Is Your Fireplace Ready for Winter?
If you’re lucky enough to have a wood-burning fireplace, cold weather comes with a silver lining: an excuse to build a roaring fire.
“Fire becomes this really amazing focal point for a room, whether it’s traditional or modern,” said the New York-based interior designer Thom Filicia. “There’s just something poetic, sexy and inviting about gathering around a fireplace.”
But before you build that first fire, make sure you’re ready. That means not just decorating the mantel — which, of course, steals attention during the holidays — but choosing the right tools and accessories to ensure that your fireplace looks good and works well. We asked Mr. Filicia and other designers for advice.
Assess the Situation
Not all fireplaces are attractive. In older homes, some have beaten-up mantels and damaged surrounds; in newer homes, they may not have much personality. In either case, a simple change — or a few tweaks — can give a fireplace a new look without tearing everything out.
While you could remove your mantel and replace it with a new one, it’s not always necessary. Never underestimate the power of paint. When Mona Hajj, an interior designer based in Baltimore, Md., was working on a home in Washington, D.C., her clients found the wood mantel in their dining room “so dark and depressing,” she said, that they asked her to scrap it.
But she could see that it was a quality piece, and when she coated the mantel and the surrounding walls in off-white paint, it transformed the look from forbidding to fresh. “It just softened that area,” Ms. Hajj said.
Mr. Filicia used a similar approach while renovating an old colonial-style home in Greenwich, Conn. Instead of white, though, he painted the mantel a dark aubergine and coated the room’s walls and trim in the same color, so nothing stood out. “You simplify it by doing everything in this one beautiful, rich color,” he said. “It turns all of the architecture into texture.”
Changing the surround rather than the mantel can also give your fireplace a new personality. When Amanda Jesse and Whitney Parris-Lamb, the founders of the Brooklyn-based interior design firm Jesse Parris-Lamb, renovated a brownstone in Park Slope, they encountered tired fireplaces that had surrounds of damaged subway tile within attractive original mantels. Rather than replacing the damaged tile with something similar, they chose more distinctive, contemporary tile: a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern from Balineum for one fireplace and a russet-colored floral pattern from Neisha Crosland for another.
“Changing out the fireplace surround is a nice way to update it while still respecting the history of the house,” Ms. Parris-Lamb said.
Add Distinctive Andirons
A pair of andirons or a fireplace grate is critical to help get air under logs and keep them from rolling out onto the hearth. But choosing the right ones is not only about functionality.
“It’s the jewelry. It adds a little character,” said Victoria Hagan, the New York-based interior designer. “I love searching for special and unusual andirons.”
Sometimes it’s the first purchase she makes when furnishing homes for clients, she said, “because it’s the focal point” — not just of the fireplace, but of the room.
Ms. Hagan favors vintage andirons and coordinates them with the period and style of each home, from curly wrought-iron pieces for a casual, colonial-style home to weighty brass ones topped by heavy ball finials in a formal space.
Others opt for more playful designs. When Gary McBournie and Bill Richards, the married partners of the Boston-based interior design firm Gary McBournie Inc., were accessorizing a fireplace in Wellesley, Mass., they chose anchor-shaped andirons.
“An anchor is about as cute as we get,” Mr. Richards said, adding that they like the contemporary andirons made by John Lyle, who crafts models with anchors, fish, stars, human figures and other sculptural elements, as well as more traditional English designs from Jamb.
Choose Fire Tools
You could buy a set of matching fireplace tools with a stand that sits on the hearth, but Ms. Hajj and Ms. Hagan prefer a more minimalist approach: They limit the number of tools — often using a single poker or a pair of fireplace tongs — and simply lean the tools against the mantel when they’re not in use.
“I don’t typically like tools in a stand,” said Ms. Hagan, who considers it too formal. “I like them casually placed at the fireplace.”
She buys tools with the longest handles she can find because they tend to be more elegant and are easy to use from a safe distance.
An ash shovel is also helpful for cleaning up after the fire has gone out, but it doesn’t have to be stored near the mantel, so it needn’t match the other tools. “I actually find the shovels awkward,” Ms. Hagan said. “Personally, I prefer a dustpan.”
Add a Fire Screen
If your fireplace doesn’t have built-in doors or metal-mesh curtains, a fire screen that will prevent sizzling logs from spewing burning embers into the room is essential. There’s a wide range of designs available — from flat-panel models that nearly disappear when in use, to folding ones with multiple panels and those that curve out into the room, which often look more traditional and provide easier access to the fire.
Whichever style you choose, the most important thing is to use one that matches the size of the firebox opening. If it’s too small, it won’t do its job; if it’s too big, it will look awkward.
“We see a lot of fire screens that are too small or too big, and it looks kind of like the fireplaces are wearing the wrong size clothes,” Ms. Parris-Lamb said. She and Ms. Jesse often order screens in custom sizes from Wm. H. Jackson Co. or Etsy vendors.
Most fire screens are made with a metal mesh, but glass models are becoming more popular. They offer a clear view of the fire, and can block some of the heat — which may be desirable or not, depending on the room.
That was Mr. Filicia’s goal when he designed one dining room with a fireplace. “We chose a glass fireplace screen that almost perfectly fits in the space, so it deflects a lot of the heat,” he said. “It makes it so that when you’re sitting at the dining table, you’re not overwhelmed by the fire. That was really important.”
Find a Place for Firewood
To keep the fire going, you’ll need logs at the ready — and somewhere to store them. Many manufacturers make special metal racks and leather slings for holding a few logs by the hearth, but almost any large-scale, good-looking container will do.
Mr. McBournie and Mr. Richards usually search out big, sturdy baskets woven from natural materials. “Typically, we’ll have a large basket that can hold at least a day-and-a-half’s worth of firewood,” Mr. Richards said.
Ms. Hajj uses a big Moroccan copper urn in her own family room and has bought similar copper buckets for clients’ homes. “I always try to get these big buckets,” she said.
A bonus: The buckets capture dirt and wood shavings that fall off the logs, keeping the mess off the floor.
Pull Up Some Seats
“There is a sort of primal interest in fire. It’s an attraction,” Mr. Richards said. “That means people are going to want to sit by it.”
To create the coziest spot in the house, Ms. Hajj likes to put a big, comfortable chair or chaise longue right next to the fireplace.
Ms. Hagan has designed rooms with upholstered stools that sit directly in front of the hearth, a couple of feet from the flames. “It’s a nice place to sit,” she said. “It’s very cozy during the winter.” And in the summer, the stools can easily be moved elsewhere.
In a Brooklyn rowhouse, Jesse Parris-Lamb placed thick, tasseled floor cushions near the fireplace. “It’s nice to have some kind of ottoman, stool or floor cushion close to the fire, so you can cozy up,” she said.
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