Something New From Something Old

By Christine Brun

August 12, 2016 5 min read

How can you fix a dysfunctional or ugly fireplace? This is often a predicament in very old homes where the fireplace was the heating system, or even more modern homes that feature an awkwardly placed or out-of-date fireplace. Some are eyesores, cloaked in out-of-date materials like slump stone; some are too rustic for taste. Let's look at some creative ways to breathe new life into a room with a fireplace.

There may come a time when you realize you don't have to keep a fireplace in your home just because it was originally built with the house. One of the best things about modern design is that we are allowed to break the rules of typical interior design without being judged. If a design or furniture piece looks friendly and feels good, consider putting it in your home. In this case, there are clever ways to spruce up a fireplace beyond its traditional use and purpose.

I recently worked with a couple that owns a condo in a high-rise building right outside the outfield of our baseball stadium. They paid well over a million dollars for this penthouse, and it's literally a part of the stadium - they can hear and see the game from their balcony. Unfortunately, the structure of this so-called luxury building does not measure up to the price tag. This condo had one of the ugliest fireplaces I've ever seen. In this situation, the owners covered up the fireplace opening and used the space for media equipment and a wall-mounted TV.

There are often ventless fireplaces in high-rise buildings that look cheap and unrealistic. They're so unattractive that it's better to get rid of them rather than pretend they are worthy of use. But, this is not to say that there aren't very attractive designs out there. Pellet stoves are great options, with slim burners that use denatured alcohol and can also have other custom features. That being said, if you are stuck with something ugly from another era, why not cover it up instead of forcing the idea?

Here's a case in point from Australia. Our example transforms the old fireplace into a backdrop for a seating area! It's genius. By sealing and painting the fireplace opening, this homeowner turned the fireplace into a new architectural feature. The room is narrow, but this redesign allows for a completely new furniture arrangement that shifts the orientation of the room away from the fireplace and opens up the room. Anyone who walks into the space will feel it.

This example shows how our notions of furnishing a room have shifted over time. If you wish to create a more fresh seating arrangement in your home, know that you can install new drywall right over just about any fireplace material to create a smooth, modern surface. If you want to get creative, you can also remove certain indentations and create a simpler shape if you wish.

Depending on your home, you may prefer to leave the firebox (the inside of the fireplace) intact and only change the material of the facade. For example, you can replace wood with natural stone. The size and type of materials range, from a full slab of marble or granite to 16-by-16 inch tiles of limestone, ceramic tile or porcelain.

If you desperately need more storage, consider treating the entire fireplace wall as a built-in unit. Design media storage, TV screen, bookshelves and storage cabinets or cubbies around and over the existing firebox.

When remodeling, be certain to respect your local building or housing codes regarding noncombustible materials. In general, or if in doubt, make sure there are 12 inches of noncombustible material around the fireplace itself. This also includes the distance the mantel protrudes from the wall. Zero-clearance firebox inserts have less stringent requirements in the manufacturer's specifications.

Now it's time to get creative and see what you can do to upgrade your fireplace.

Christine Brun's weekly column, "Small Spaces," can be found at

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