That Ugly Fireplace Isn’t as Bad as You Think

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“The fireplace must be the focus of every rational scheme of arrangement,” Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. wrote in their 1897 design classic, “The Decoration of Houses.”

Not much has changed since then. Fireplaces are usually the dominant element in rooms lucky enough to have them, and the anchor around which furnishings are organized. In fact, most fireplaces refuse to be ignored, whether they’re beautiful or ugly. And therein lies the problem: What if your fireplace is clad in dated tile or discolored brick, or your mantel looks out of proportion or out of place?

Giving a fireplace a new look may seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.

“It’s an architectural ornament that’s changeable,” said Thomas Jayne, an interior designer in New York and the author of “Classical Principles for Modern Design,” a book on applying Wharton and Codman’s ideas to contemporary interiors.

Transforming the appearance of a fireplace is usually well worth the time and expense, he said, because “if you like your fireplace, you’ll like your whole room a lot better.”

We asked Mr. Jayne and other designers for advice on how to deal with a problematic fireplace.

It’s easy to write off old mantels and surrounds as unappealing when they’re damaged from years of abuse or covered in layers of soot, grime or caked paint.

But don’t automatically assume that you need to rip out or cover up what you’ve got. Instead, try to imagine what your fireplace would look like if it were restored.

“In a lot of projects, we start with ugly-looking fireplaces” that are actually beautiful underneath, said Andrea Fisk, who founded the Brooklyn-based architecture firm Shapeless Studio with Jess Thomas Hinshaw.

“A lot of them have just been painted over and over and over,” Ms. Thomas Hinshaw said, “so that they’ve lost a lot of the detailing and character.”

When Ms. Fisk and her life partner bought a rundown townhouse of their own in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, it had a dreary-looking living room fireplace covered in dirty cream-colored paint. But rather than immediately removing the mantel, Ms. Fisk performed a careful investigation.

“We really had no idea what was under there,” she said. They couldn’t even tell whether the mantel was stone or wood. With a chemical paint remover, she stripped away layers of paint and was astonished by what she found: a stunning mantel of green and gray slate with hints of pink and carved floral details.

“That was a wonderful surprise,” she said.

Not only did she keep it — after removing every trace of the old paint, of course — she also based the color palette of the room on it.

It was as simple as covering the brick with a sealing primer, she said, and then applying several coats of Decorator’s White paint from Benjamin Moore. “The priming is very important,” she said. “If you don’t prime, the color from the bricks will bleed through.”

Almost any type of paint can be used on the outside of a fireplace, Ms. Simonpietri said, though she prefers an exterior-grade paint for durability. But inside the firebox, it’s important to use a special high-temperature paint that can withstand the heat.

A painted brick fireplace is easy to maintain, she said, even when it’s white: “All you have to do is hit it with another coat of paint when it gets dirty, over time, from the smoke.”

Replacing an existing mantel or chimney piece, or adding one where there was previously none, can immediately change the character of a fireplace.

A traditional fireplace can be made to look modern with the addition of a mantel composed of simple marble slabs, and a contemporary fireplace can be given a sense of age with a traditional wood mantel that has classical details.

“Changing the mantel itself is not that big a deal,” Ms. Simonpietri said, noting that they can usually be pried off the wall like trim. “Essentially, you are left with walls that need to be healed. If you’re a handy person, it’s a do-it-yourself project.”

Replacement mantels are widely available at a range of prices, from home improvement stores like the Home Depot to specialty manufacturers like Chesneys. And reclaimed mantels can be found at architectural salvage stores like Big Reuse, Olde Good Things and Demolition Depot and Irreplaceable Artifacts.

Of course, not every fireplace needs to be finished with a conventional mantel. There are countless creative alternatives.

For a more monolithic appearance, a fireplace can be resurfaced in concrete or natural stone in the same way. If you use natural stone, though, choose a dark one, like slate, rather than a light one, like white marble, Mr. DiSalvo advised: “You want to select a stone that isn’t easily stained by soot. A darker-colored stone holds up better over time.”

Attacking the mantel or the area immediately around the fireplace sometimes isn’t enough. In that case, the whole wall that houses the fireplace may need attention.

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