Use tile as art to make a hot fireplace

Make a fireplace something spectacular with a new tile facelift. Not one inch of precious space will be sacrificed, yet an entire wall might become a work of art.

Tile has been a favorite - and highly practical - material choice because the surfaces around the firebox must be noncombustible. Contemporary selections are exciting and can lend inspiring themes to launch a particular mood or theme for your entire interior space.

Create an art piece unique to your room by selecting from patterns and shapes. "Geometric styles help to create a vibrant, dynamic look in the home,'" says Houzz editor Victoria Harrison. "It's a design trend we're seeing becoming increasingly popular."

Choose from powerful angles, graphic lines and clean-cut shapes that emerge as defining elements. Current shapes include squares, rectangles and small circles known as "penny" tiles.

One of the more unique patterns out now is the "H" shape that interlocks into a pattern. You will also find hexagons, exaggerated fish scale patterns, leaves, abstracts and embossed tiles. Never before has there been such a rich array or choice. Be aware that the more exotic a design, the more costly the tile.

For a sleek look, investigate large format tiles with dimensional design motifs that create depth and texture. These can range in size from 18 square inches, 24 square inches, 36 square inches and 24-by-48 inches. When installed, such tiles form a bold design; the overall impression could be a sculptural wall with a wavelike form or vertical ridges and valleys that are dragged through the clay, resulting in a uniform texture.

While the latest trends may be audacious and dramatically suitable for an urban townhouse or a modern cottage, do not forget to revisit more traditional fireplace designs particularly suitable for vintage homes. These designs often were prepared for a small firebox centered on a living room or parlor wall.

And before tearing any old tile off your walls, take the time to do a little research on what is installed. If it is painted over, be particularly suspicious, because it could be a Batchelder fireplace. What does that mean to you today? It signals that you have a historic tile that ought to be restored and spared from landing in the trash heap.

Scrape the paint off at a corner. The reason so many of these fireplace surrounds are painted over is that they are unglazed tiles and readily accept paint. Once the 1920s fad passed, plenty of subsequent homeowners over the years just covered the special custom tiles with pigment as a way to modernize the look. We know now that these old tiles are precious.

In the late 19th century, artist Ernest Batchelder began designing and firing ceramic tile in a kiln in his own Pasadena, California, backyard. The most relevant detail about Batchelder designs are the concise patterns that engaged multiple sizes of tiles from 6 square inches to 2-square-inch tiles. Even in the simplest of design motifs, Batchelder featured at least one focal tile that was generally something from nature - a tree, a landscape scene or an animal.

Ernest was an even more successful marketer than a craftsman, and soon his distinctive tiles were wildly popular in Southern California, and not long after were in high demand across the country.

Regardless the design theme, the impact of a fireplace is evergreen in appeal. Walk into any room that features a hearth and you instantly feel drawn into the space. Make your selection based on aesthetics, durability and practicality.

• Christine Brun is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Small Space Living." Send questions and comments to her by email at

© 2018, Creators Syndicate

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