FIRE MIGHT BURN eternally, but fireplace styles — and materials, and fuel options — heat up and cool down with the times. For the latest warming antidotes to our frigid Seattle freeze, we turned to a couple local experts: Daniel Hammer, president and owner of Ballard’s Sutter Home & Hearth, and Hailey Olsen, Sutter’s head of marketing.
Over their decades of experience, they’ve had their irons in many fires indeed. “If it has something to do with fire, we’re probably involved,” says Hammer.
Keep your eyes on the fire: “The biggest thing we’ve seen lately is a gravitation toward a minimalist, clean design — something that lets you see the most out of those flames, and a little less on the metal detailing,” says Olsen. “Whether it’s a long, modern, linear shape or even a traditional landscape that most people are used to in their homes, we’re seeing a lot less of the detailed filigree and a lot more focus on what’s actually burning on the inside.”
What’s burning? “In 1979, when we first opened, it was all wood, 100%,” says Hammer. “Through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, it was predominantly wood, and then gas technology started to catch up. Here in Seattle, gas is the number one thing we sell for fuel. We have wood as a far secondary option. We are starting to diversify into electric; [manufacturers are] starting to make a lot of strides with that, where it’s starting to look more realistic and more enjoyable. Bioethanol is another option they’re figuring out, and the market is starting to respond to that.”
Clearing that log jam. “Some folks don’t necessarily, in a gas fireplace, want to see logs. It hurts the suspension of disbelief; they already know it’s not really a wood fire, so now it’s driftwood they want to see, or stones in there, or glass,” says Hammer.
Insert insert here. In the Seattle area, a wood-to-gas insert is the most common — and the easiest — transition, Olsen says. Adds Hammer: “Most of the houses in the core of the metropolitan areas were built pre-1950s, so a lot of them have fireplaces. For most of our customers, that’s the solution they’re looking for: They have an old masonry fireplace and want to put a gas insert in there.”
We’re surrounded. As for the material around a fireplace, Olsen says, “With modern homes, we’re starting to see a lot more marble, typically in lighter or neutral colors. If it’s tile, it’s normally larger-cut tiles, so instead of the 6×6, or even 12×12, we’re seeing 24×18 tile: something with less in terms of the actual grout lines but something that’s meant to be very clean and complementary to the color palette. We’re also seeing more discussion about metal surrounds. We’re starting to see more introduction of steel around the fireplace, whether it’s in the form of a full surround, or a wall of steel as an accent. Gray concrete finishes are another thing we’re seeing, both inside and outside.”
Stop the burn. There’s more at stake than a crowded focal point when you’re trying to display a TV and/or meaningful work of art near a fireplace: like, a potentially destructive hot mess. “Manufacturers were like, ‘Well, people want TVs above fireplaces, but TVs don’t like heat over 90 degrees, and if you’ve got a TV within 20 or 30 inches of this fireplace, it’ll go up to 200, so what are you going to do?’ ” Hammer says. “So they’ve come up with ways to safely put a TV above the fireplace, still maintain the ability of the appliance to heat the room and not overheat the surface around the facing. We call it heat management technology. It’s designed not to cook your television.”
Take it outside. The pandemic definitely sparked a movement toward outdoor gatherings around outdoor fireplaces and firepits. “We didn’t want to give up on being human and getting together, because that’s such a part of who we are, and the best way is to make sure you’ve got warmth and a fire around you,” says Hammer. Even now, Olsen says, “We’re starting to see trends in a more practical use of an outdoor space, making that outdoor space an extension of the home.”
What keeps their home fires burning. Olsen lives in an apartment and has an electric fireplace in the living room. “When I mention that to people, they’re like: ‘You work at a fireplace shop, and you have an electric fireplace?’ I say: ‘Hang on a second; let me turn this on for you.’ Oddly enough, it’s become not just a gathering place but very much a talking point — ‘I’d love to have something like this in my bedroom for that ambience and that light,’ or, ‘I can even just turn on the heater and not have the light on.’ “
Hammer’s home has two remote-controlled indoor gas inserts plus a wood-burning firepit in the backyard. “It’s funny,” he says. “The inserts are old, from the mid-2000s, and they are the centerpiece of the home. I own a hearth company, and most of my equipment is pretty outdated. They’re still wonderful. I don’t think anything you can put in your home has quite the same presence as a controlled, beautiful, comfortable fire.”