Fireplace Design Considerations

By Kate Riley October 16, 2017

I woke up this morning to the news that most of the wildfires are reaching containment here in California. I know the firefighters are exhausted and people want to return to some sense of normalcy so that is good news.

A design project landed in my lap over the weekend, it was the perfect diversion for me. I’ve helped my brother Nate on his home renovations before, you’ll recall his beautiful kitchen makeover last year. In anticipation of winter, they want to give their fireplace wall a makeover and it’s my job to help them again.

Nate’s house is ranch style so he has flexibility when it comes to choosing materials, they can opt for traditional, craftsman, or transitional. Here’s a peek at his wood burning fireplace wall. They are removing the old vents (grates) and the wood burning fireplace insert.



They’re also having a gas line put in with this direct vent gas insert. I love the contemporary fluted back and the clean lines of the black iron trim kit which we may or may not include.



A fireplace is always a focal point in any space. When choosing fireplace design materials there are a few considerations: the overall aesthetic sought by the homeowner, the architectural style of the home, and proper scale of the surround. What will hang above it (if anything) is an additional consideration, whether it’s a TV or decorative objects like a mirror or art.

In my brother’s case, he wants to do the same as before, display family pictures/art on a mantel so I’m incorporating that into the new design. I’m considering replacing the neutral floor tile if necessary, but the big question is the design of the fireplace surround, specifically the style, color, and texture of the materials.

One look I’m drawn to personally is this more contemporary wrap around look. The clean lines are appealing but I’m not convinced it’s quite right for their home.


d stone builders


style at home


veneer designs

When choosing the decorative stone or tile, scale is always an important consideration. Smaller scale mosaics like this dark herringbone look fantastic when the surround is 12-18” around the firebox insert.


anvil fireside

Larger scale rectangular porcelain tiles work well when installed from the floor/base of hearth all the way up to the ceiling. I did something similar in my master bedroom earlier this year, I used large scale marble tile from floor to ceiling to give my master bedroom fireplace a more modern look.


homes to love


The classic pairing of white painted brick and a rustic wood mantel is always timeless. The simple materials allow the art and decorative objects to take the spotlight.


house of jade


sarah sherman samuel

For Nate’s fireplace, I’ll likely steer them toward a pale marble or stone mosaic similar to the one I used on this marble fireplace makeover at the flip house my own family room fireplace makeover.


Finally there is also the option of incorporating more dimension with traditional millwork in a neutral palette. More formal but equally lovely.


park and oak


The installation will happen next month, and have a great makeover to share as soon as it’s done!



  1. Beautiful photos! How do you decide how big/wide a surround should be? Is ti relative the the width of the fireplace?

    • It should be proportional, but it also depends on whether there are bookcases, windows, or doors nearby. Every home fireplace requires different considerations. There is no one size fits all answer, and it also depends on the style (contemporary or traditional) and if there is a mantel surround, floating mantel, or no mantel.

  2. I surely hope that your brother’s conversion of his wood burning fireplace to a gas insert is vented. We have a ventless gas fireplace and NEVER use it due to the smell. Recommendations for a ventless is limiting use and cracking open windows, which seems crazy. We just got a quote for converting ours to ventless.

    • It has built in venting, they’re just looking to get rid of those old fashioned grates on the wall.

  3. Hi Kate. I’ll be repainting an entire house and wanted your opinion of the best whites to use for a nice crisp clean look.

  4. I’m interested in putting in a large stone surround like your first two photos. Any suggestions on how to find the best piece/price and provide accurate measurements?

  5. Kate – thanks for the inspo! i’m close to redoing a fireplace so very interesting for me! i need to understand how the whole fireplace set up works – i have a black metal contraption on the front of my fireplace with vents above and below fireplace that i’m hoping my contractor will tell me can go, but right now i’m very unclear on how the whole thing fits together.

    susan – we have a ventless fireplace. when we first used it the smell was a problem. we had a fireplace service come out and clean it and meticulously place the logs and it’s very much minimized (though sometimes i will still get a passing whiff). He said that with ventless if a log is diverting the gas from the flame even a little it can cause the smell. but i have gas logs in other fireplaces and they are definitely better imho if you’re starting from scratch!

  6. Think twice before removing the vents or, if you must, consider installing a blower with the gas insert. We added one to ours and it was the best $400 I ever spent. It turned what was a pretty, giant waste of fuel into something that was pretty AND functional. We saved on our heating bill because the blower directed all that good heat into the room where we spent the most time. Otherwise, the heat doesn’t radiate that far from the glass and it’s just a hot, dangerous, inefficient art piece. Blowers are where it’s at!

    • They want the grates gone but the new insert will have venting. I have two gas fireplaces with vents above the unit and they want a similar one. Their living room is small so they’re opting out of the blower.

  7. Looking at your brother’s current fireplace. I would pick something similar to the one with the rustic mantle from house of jade.

    I’m glad that the fires are almost contained and you can get back some sense of normalcy. I’ve been following the fires closely. I’ve only visited your beautiful wine country once many years ago but I loved it and I’m heartbroken for all who lost their homes and of course the families who lost loved ones. You are such a giver, Kate, and I know that you’ll be a big part of the area’s rebirth.

  8. Hi Kate can you share the source for that fluted firebox you show. I have a client currently redoing their mid-century fireplace and I think this might be a good choice.

    thanks and look forward to seeing the final product and also so glad to hear the fires are being controlled. We feel your pain up there as San Diego has experienced these types of fires twice in the past 15 years! Thanks God for our firemen!!

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