Frank Lloyd Wright identified the hearth as “the psychological center of the home.” If this is the case, and I very much agree that it is, then the fireplace is the spot in your house where the most attention should be paid to good design. Semi-custom and even custom homes today often have totally inept fireplace surrounds because very few contemporary designers are educated in the proportional systems required to come up with a really nice mantel. With our current love of hard, midcentury lines, today's trend is to detail fireplaces as sparely and rectilinearly as possible. But if you pay any attention to the homes these midcentury concepts are based on, you notice they all have fireplaces, that despite being clean lined, have a presence that draws you in and gives a prominent center to the rooms they occupy.
Here are a few tips to follow that will ensure your fireplace is a place worth passing some time, rather than just feeling like an obligatory plinth for your flat screen TV:
Traditionally, chimney masses have been at least partially contained within the envelope of a house because in the days when fireplaces were required to heat a room, this was more efficient. If you're hoping to make an impact, even if your fireplace is gas and doesn't require a chimney, consider taking away some of the square footage of your room to create a floor to ceiling mass that gives the impression of a real fireplace.
Put your fireplace on the floor, not hovering a foot off the ground. Once again, historically, fireplaces were on the ground, with a stone hearth nearly flush with the surrounding, more flammable flooring material. It wasn't until the midcentury that fireplaces were regularly lifted off the ground, and when they were, the generally had a broad hearth that functioned as a seat so people could gather. These raised hearths were lovely because they were incorporated into the architecture of the whole room. Without the integrated hearth seat, raised fireboxes generally look....really stupid.
Consider buying a pre-made stone mantel by a company that specializes in them. The English company Jamb has an enormous supply of exquisite new and antique surrounds that can be shipped right to your home.
Even if you are making a really “modern” house, don't feel like you have to have a sparely detailed fireplace. As the strictly hard lines of the mid-century wained, interiors of the late 1960's and 1970's often combined ornate, even florid architectural elements and furnishing with more streamlined objects with great success. For inspiration, check out the spectacular architectural renderings of the late Jeremiah Goodman, or simply google “Brooke Astor's Library by Albert Hadley.” (Also shown below.)