“The fireplace must be the focus of every rational scheme of arrangement,” Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. wrote in their 1897 design classic, “The Decoration of Houses.”
Not much has changed since then. Fireplaces are usually the dominant element in rooms lucky enough to have them, and the anchor around which furnishings are organized. In fact, most fireplaces refuse to be ignored, whether they’re beautiful or ugly. And therein lies the problem: What if your fireplace is clad in dated tile or discolored brick, or your mantel looks out of proportion or out of place?
Giving a fireplace a new look may seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.
“It’s an architectural ornament that’s changeable,” said Thomas Jayne, an interior designer in New York and the author of “Classical Principles for Modern Design,” a book on applying Wharton and Codman’s ideas to contemporary interiors.
Transforming the appearance of a fireplace is usually well worth the time and expense, he said, because “if you like your fireplace, you’ll like your whole room a lot better.”
We asked Jayne and other designers for advice on how to deal with a problematic fireplace.
Consider what you have
It’s easy to write off old mantels and surrounds as unappealing when they’re damaged from years of abuse or covered in layers of soot, grime or caked paint.
But don’t automatically assume that you need to rip out or cover up what you’ve got. Instead, try to imagine what your fireplace would look like if it were restored.
“In a lot of projects, we start with ugly-looking fireplaces” that are actually beautiful underneath, said Andrea Fisk, who founded the Brooklyn-based architecture firm Shapeless Studio with Jess Thomas Hinshaw.
“A lot of them have just been painted over and over and over,” Thomas Hinshaw said, “so that they’ve lost a lot of the detailing and character.”
When Fisk and her life partner bought a rundown town house of their own in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, it had a dreary-looking living room fireplace covered in dirty cream-colored paint. But rather than immediately removing the mantel, Fisk performed a careful investigation.
“We really had no idea what was under there,” she said. They couldn’t even tell whether the mantel was stone or wood. With a chemical paint remover, she stripped away layers of paint and was astonished by what she found: a stunning mantel of green and gray slate with hints of pink and carved floral details.
“That was a wonderful surprise,” she said.
Not only did she keep it — after removing every trace of the old paint, of course — she also based the color palette of the room on it.
There’s a reason old mantels are often thick with layers of paint: It’s one of the easiest and least expensive ways to change the look of a fireplace. When done well, with an appropriate amount of paint — not gobs, which can clump, drip and look unsightly — painting can be surprisingly effective.
Susana Simonpietri, owner and creative director of the Brooklyn-based design firm Chango & Co., occasionally paints brick fireplaces white for a crisp, fresh look. Recently, she did so while renovating a 1970s house in East Hampton, New York, which had a two-sided fireplace between the living and dining rooms made from orangy brick that neither she nor her clients liked.
“We painted the outside white and the inside of the fireplace black, for a lot of contrast,” she said.
It was as simple as covering the brick with a sealing primer, she said, and then applying several coats of Decorator’s White paint from Benjamin Moore. “The priming is very important,” she said. “If you don’t prime, the color from the bricks will bleed through.”
Almost any type of paint can be used on the outside of a fireplace, Simonpietri said, although she prefers an exterior-grade paint for durability. But inside the firebox, it’s important to use a special high-temperature paint that can withstand the heat.
A painted brick fireplace is easy to maintain, she said, even when it’s white: “All you have to do is hit it with another coat of paint when it gets dirty, over time, from the smoke.”
Change the mantel
Replacing an existing mantel or chimney piece, or adding one where there was previously none, can immediately change the character of a fireplace.
A traditional fireplace can be made to look modern with the addition of a mantel composed of simple marble slabs, and a contemporary fireplace can be given a sense of age with a traditional wood mantel that has classical details.
“Changing the mantel itself is not that big a deal,” Simonpietri said, noting that they can usually be pried off the wall like trim. “Essentially, you are left with walls that need to be healed. If you’re a handy person, it’s a do-it-yourself project.”
Replacement mantels are widely available at a range of prices, from home improvement stores like the Home Depot to specialty manufacturers like Chesneys. And reclaimed mantels can be found at architectural salvage stores like Big Reuse, Olde Good Things and Demolition Depot and Irreplaceable Artifacts.
You can also build a custom mantel, like Vincent DiSalvo, a principal of DiSalvo Contracting in New York, frequently does for his clients.
Installing a new mantel is fairly straightforward, DiSalvo said, “as long as you work within the parameters of code requirements,” and size it properly to fit the existing opening. Combustible materials — like a wood mantel — must be at least 6 inches back from the sides of a wood-burning firebox, he said, and “the horizontal piece that runs across the top of the firebox should be around 12 inches” above the opening, depending on how far the mantel projects off the wall.
The resulting gap between the firebox and mantel creates another design opportunity, he noted, and can be finished with distinctive ceramic tile or stone.
Install a creative surround
Of course, not every fireplace needs to be finished with a conventional mantel. There are countless creative alternatives.
When Jayne renovated a house for clients in Oyster Bay, New York, he designed a tall box clad in Delft tiles to surround the fireplace.
“Rather than just having a fireplace with a row of Delft tiles and a pretty 19th-century wood molding around it, we tried to modernize it and make it more contemporary,” he said.
Sometimes, Jayne eliminates a ledge or shelf above the fireplace altogether, as he did in the library of an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There, he removed the existing “pseudo Georgian Revival” mantel and clad the wall around the fireplace in colorful mosaic tile — a design loosely inspired by a fireplace in a dining room designed by Stanford White at Kingscote, a 19th-century house in Newport, Rhode Island.
For a more monolithic appearance, a fireplace can be resurfaced in concrete or natural stone in the same way. If you use natural stone, though, choose a dark one, like slate, rather than a light one, like white marble, DiSalvo advised: “You want to select a stone that isn’t easily stained by soot. A darker-colored stone holds up better over time.”
Or transform the whole wall
Attacking the mantel or the area immediately around the fireplace sometimes isn’t enough. In that case, the whole wall that houses the fireplace may need attention.
When Shapeless Studio renovated a Brooklyn apartment that had an especially unappealing brick wall with a fireplace, they built a new wall with drywall in front of it, floor to ceiling, to conceal the entire expanse.
That slightly reduced the footprint of the living room, but it created a cleaner look and the opportunity to add a beefy custom limestone mantel. The architects also used the thickness of the new wall to create recessed storage nooks on either side of the fireplace.
Linc Thelen, a Chicago-based designer, used a similar strategy to conceal a dated-looking rubble-stone feature wall with a fireplace when he renovated a house in rural Indiana.
“We had to reframe it,” he said, because there was no other reasonable way to remove or conceal the stone. After adding cement board to the framing for a smooth surface, he installed a linear arrangement of buff-colored manufactured stone veneer from Eldorado Stone on top.
“I wanted something that was minimal but also warm and modern,” he said.
Building a second wall may seem somewhat extreme, but transforming the appearance of an unloved fireplace can pay big dividends. “The fireplace can help tie the whole house together,” Thelen said. “And it can say a lot about the personality of the person.”
There are also family traditions to consider, he added: “You can have Santa Claus coming down a stylish chimney.”