Hearth & Soul

Create an elegant focal point just right for gathering with inside design strategies from the experts


An array of unexpected, even whimsical objects on the mantel draw the eye to the room’s focal point and create a sense of character create a study in contrasts y setting a dark (or light) fireplace surround and mantel against a very light (or dark) backdrop: the effect is both elegant and dramatic deep, richly veined Cambria is complemented perfectly by the dark wood trim of the fireplace surround.

There’s nothing quite as inviting as a room warmed by a crackling fire and few architectural elements quite as important as a fireplace. Ambience, warmth, character: A fireplace can lend all three to your space, and can create a dramatic focal point at the same time. “Fireplaces create an intimate and inviting atmosphere,” says Portland, Oregon-based designer Garrison Hullinger. “But they can also play a big role in defining the space and its overall aesthetic.” The materials you choose to surround the firebox, the design and arrangement of the mantel—or the decision to omit a mantel entirely—can set such a strong tone for the room that some designers begin their work by planning the fireplace. “The fireplace almost always ends up creating the wow factor in a room,” says designer Tineke Triggs, of San Francisco. “It lends itself to using really gorgeous materials and to hanging art above it, so it’s a good place to begin a room plan: Start with the focal point, and then work everything else around it.”


Like everything else in your home, the fireplace should feel like an organic extension of the architecture, so let your house guide you as you dress the hearth. For a sleek, contemporary look, consider a floor-to-ceiling column of a single, non-combustible material, like Cambria. For a more traditional effect, surround the firebox in stone or tile, and then finish with rich wood. Whichever style you prefer, be sure to keep any combustible materials (like wood) at least 12 inches away from the edge of the firebox. And, consider proportion. “If you’re surrounding the fireplace opening with stone, make sure the width and height of the stone area is in proportion, otherwise you get these skinny little side strips and a top-heavy effect,” says Triggs.

Once the design of the fireplace is set, you can create a furniture plan that reinforces its dramatic impact. “Run a sofa or sectional parallel to the fireplace,” says Hullinger. “With a large coffee table or ottoman centered in the middle and occasional chairs on the sides the plan creates connectivity, while allowing the fireplace to remain the focal point and an anchoring element in the room.”


The area above the fireplace is the perfect opportunity to show off your personal style. Hang a favorite piece of art above the mantel, being sure to light it well. And, dress the mantel itself with a few carefully chosen objects. “Here, less is really more,” says Hullinger. “Consider a piece of art with a couple of artisan vases that vary in size and shape set off to the side.”

Thinking of hanging a television above the mantel? “Make sure it’s no more than 56 inches from the floor, says Triggs. “Otherwise it will be uncomfortable to view it from a seated position.” And, help it blend in by painting the wall behind it in a dark color, or by planning retractable doors are artwork to hide it when not in use. “That way, you have the convenience of the TV where you want it, without sacrificing the elegant look,” she says.

Use a freestanding gas fireplace to divide a space, offering warmth and flickering flames from three sides. Otherwise unadorned, the sleek and seamless fireplace column in Cambria dunmore receives a grounding finish from baseboards in a deep, contrasting tone. High-tech heat new options include app-enabled fireplaces that allow you to turn on or off the flames from afar.