Above: An 18th-century mantel stands out among more contemporary furniture in a Watch Hill, Rhode Island, home designed by Giancarlo Valle.
Times and tastes may change, but the perfect fireplace is forever. Victorian architects were huge fans of them; so were modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright; and without those dangling, cocoonlike fixtures from California brand Malm, would the 1960s even have happened? Fireplaces are a perennial favorite for residential interiors, and it’s easy to understand why. As Spanish architect and historian Luis Fernández-Galiano once wrote: “What is a house but a hearth?”
Today, contemporary designers are still fanning the flames, preserving and celebrating fireplaces and the infrastructure that surrounds them—in particular the mantelpiece, the most prominent as well as the most versatile element of the traditional hearthside. For her new villa on the French Riviera, designer India Mahdavi scooped up a giant yellow glazed mantelpiece created by Italian artist Giuseppe Ducrot, giving her tranquil living room a dramatic focal point. Pritzker Prize–winning architect Alejandro Aravena’s Ocho Quebradas, a 2019 vacation home in Los Vilos, Chile, comprises a pair of concrete towers leaning over an exposed fire pit, essentially making the whole house one giant mantel.
Even the quirkiest corners of the field are getting in on the act: The 250-square-foot Road-Haus, the latest model from luxury mobile homebuilder Wheelhaus, includes a small gas or electric fireplace topped by a rustic wooden shelf—the perfect place to set your coffee before you walk off into the wilderness.
“Mantelpieces have the potency of order,” says Adam Charlap Hyman, cofounder (with Andre Herrero) of American firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero (CH&H). Citing 20th-century greats like Diego Giacometti and Serge Roche, Charlap Hyman points to fire decor as a place where designers can make “an artistic, expressive statement”; the trick, he says, is to use the mantelpiece as a counterweight, an opportunity to either impose a degree of symmetry and hierarchy on a space or to disrupt it with an offbeat accent.
For a new project in California, CH&H acquired an Art Nouveau mantelpiece, looking to bring an ornamental note to an otherwise orderly composition. Elsewhere, inside a newly built vacation home on Long Island, the designers were tasked with crafting a space to complement a fluted fireplace created by New York studio SO-IL. The interiors specialists responded with a soft, breezy living and dining room that plays off the chimney’s solidity. “With something so classical, we felt there had to be something decorative and light nearby,” Charlap Hyman says.
Katie Maine, of Maine Design, is another mantel enthusiast. “Having one redirects the house, giving it gravity and strength,” she says. Like Charlap Hyman, Maine has her own honor roll of great fireplace designers: Jean Royère, whose minimal mantels in brick and wood are paragons of midcentury refinement, and artist David Wiseman, whose contemporary fireplaces vibrate with sculptural detail.
For Maine, who’s presently installing a new fireplace in a home in Montecito, California, the difficulty can come in navigating a client’s expectations, getting them to see the mantel’s potential as something more than a functional frame. “There might be something they’d like,” she says, “but it has to work with the project.” In another interior, in Los Angeles, Maine is ripping out a series of developer-built mantels that were simply too big and too brash, failing to harmonize with the elegant seaside setting.
While fireplaces have always been in vogue, there could be a reason they appear particularly popular right now. Designer Aamir Khandwala has included mantelpieces in recent projects ranging from summer houses to Manhattan apartments, and in his view they serve an all-important role. “Mantels represent this ideal of warmth and coziness,” Khandwala says. “They give us a place to spend time with the people we love”—time that has been in especially short supply during the pandemic, when so many of us have been separated from friends and family. Whenever COVID-19 dissipates, we might expect to see more high-design mantels, with people once again crowding together around the glowing heart of the domestic landscape.
How to Fake a Fireplace
Few things anchor a room architecturally like a striking fireplace. But when it’s faux, the results can look disastrous. Here, some expert tips for keeping it real-ish.
“While the firebox may be fake, the mantel most definitely should not be,” says designer Alyssa Kapito. “I love investing in incredible vintage marble ones. They
have beautiful pieces at Jamb in London.”
“The key is what you do with the opening,” says architectural salvage go-to Evan Blum, owner of New York–based Demolition Depot. “Cover it with a cast-iron summer front, which they used inVictorian days.”
“If you paint the inside black and put a fire screen in front of it, no one will ever know it’s fake,” Kapito says.
When you must have a crackling flame, ventless systems from companies like Hearth Cabinet look surprisingly authentic.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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