very attractive, in fact most look rather cheesy to me.  I wonder why those who are opposed to fake logs seem to be ok with fake driftwood or fake lava rocks (?).  There are exceptions, one of the originators of the contemporary flame-only fireplace, and my favorite is Spark Fires, they have a truly clean face design with less visible trim than other mfg's and the media is optional.  So through the images below I thought I'd share some examples of what I think are well designed modern log-less fireplaces and why I think they've "made it work".

This is entire fireplace surround is beautifully designed.  I like that this surround and hearth looks authentic in that I could see this same design appropriate for a wood burning scenario too.  I love the rustic element of the wood logs even though its purely for display, its been built-in and looks like an artistic composition of wood vs gas flame.  You can see in this photo how much the gas unit looks like a TV, especially if it was turned off.  Because of this, I like the fact that the TV is not built in, its on a stand like an object or accessory on the hearth rather than it being integrated into the surround like the fireplace.  The dark colour keeps everything low contrast so the tv and the fireplace box are less of a visual distraction and the focus of attention is on the flame.

Architect: Hacin & Associates   Photographer:  Michael Stavaridis

A beautifully designed space. You can see how the fireplace and the stairs are designed with the same materials and quality of detail, they reflect the architectural style of the house.  I love how the fireplace is fully integrated into the structure and built with the same integrity as a wood burning hearth would be, giving it an authentic feel.  Nothing about this says 'fake fireplace' or 'after thought'.

Design:Rafael Novoa Interior Design   Photography: Alba Photo Studio

This stunning home is a modern barn conversion.  The rustic elements of the barns stone walls and timber beams are paired against contemporary furnishings, the sleek use of industrial materials like concrete and steel for the structures perfectly compliment the modern rustic architecture.

Altius Architecture Inc.   Photography: Patrick Burke, Tony round

Another beautiful example of how the fireplace is completely integrated with the architecture and you can see how the contemporary exterior style translates thru the interior.  The rock media used in the base of the fireplace suits the local.

Architect: Kevin White

Beautiful composition.  These fire units are so abstract that composition is very important.  The structure should be interesting enough (have character) to hold its own even when the fire is off. The entire fireplace wall looks very much part of the architecture like a true masonry fireplace would be.  This same design could translate to wood burning, the absence of the logs is consistent with the simple exposed elements of the loft interior.

Design: Frank Roop   Photography:  Eric Roth

In what is probably a more traditionally built home, this modernized fireplace has sleak clean lines constructed from slabs of vein cut travertine while still maintaining its 'traditional' mantle and hearth.  A clean linear look that suits the classic modern furnishings, it successfully transitions traditional with modern.

TV or no TV?

When you have a clean modern fireplace wall that is void of a mantle or surround, my advice is not to put a fireplace above it.  Particularly with gas fireplaces, I find this type of installation ends up looking like an appliance wall (think double wall ovens in a kitchen!) and while they both may function perfectly, aesthetically it has zero appeal.  It can easily look like you're roasting your tv over a flame like a rotiserie chicken.  I personally don't mind a tv over a fireplace, sometimes its the only solution if you want both in the same room and I believe it can be done well.  To my eye there needs to be a bit of separation between the two, so if a TV is going above the fireplace, even a modern fireplace, I prefer for the fireplace unit to have a surround and a mantle so there's more distinction that its a fireplace not another appliance.  A mantle will also help deflect the heat away from the TV screen.

So if you're still convinced you must have a modern gas fire or your existing one is looking tired and outdated - I'll be addressing some important planning issues that you need to be aware of when considering adding, modifying, updating or replacing a fireplace.  There are a LOT of strict regulations and requirements to research and understand before you'll know what's feasible and what isn't.   

Now with all this talk of fireplaces and the stunning winter wonderland view outside my window, I'm going to put some real logs in my fieldstone fireplace,  pour some tea into my Eva Zeisel tea cup and enjoy the simple luxury of a crackling fire. : )

    Photo Credits:
    1. Elle Decor -  Met Home Nov '08
    2. Michael Grimm - Photographer
    3. Canadian House & Home, Nov.09, 
    4. Source unknown
    5. Canadian House & Home
    6. Source unknown
    7. Mim Design, Australia
    8. and 9.  Unknown
    10. James Tse - Photographer
    11. thru 17. via
    12. Source unknown


    1. I absolutely agree. A great option for people who simply can't put in a wood burning fireplace is a town and country gas one. We had one in our last house, and will be putting one in our new house this year. They are the closest thing to the wood burning vents, flush to the hearth, herringbone brick, andirons...etc. LOVE them, and love this post and your blog in general. My goal for my VERY small business this year is to put in the fireplace, then use your e-services to design a kitchen plan. It's keeping me going..........:). A fireplace and a new kitchen.....Ahhhhhhhhh.....

    2. Ahhhhh...add on to my previous post....just went to the Town and Country site and even they have jumped on the more modern looking floating fireplace bandwagon:) As long as they keep their regular units I'm happy.

    3. Our fireplace is all a flicke now and needs a modern lift, but I am an old fashioned gal and there is something so wonderful about the wood, the sound and the warmth. At the ski house this winter we have a switch and that is nice to flip after a hard day skiing....and not to have to clean....but I too much prefer the real fire and tea too. Funny I have an EZ pot!

    4. My afternoon agenda is to design a real wood fireplace for a 1940s house renovation that I am working on. So, with fireplaces on my mind, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts, and have to say that I agree. There is just nothing like the emotional warmth that comes from a real fireplace ~ maybe it is the primal caveman in us!

      You have selected some fabulous rooms to make your well argued point.

    5. Great examples, thank you!

    6. Great comments and lovely examples. Given me lots to think about as we design our modern, ventless fireplace!

    7. We have six fireplaces and not a single one is functional...sigh. The joys of buying an old farmhouse!

    8. Thanks Sue,
      I'm not opposed to gas fireplaces, I like the ones that look as real as possible and there are some good options but it seems like the market is being flooded with these more abstract ones as your second comment points out. New kitchen and new fireplace.....sounds wonderful!!!

    9. PVE, why doesn't it surprise me that you have an EZ tea pot! : ) Her work epitomizes classic modern design. I idolize her. Crackle and a real flame are the best, gas or wood, its all about how its presented!

    10. Virginia I'm jealous,,,sounds like a wonderful design project. I'm kinda obsessed with fireplaces! I'm so drawn to the primal aspect of them and love to incorporate that centuries old element in our modern spaces.

    11. Caroline - six fireplaces!!! Oh my! They can be expensive to restore, hopefully you can get one of them functioning in the future. The good thing is they add lots of character to a space even when they're not lit. : )

    12. I think a fireplace needs a mantel. It frames the fire and warms up the room. And I'm with you... those floating fireplaces leave me cold!

    13. Carol - I can't even imagine how long it took you to find all those fireplace pictures! LOL. I could look at fireplaces alllll day long. I NEED to know which issue of H&K Klaus' house was in. I'm desperate to see it. Also, I'm with you. If it can be hung on a wall it's not a fireplace. If it can be turned on with a "switch" it's not a fireplace. Blech. See? Yet AGAIN we agree and are similar. I can't wait until I make enough money to buy my dream farmhome and thusly hire you to design it. :) Here's to the future! ~ karen

    14. Karen - I'm obsessed with fireplaces and have hundreds of pics, it took a long time to narrow down just a few for this post! Klaus jr's house was featured in the Jan.08 issue of H&H. A favorite of mine, I still have the issue on my shelf but I tore out the pages. If I have all the pages, I'll email to you! : ) Soon as you find that farmhouse, call me immediately! A modern farmhouse is my dream home too, actually....a modern barnhouse. Is it weird I'm more interested in the barn than the house when I'm looking at country properties?

    15. ooo...these are great! I think you, indeed are both a country and a city mouse :)

      Can't wait to see the projects you have wrapped up...such a talent!!! And your photos...triple threat! Enjoy those nights with your warm quilt and that glass of red wine :)


    16. This is a great post. Well explained and well justified. You make some very good points. Nice to see someone who is really thoughtful about fireplace design.

      I agree with you completely about the 'flat screen tv'-looking fireplaces. There is something completely wrong about treating a fireplace as 'insubstantial' and 'surface-applied' - makes absolutely no sense historically or tectonically.

      I agree that nothing beats a wood-burning fireplace - but if you can't have one - as with most of us urbanites - please don't have fake logs!

      Thanks for the post!


    17. Khai Foo.....Thank you! true if your 'wall hung' or floating flames are installed in a way that could never be possible to do if it were wood burning,,,then its like shouting out loud "I'm fake", so what's the point? Its just an accessory not a fireplace. To me a fireplace is an architectural feature, my point above is even if you use gas it should be built and installed with the same integrity a real fireplace would be. I dont understand why so many people think anything with a mantle or surround or logs cannot look modern so I hope my examples above show how untrue this is. My biggest pet peeve with the modern logless gas units is the way in which people are installing them. Even when using gas, with or without logs make it look as technically/structurally authentic as possible.

    18. Hi - where do I find the fireplace that you have called "This wood burning fireplace is modern perfection"?! It is beautiful, and I would like to know where I could get one?!


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