When a leading architect installs a 9.35m Calacatta Gold marble fireplace in the atrium of a major residential project, you can be pretty sure that fireplaces are back in fashion. “I love the primitive aspect of fire and somehow, in the middle of the city, the most primitive thing becomes the most luxurious,” says Thomas Juul-Hansen, the New York-based architect responsible for this extraordinary, soaring fireplace (price on request) that dominates the atrium of landmark property developer Wainbridge’s recently completed apartment building Belgravia Gate. “The atrium is basically a huge, vertical void topped with glass,” he explains, “so, since it’s rather like being outside and there’s nothing quite like sitting around an outdoor fire, we decided to use the space to create a massive one raised right into the sky.”
Juul-Hansen is not the only one to be thinking big. Chris Dyson Architects recently installed a gas-fuelled Paxfocus fireplace with an 8.5m-long chimney by French specialist Focus in a private home in London. “There is a triple-height atrium rising over the open-plan living room,” explains practice partner Mathew Witts, “and we wanted to add something that would both draw the eye up through the space and provide a homely focus in the living room.”
Creating a sense of home is, of course, what fires have done since man first rubbed two sticks together and is the reason why they have continued to be a feature of interiors despite their functionality being replaced long ago. But from a design perspective, fireplaces have been rather forgotten and the current shift is largely down to timing. Homeowners are now turning away from visible technology, preferring the soothing sight of a fire to the latest gadgetry, and at the same time technological developments in the industry are making it possible to have a fire anywhere, anytime.
“Now that technology has got so mobile, people don’t want it cluttering up their rooms,” explains Simon Rawlings, creative director of design studio David Collins. “But we get asked for fireplaces all the time and the new fuels mean you can put them anywhere.” One of his recent projects – composed of a sheet of silk-backed glass offset by a Turkish Lilac marble surround (from £30,000) – makes use of the existing flue, but had it been blocked, or not been there at all, he would simply have replaced mains gas with a different fuel.
Bio-ethanol is a popular choice. Contained in a tank that is usually hidden in the base of the fireplace under the burner, bio-ethanol burns like a real flame but emits almost no CO2 and is safe to inhale, thus eliminating the need for a chimney. Dara Huang, founder of architecture and interiors practice Design Haus Liberty, is drawn to the fuel’s precision. “The great thing about bio-ethanol fires is that they look natural but you can control the flame,” she says, “so you can have a square of fire, for example, or a long, horizontal line.”
Huang opted for a chicly minimal line in the fireplace she designed for the penthouse living room at Amazon Property’s new Park Crescent development in London’s Portland Place. The base of the fire (£19,800), which contains the bio-ethanol tanks, is made from dark La Pietra marble, while the “chimney” area is clad in acid-washed brass (the acid gives it an interesting bronze effect) and will slide open at the flick of a switch to reveal a television. “This fireplace combines the comfort of an open fire with high-tech convenience,” says Huang.
For interior designer Rabih Hage the attraction of bio-ethanol fires is their flexibility. Freed from the restrictions imposed by the need for ventilation, these fires can be installed in unexpected places, such as swimming pools. “I always discourage clients from having a swimming pool just to tick a box,” he says. “I believe the pools themselves should be large enough to swim in properly so, in order to justify the use of space, the area should have other functions as well. When I was asked to put a pool in a house in London, I decided to add a fireplace [price on request] so the client could also use the area as a lounge.”
A vast, rectangular form clad in Black Cohiba granite and surrounded by a wall created from a beautiful grey-toned African stone called Anthracite Sauvage, it is like a piece of elemental sculpture, but since it also emits some heat, it serves a functional purpose too. “Swimming pools are typically heated to around 28ºC,” explains Hage, “and if you can go and sit somewhere that’s the same temperature when you get out, it continues the sense of relaxation. The warmth generated by that fire has a real purpose.”
But it’s not just about heat; the dancing of flame-like light can be a visual delight in itself. Cathy Azria, who creates one-off fire installations for BD Design in which traditional logs are replaced with steel forms such as sinuous loops (£4,200) or horizontal blocks, uses LEDs to create the mood-enhancing effect of a fire without the heat. “With LEDs you can still have the calming mood of a real fire but without burning anything,” she explains. “I installed a pair of my fire sculptures on each side of an alcove in a house in London and the client told me she loves to sit beside them with a cup of tea before going to bed.”
LEDs and new fuels may have liberated the fireplace from the chimney, reduced damaging emissions and enabled designers to install fireplaces in new and exciting environments (Azria has found there is a growing demand for her LED fires from superyacht owners), but they have not been able to replicate the smell of a real wood fire, which is still allowed in rural homes.
Focus fires, which has been at the forefront of fireplace design for over four decades, has designed the world’s first suspended wood-burning sealed fire (from £8,690). A periscopic, free-hanging chimney that draws in air through the smoke evacuation flue, it proves that traditional fuel is no bar to contemporary style.
When Seattle-based design practice Olson Kundig was commissioned to design a retreat in the Canadian ski resort Whistler, a wood-burning fire (price on request) was such a central element that a whole section of the house was built around it. “The concrete chimney literally holds up the end of the house and roof,” says owner/design principal Tom Kundig. Given its scale and double-side opening (one side opens onto the living room, the other to a smaller room), it would have been easier to run the fire off gas, but, for Kundig, getting a wood-burning fire to draw properly is one of the main attractions of designing a fireplace. “The physics of how fireplaces work limits you to certain proportions for the openings and depth,” he says, “and if you deviate from those, you run the risk of a smoking fireplace. The challenge is to present the proportions you want aesthetically, while ensuring it draws properly. The reward comes when you succeed.”
Frauke Meyer, executive director and associate art director of Studio Liaigre, a branch of French architecture and design house Liaigre, has recently installed three wood-fuelled fireplaces (price on request) in a house in Japan. The one in the living room is also large and double-sided (it acts as a divide between the sitting and dining spaces) and so, like Kundig, Meyer had to work hard to design a fireplace that was visually pleasing yet provided excellent ventilation. The result is a long, rectangular block of lava stone overhung by what appears to be a chimney made of Japanese paper. This chimney is, in fact, a flue encased within two sheets of metal, which have been given a white patina to produce a paper-like appearance. While Meyer is a firm fan of wood, she accepts that the environmental impact of burning wood must be addressed. “The heat produced by a wood fire needs to contribute to the overall heating of the house,” she explains. “Achieving that is the new challenge for designers.” That is an exciting prospect for homes located outside smokeless zones, but for the rest, alternative fuels are allowing designers to satisfy their clients’ primal desire to gather around a flame in ever more beautiful and unusual ways.