Modern fireplaces reflect minimalist style

The fireplace long ago ceased being a functional element in most American homes. In our climate-controlled environments, it's usually no more than a decorative feature, although a living room fireplace still does satisfy a primal urge to gather around a fire for psychological as well as physical warmth. In other words, everybody loves a fireplace.

Designwise, no fixture in the home has a stronger association with tradition. But today's fireplace often has a contemporary look consistent with its surroundings.

I've seen some successful examples of fireplaces that have been adapted to sleek settings. I've also seen a lot of unsuccessful impositions of the new on what's essentially an old-fashioned appliance. It's never easy to arrange a happy marriage of the traditional and the contemporary.

Q: We're building a modern-style home that will include a fireplace. It's actually not the standard kind that's placed against a wall but will instead be situated between the living room and dining room and visible from both.

What sort of mantel would be appropriate with such a fireplace?

A: The type of fireplace you're describing is seldom accompanied by any mantel at all. In keeping with its minimalist styling, there are usually no decorative or framing elements around the firebox.

Slate, marble and tile are the materials typically used on the surrounding wall. To emphasize the firebox's status as a focal point, the opening is often framed with a wood or marble bolection molding. This type of molding has a wide, semicircular, protruding front that serves to soften the geometry of a fireplace opening.

If you still prefer to add a mantel, your best option is probably to have it custom-designed, perhaps in art deco or Arts and Crafts styling. A local cabinetmaker should be able to create a wooden mantel of that kind with a handsome finish.

An alternate strategy, illustrated in the photo, involves calling attention to the wall around the fireplace. In this sophisticated contemporary setting, most of the wall has been covered with slab-sized ceramic tiles that form an integrated geometric pattern. The tiles, manufactured by the Italian firm Rex Ceramiche, have here been given a richly textured gold metallic finish.

As you can see, a contemporary fireplace doesn't need to be framed by a mantel. The main requirement is that the fireplace opening be surrounded with fireproof material to 6 inches or so (building codes vary). This can be slate, marble or tile. Beyond that, you may extend the decorative treatment by covering a good part of the wall in tile or marble, or by using wallpaper or even a contrasting paint.

Rita St. Clair is a syndicated columnist with Tribune Media Services Inc. E-mail general interior design questions to her at