The hearth is the heart of the home. Even without a blaze going, it evokes warmth, comfort and romance.
A fireplace dominates a room as no other single decorating device can do. We design seating arrangements around this natural focal point as much for emotional warmth as for the warmth generated by the dancing flames.
And the mantelpiece draws the eye as unerringly as the fire does, a place just made for everyday adornment and holidays, when we dress the fireplace to the nines with garlands, $l ornaments and collectibles.
No one knows exactly how many fireplaces there are in American homes; some have more than one. But in 1995, close to 2 million hearth appliances, including those for wood-burning and gas fireplaces and stoves, were sold.
And fireplaces, once used exclusively for practical purposes like cooking and heating, are finding their way into every room in the house -- even the bath, where some builders design two-sided models to share with bedrooms.
The range of styles is enormous, including entire walls -- mantel-free -- that can be clad in marble, limestone, river rock, ceramic tiles, flag or synthetic stones, or stucco like Dryvit. Vintage mantels can be found in flea markets for around $50, and some go for tens of thousands of dollars in antiques shops.
When Marie and Bill Trader redesigned the kitchen of their home, they were delighted to find a Gothic-style mantelpiece at a flea market. The mantel has a mirror (which makes the room look larger) and shelving for their collectibles.
A blue-and-white checkerboard tile surround, which matches the kitchen stove, also inspired the use of cobalt as an accent in chair cushions, napkins, dinnerware and a Delftware chandelier.
Whether you're building a new home or have decided to add a fireplace to an existing room, consider the impact a particular style can have on the room.
Traditional mantels, typically in pine or oak, are widely available. Cherry, maple, mahogany and other exotic woods are more expensive, and ornamentation or unusual shapes will add even more to the mantel's cost.
There are ways to give even an ordinary mantel a more elegant look. You can, for example, dress a plain mantel with decorative molding (home supply stores are one source for stock molding) or create a decorative tile surround.
Antique tiles can be used to create a single focal point, or they can be placed elsewhere in the surround at, say, the corners. Expect to pay a premium price for antiques -- $15 to $100 per tile. But using them only as accents will help keep the cost down while you match the antiques with less expensive new tiles.
You could even create your own mosaic, as one friend did, by using old tiles with beautiful salt glazes and breaking them into irregular shards, then arranging them into a pleasant pattern on the floor -- to see how the design looks -- before installing.
A less expensive wood mantel can be painted -- all white can be quite dramatic with a black or verde marble surround. Marble tiles are less costly than slab, and they're every bit as elegant. Above the mantel, you might hang a fancy mirror or painting.
Keep furnishings in front of the fireplace low or transparent (a glass-topped coffee table, for example). You don't want to hide the room's focal point.
Don't be timid about using color. The most traditional fireplace can take on a strong hue, such as sunflower yellow or slate blue, and then be pulled into the room for great effect. Doors, moldings and wainscotings can be painted to match, and upholstery and window treatments can pick up the color scheme, too.
In new construction, you have the luxury of making the fireplace an integral part of the room's decor. In one of his recent designs, architect James Nagle designed a grand fireplace on a stepped-out wall, framed with flat beams similar to those defining the walls.
The overstated mantel suits the tall proportions of the two-story living room and its Arts and Crafts style. The wood warms the plain white walls, as do terra cotta tiles, which echo the grid of the walls and window mullions.
Large scale gives a room importance. Some of the designs from Classic Cast Stone of Dallas Inc. recall the grandeur of 17th-century Europe, when massive stone fireplaces dominated rooms. Some of the designs are simple, with silhouettes and gentle curves; others are elaborate, with twisted columns and cast animal figures. Costs range from $450 to $10,000.
Fireplace walls assume a distinctly decorative function in the Southwest. Typically made of adobe or adobe-like materials, the wall is sculptural, rounded almost like a beehive or angular with almost Art Deco shapes, sometimes with very tall chimneys, whose form is part of the design.
Often, these walls are embellished with paint in earthy Santa Fe colors, punctuated with geometric designs.