Like moths to a flame, we’re drawn to fireplaces. There’s a bit of magic to these interior design focal points. They make a room feel cozy, inviting, and warm even if they’re not running — which they hardly are these days with the ease of central heating. Even though temperatures rarely drop low enough to warrant a fireplace here in Texas, most of my Austin interior design firm clients make this feature a priority in their design plans. While they appear simple enough on the surface, fireplaces have a profound effect on the rooms they’re in and many technical elements to consider alongside aesthetics. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I review the history, benefits, types, and parts of a fireplace, which all have to be carefully evaluated in the design process.
What is a Fireplace?
Born from function, a fireplace is a heat-resistant structure made from brick, stone, or metal meant to house a fire. While early fireplaces were used for heating the home and cooking, current-day fireplaces have evolved into an aesthetic focal point void of any real necessity. However, folks still love to have fireplaces in their home as focal points in their entertaining spaces. Even if a fire is never lit, the fireplace provides a cozy atmosphere and a spot to hang stockings at the holidays.
A Brief History of Fireplaces
Some form of a fireplace has existed since fire itself, as cave dwellers built fire pits in their shelters to keep warm and cook food. Fireplaces continued to evolve throughout the centuries but began to take their most modern form in the 1700s thanks to Benjamin Franklin, creator of the Franklin Stove. His design provided better ventilation and more efficient heating. Design improvements continued from there, replacing the task of chopping wood with gas power at the flip of a switch, and so on. Of course, other advancements, such as William Strutt’s furnace in 1805 and Franz San Galli’s radiator in 1855, took us further and further away from the need for a true fireplace.
By the early 1900s, central heating was becoming more commonplace, and there was no longer a strong functional need to build a fire in the home. However, folks were still inclined to gather around the fire together on a cold night. President Franklin Roosevelt played a significant role in cementing the fireplace as a cultural symbol and necessary feature of the American home in his weekly Fireside Chat radio segments during the 1930s and 40s. These chats promoted the idea that the fireplace was a spot to gather with family and should maintain its distinction as a design focal point. Today, fireplaces are solely decorative elements, with many designs lacking a heating element altogether. However, that doesn’t mean the modern fireplace is without any benefits.
Benefits of Fireplaces
Create a Focal Point
Interior design affects our moods, and fireplaces provide a cozy focal point that captures the eye and immediately draws you into the space. Without a true focal point, a room can feel unbalanced, uninteresting, and unfinished.
Convey a Design Style
While we may not need a fireplace to function, these architectural elements help convey the design style of a home. For example, a linear brick fireplace has a mid-century modern feel, while a carved wood mantel carries a sense of Colonial charm.
Provide a Space to Gather
Furniture layouts centered around a television set don’t encourage conversation or a true sense of gathering. However, there’s something we can all fundamentally connect to as humans around the fire. A fire fuels an instinctual sense of gathering, and the fireplace symbolizes that year-round.
Add an Element of Comfort
Finally, fireplaces add an element of comfort, which I believe is their greatest benefit. Far too often, folks and even designers forget that a home should be comfortable. Elements like layered textiles, rich colors and patterns, and plenty of places to sit around the fireplace bring a warm, comforting feel to the home.
Types of Fireplaces
A wood-burning fireplace is fueled by crackling firewood. This fuel source is rustic and charming. For many folks, the act of chopping and collecting wood becomes a ritual and even speaks to their values and design preferences.
A gas fireplace uses natural gas to create heat. It is a popular choice for homeowners because it is more efficient and does not produce as much smoke as a traditional wood-burning fireplace. Plus, it has the added convenience of on-demand ambiance with the flip of a switch.
Electric fireplaces project a faux flame and heat the room with an electric heating element. Since they don’t have a real flame, there is no risk of smoke or sparks. You can even turn on the flame visual without cranking up the heat, which is a great bonus when you want an autumnal atmosphere in Texas despite the heat.
Ethanol and Gel
Ethanol and gel fireplaces are sometimes called “eco fireplaces” because they burn a renewable biofuel that’s much cleaner than wood or gas alternatives. These flames are easy to control and don’t produce smoke. So, ethanol fireplaces can easily be retrofitted or even imagined in unique applications, like an indoor fire pit that doubles as a coffee table.
Parts of a Fireplace
The firebox is where you build the fire. It’s a square or linear opening lined with heat-resistant fire bricks. The shape and size affect the overall look of the fireplaces, so aesthetics should be considered just as much as function.
The chimney starts at the top of the firebox and forms a tower that extends past the roofline to carry smoke up and away from the home. It’s topped with a chimney cap to protect the internal flue, the passageway for smoke, from the elements.
The fireplace surround lines the perimeter of the firebox and must span at least 8 to 12 inches to protect the internal wall. However, fireplace surrounds can be much larger and extend up the entire length of the wall for a more dramatic effect.
The hearth extends from the base of the firebox and can either sit flush with the floor or be raised to create a bench. It usually extends 16 to 18 inches. A hearth may not be necessary if non-combustible flooring has been chosen for the room or when using electric or ethanol fireplaces.
This is where you hang your stockings! The mantel is the decorative ledge placed over the firebox. It can either be floating or supported by pilasters for a grander feel. While many clients like to have a mantel for display, it can be eliminated for a sleeker design.
The End of Our Fireside Chat
We’re coming to the end of our own fireside chat, but it most certainly won’t be our last. Fireplaces warm our hearts much more than they warm our homes. They’re a central focal point of our living rooms and our holiday photos. With this preliminary knowledge, you can better understand just how involved the fireplace design process is and make decisions to enhance this feature’s warm welcome in your home.
I hope this lit a flame to learn more.
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.