Home & Garden

Hip hearths

Since men were cave dwellers, the hearth has been the heart of the home. Over time, fireplaces naturally became the focal point in the family room, dressed up with elaborate moldings and ornamental mantels. But designers are seeing fireplaces turn to sleeker looks, where the fire itself is the star of the show. Behold the modern fireplace. "More people are gravitating toward minimal surrounds," says Jonathan Kelly, manager of Fireplace & Bar-B-Q Center in Overland Park. "Fireplace interiors are becoming more streamlined, too."

Until recently, gas-insert manufacturers tried to replicate real logs. But now tumbled glass or river stone inserts are becoming more popular.

"People don't want to look at big, massive logs," Kelly says. "What's soothing and relaxing are the flames."

And for people who don't have a chimney, the advent of bioethanol burners means you can have fire without smoke. These fireplaces use denatured alcohol — not gas or wood — as fuel.

"You can put them anywhere — patios, bathrooms," says Joe Gassmann of Gallery Expressions in Wichita. The store at 7355 W. Taft sells the see-through, environmentally friendly Eco Smart Fireplaces that are free-standing and don't require any installation.

A new trend for people who have gas fireplaces is to pull out the gas logs and replace them with a wall-to-wall bed of tempered, recycled glass pieces, Gassmann said. When the gas is lighted, the entire bed of FireCrystals burns.

"You get a lot bigger flame than with a log set, and a lot more radiant heat," Gassmann said. The glass pieces come in many colors and don't break down.

Not on the showroom floor yet is a gas fireplace that offers a wide skinny ribbon of flame —"more of a widescreen look," Gassmann said.

Beyond changes in the interiors of the firebox, the exteriors are being streamlined, too. When design consultant Kim Ebner of Kansas City, Mo., remodeled her Dutch Colonial house a few years ago, she replaced the patterned green-tile and wooden mantel with three large pieces of unadorned limestone that reach to the top of the 8-foot ceiling. No mantel.

"I wanted the fireplace to look sculptural and simple," says Ebner, an artist.

Instead of wood logs, the fireplace uses gas. The insert is made of cement spheres.

"I love the organic look of the ball shape with the linear surrounds," she says.

Because she loves the warmth and ambiance that a fireplace provides, she added a ventless gas fireplace between the kitchen and dining room. It is a see-through glass firebox simply surrounded in drywall. She had the black box painted silver for an updated look. The look is pared down but elegant, like a classic black-and-white photograph framed in a white wooden frame instead of an ornamental gilded one.

Ventless fireplaces have a few downsides, Kelly says. Depending on the type, a plumber may have to install a gas line. Some of the fireplaces also produce an odor that some people worry about.

But the ease of biofuel allows for fireplaces sold, for example, at Target that can be hung on a wall. It allowed Wendy Lucas of Overland Park to install a biofuel burner that is visible in the master bedroom and bathroom. It is a modern, unadorned look with a rock gas insert.

Noble says more of her clients are going for a modern look, and therefore, a more modern fireplace. In her house, her husband, Todd, tiled over the ivory porcelain square tiles of their fireplace and removed the dentil molding. The couple incorporated horizontal gray glass, slate and marble tiles in a style that's reminiscent of the style of HGTV designer Candice Olson, who likes to mix in a bit of bling.

"Just this little bit of material made a big difference," Noble says. "I get more compliments on the fireplace than anything else."

Fireplaces have become more energy efficient in recent years. Expect to pay $3,000 for one that is 80 percent efficient.