A Face for the Fireplace

Fireplaces are the heart of a home and the focal point of a room. Consider scale, material, and especially craftsmanship for your new hearth.

Before you set your heart on polychrome art tile and carved walnut for your new fireplace surround and mantel, look at the rest of the house. A house with a pronounced style or in a specific locale may suggest the obvious choice for the all-important surround: Malibu tiles, say, for a California ranch; pillowy pottery-glazed tile for a shingled Foursquare in the upper Midwest; soapstone or river rock for a rustic cottage. Similarly, if your woodwork is plain fir or poplar (or even painted), a high-end wood like mahogany or carved walnut may look out of place.

Including just a few decoratives in a Motawi art-tile fireplace allows the beautiful glazes to take center stage, says designer Michelle Nelson.

Including just a few decoratives in a Motawi art-tile fireplace allows the beautiful glazes to take center stage, says designer Michelle Nelson.

Scale and proportion matter. “How big a voice does the fireplace need to have?” counsels Michelle Nelson, a Berkeley home design consultant. Getting the scale right is critical. Often in a living room or dining room, she says, “the fireplace is going to center the whole house.”

If you like the idea of brick, you’re on the money from a historical standpoint, as many Arts & Crafts-era fireplaces were finished in brick. Others were trimmed in stone, especially blocky ashlar cuts or native river rock, both of which are making a comeback in easier-to-install real-stone veneers.

stone fireplace

A stone fireplace in New Hampshire has a dry-stacked face (mortar isn’t visible on the surface).

For masonry fireplaces, it’s a good idea to ask your supplier to recommend an experienced mason—even down to the type of stone. Ask for recommendations for designers, too. In addition to choosing a type, cut, and color of stone, you’ll also need to select a grout line style and color, which can dramatically change the look of the fireplace. (Eldorado Stone has helpful guides under “Learn” on its website, including a product selector to help you choose.)

In most Arts & Crafts settings, however, art tile is in demand for fireplace surrounds. Since handmade tiles will vary slightly in size, it’s critical to have an expert installer do the work. “If you are spending between $2,000 and $6,000 just for the art tile, you better make sure you have the best installer you can find,” Nelson says.

Working with art tile requires finesse in design and installation. Begin by drawing (or commissioning) a complete design for the surround and hearth. “You want the hearth to feel integrated and connected to the legs of the surround,” says Nelson, who spends a lot of time talking homeowners out of using one material for the surround and another for the hearth. Sometimes a stone that’s visually similar to the tile in the surround can be used in the hearth—soapstone with green, gray, or blue tile, for instance.

When you handle the tile, you’ll notice how both color and the glossiness of the glaze can vary greatly from tile to tile. Lay them out on the floor and shuffle them around until you get a pleasing rhythm between light and dark, matte and gloss. (A skilled tile-setter will do this for you, but try it yourself first.) “It’s all about how the glaze and texture play across the face of the fireplace,” Nelson says.

hand-cast tile fireplace by Cha-Rie Tang

A custom-carved and hand-cast tile fireplace by Cha-Rie Tang of Pasadena Tile.

The tile-setter also will need to play with the grout lines. “When you’re working with art tiles, you have to make what’s not straight look straight,” Nelson continues. A skilled craftsman also can create a surface plain that’s level, a real feat with art tile, which invariably comes in different thicknesses.

Nelson prefers to use just a few decorative tiles (or “decos”) in her installations. “If you have too many decoratives, they become part of the chorus; they don’t get to sing solo. I want each of those decos to be a diva.”

mantel from Dura Supreme Cabinetry

Simple lines in quarter-sawn red oak, in a new mantel from Dura Supreme Cabinetry.

About the Mantel

More often than not, Arts & Crafts mantels were made of wood and kept simple, sometimes as just a horizontal trim piece above the brick or stone below. Any wood or finish used should be strongly in keeping with the woodwork elsewhere in the house. “You can’t change direction unless you change the rest of the woodwork, too,” says design consultant Michelle Nelson.

To keep things in perspective, Nelson uses the analogy of looking at the mantel as though it were a hat. “Generally, you decide what suit or dress you’re going to wear, and then figure out what hat goes with it. A mantel caps the fireplace and stands on top, but it should not be louder than the tiles in the fireplace.”

Mantel installation should be the last step in the process. “It’s far easier to scribe the wood than to cut the tile.”

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