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17th September 2008

Rekindling Old Flames

Posted in: LASSCO News

Anthony Reeve rambles on about fireplaces in the current issue of Bridge for Design. We have it here for you:

Bridge for Design, Autumn 2008Bridge for Design, Design Trends

There is a deeply entrenched link between humans and their fireplaces. It’s not an overstatement to say that the hearth has been central to mankind since fire was discovered. Moving swiftly on to the 20th Century, it is interesting to see how technology and taste treated, or perhaps even tried to dispense with, the human desire to warm ones toes, of an evening, in front of flickering flames.

First gas, then electricity and the resultant Central Heating, later Double Glazing, Underfloor Heating, Insulation, now Solar Power and Passive Solar Technology have all seen the hearth being pushed from the home. Yet still, yet still, the fireplace hangs on as the principle focus of most living spaces. It has even held out against the television (although currently there is a duel going on between the fireplace and the giant plasma screen).

From the 1950s to the 1970’s there was a universal dislike of coal. Coal and logs meant pre-war, they meant dirt, smog and manual work. A fireplace was not “modern”; it was therefore ugly. “Victorian” was a dirty word. Perhaps the firegrate was considered to be in the same realm as the outside lavatory. In terraces and suburbs, apartments and workplaces, the fireplace was chucked out. The hole was plastered over and the thermostat was turned up.

The desire to sit in front of a fire just will not go away though. It is too deeply ingrained. We’ve seen “real-effect” gas fires with a glowing mound of plastic coals. We’ve marvelled at grates that have cold flames of air-blown silk. We’ve had piles of burning pebbles and DVDs of real-time burning logs for one’s plasma screen. They simply won’t do though. We must have a proper fire. Ask your dog.

The market in reproduction fireplaces has been a burgeoning one for years as the terraces and semi‘s, hotels and restaurants have been re-instating what they have lost. Manufacturers in Beijing now mass produce marble copies to feed the demand. India, Iran and Portugal are other centres of production.

However, nothing beats an original chimneypiece. The craftsmanship and design and materials in the product of the Victorians and their forebears, in the myriad of fireplaces that we have salvaged over the years, is often staggering. Carefully restored, selected and rebuilt, a character fireplace is the making of a delightful home; even more so when lit.

Antique fireplaces have steadily appreciated in value. At the top end of the market it isn’t unusual these days to see a marble chimneypiece selling for over £100,000. If it is rare and beautiful, it is collectable. It is a statement piece and a marker of taste. It is expensive. It is an investment. But across the scale, right down to the lowly Victorian cast iron combination grate, period features are the stuff of Estate Agent’s dreams. For decorators the chimneypiece is in the hinterland between furniture and architecture and offers a unique opportunity to link the two in an interior. And so the fireplace has persisted.

Even modernists yearn to have their fireplaces back instead of that little plastic grill that ventilates their redundant chimney. You can’t spend Christmas roasting chestnuts against your underfloor heating, so whilst an open fire isn’t perhaps a necessity, it will always remain as an indispensable part of the home.