Let me set the scene for you. I’ve come home from my Austin interior design firm on a chilly autumn night — for Texas, that’s about 60 degrees. I retreat to my den and take a seat on my coral velvet sofa next to my tiled mid-century fireplace. These beautiful handmade tiles took up a hefty portion of my renovation budget. The alternating pattern of deli mustard and desert sand hues is a perfect nod to my home’s mid-century roots, and the colors carry the warmth of a flame (one of which is never actually lit in my fireplace). After all, the low 60s is hardly cold enough to light a fire when the home is adequately warmed on the lowest setting of my central heating.
I’m not the only one investing in my home’s fireplace. For many of my interior design clients, the fireplace feature is a top priority, even though it no longer serves a practical function in modern homes. Even up north, folks have accessible heat at the click of a button, and a roaring fire is just superfluous. However, we spend the time and money to decorate a hole in the wall with artisan tiles, bricks, and fake ceramic logs. So, why do we still have fireplaces in our homes and give them so much weight as the focal point of our living spaces? Well, the entire principle of home comes down to the basic needs for warmth, comfort, and safety — and that’s what fire brought to man all those centuries ago.
From Ancient Caves to Modern Skyscrapers…
From ancient caves to modern skyscrapers, the fireplace still reigns supreme. Up until about the early 1900s, fireplaces served as the home’s primary heat source as well as a space to cook and even heat water for baths and laundry. Modern appliances, radiators, and central heating have replaced the functional benefits of a fireplace. However, it still remains a prominent part of home designs and an in-demand feature. Even in New York City skyscrapers, folks cherish their pre-ban wood-burning fireplaces and the delivery person who brings chopped wood to their doorstep. Fireplaces are completely extraneous, but we humans persist in creating hearths in our homes to gather around, mimicking the ancient flames with everything from faux gas logs and ethanol fuel to flame projections and TV yule log channels.
Fireplaces are About Form, Not Function
The trouble we take to create a sense of home is touching. Although fireplaces no longer have a true function, they still serve as a strong symbol of home and the comforts that come with it. There are many benefits of having a fireplace, too. For one thing, it creates a place to gather and be present. My team and I are designing a lovely studio for a client and installing a ceramic fireplace with a two-story flue to set the stage for a cozy gathering space. The effect will be stunning! Unlike a room anchored by a TV, a fireplace encourages discussion and bonding. In the case of these clients, their fireplace design reminds them of their time in Europe, and just selecting tiles is sparking joyful conversations! We can interact with our fireplaces without becoming wholly absorbed the way we are by our TVs. We can gaze at the flames, warm our toes at the hearth, and poke at the logs. If we need a reason to retreat, we can even go to the yard to chop wood.
Old Flames Die Hard
We have an almost primal, instinctual desire to create fire, and we look for excuses to do so in our modern homes. Perhaps this is why gas stoves are so popular, but we can dive into that another day. The funny thing to me is that as I sit here and write by my fireplace, I can’t even light a “real” fire because of my curious cats. You know what they say. However, our human creativity and desire for fire persists. I’ve inserted a perfectly sized TV in my fireplace that is set to a YouTube fireplace channel that plays on repeat. I have my virtual fire roaring all through the Texas fall and winter. With the click of my remote, I have no-sweat ambiance.
Even though my fireplace flames aren’t real, my family is still drawn to this cozy spot like moths. My kids tend to gather around the fire in the mornings before they head out for school, and it pulls them back out of their rooms for evening conversations before dinner. While we no longer need the heat function on our fireplaces, I’d say we can definitely all benefit from its use as a conversation starter.
Why Do We Still Have Fireplaces? It’s Simple.
So, while we could be practical and cover our unused fireplaces with sheetrock to make way for a larger TV screen or much-needed storage, something stops us. You could say it’s our primal drive to create a fire, but I think it’s our instinctive desire for connection and gathering. Although not a technical one, our fireplaces still very much have an important function in our homes. They provide a spot to unplug from the constant distractions of the world, get back to basics, and reconnect with our household. Instead of spending the night in front of the TV, take a night to gather around the fire and see the difference it makes.
I think we all need a good gathering spot.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.