If home is where the hearth is, then what happens when the fires can't be lit? The fireplace and hearth are often symbols of home, offering warmth, light and, historically, food and protection. They have been central to our dwellings since they were first constructed.
Not all fireplaces remain sound enough to host a fire, however. And as disappointing as that may seem, an unused fireplace doesn't have to be a missed opportunity for a grand design.
Josh Young, a D.C. artist and designer, says fireplaces not only add architectural value to a room, but they also ground and center a space. "It really allows the person who enters a room to focus in" on the center of a room, Young says, "and it's usually through a fireplace or mantel."
Rather than ripping your hearth out or letting it languish, read on to see how manageable DIYs, bespoke lighting and simple tweaks, such as adding a mirror, can transform your black hole of unused space into the star of the room.
1. Make it a book nook
Young filled a nonworking firebox with books in 2017, and the internet went crazy for it. West Elm invited him to style for it, and the fireplace full of books became "a whole thing on Pinterest," he says.
Replicate his look by lining the bottom of the firebox with magazines to manage the soot-stained floor space, then stack your firebox with books of various sizes. "It can be a bit of a jigsaw as far as existing books you have or ones you may need," Young says, but the result can act as a bookshelf. "There were many times I would reach in and pull out a book and read it," he says. "It became almost like a library within itself."
2. Make a faux log stack
The styled log stack is a popular way to decorate an unused fireplace, but Morgan Spenla, founder of craft-kit company Crafter, came up with a brilliant way to fake it: the faux stacked facade.
Spenla chose not to fill her firebox with logs, she says, because "we didn't want bugs or critters creating a home in a warm space full of wood." Instead, she painted a thin piece of plywood with leftover chalkboard paint and glued wooden rounds of varying thickness.
She says her fireplace had a channel inside that kept her board upright, but there are countless ways to get the board to stay vertical depending on your fireplace's design. She used a nail gun from the backside to secure the glued rounds, because they kept sliding down.
When complete, it had the look of a firebox filled with logs, but it still had space to store items. Little pieces such as holiday decorations or even a safe would work well. A few woven baskets filled with throw blankets to create warmth and coziness completed the makeover.
3. Re-tile with style
Re-tiling your firebox is an immediate way to enliven and update the look of your fireplace. Rachel Lovell, a dried flower artist in Bristol, England, chronicled the process on her Instagram. She had a professional remove the gas fireplace, then re-tiled the firebox on her own. Through YouTube, she learned to tile in a herringbone pattern, using paper to mock up her space beforehand to ensure that her cuts were exact. The result was a fresh and modern firebox, perfectly suited to her style.
4. Stage a serene scene
Pillar-candle-filled fireboxes are popular, but Kymberly Glazer, director of marketing and sales for the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association, had a fresh idea for adding an element of drama, dimension and height. She found a maker on Etsy who could create the custom candle risers she had in mind — and for less money than the mass-produced items she found.
Glazer says she and her husband renovated their first floor when they bought their place, but purposefully kept the nonworking fireplace as a focal point. She says it doesn't make economic sense to install a gas insert in their New Orleans climate, but she loves the fireplace nonetheless.
5. Create a fairy-light fantasy
Hattie Kolp, an interior design content creator in New York City, used fairy lights, or small string lights, in her firebox to achieve the ambience of a roaring fire. "My apartment is from 1890, and my [gas] fireplaces have these really gorgeous original tile and iron inserts," she said.
Though the fireplaces no longer work, Kolp wanted to emulate the coziness they once provided and highlight their original features, such as the faux logs. Her solution was to wrap a "very long" strand of string lights around the logs and up to the top of the firebox to create the look of licking flames. To achieve some height with the strand, "I wrapped them around a hook I stuck up inside the chimney," she says.
6. Add a shelving unit
A fireplace makeover should take its cues from the room and from your functional needs. Kelly-Jeanne Lee, an urban homesteader in Atlanta, nailed this concept in her child's bedroom by installing a perfectly sized shelving unit into the unused fireplace. "Adding this bookcase felt like the best use of the space," she wrote in an Instagram post, "and then filling it was a joy."
7. Add mirrors
Mirrors can have a big effect on a room, especially in a small space. Young used custom-cut mirrors to line his firebox, but stick-on mirror tiles are an easy DIY option, too. He says mirrors not only reflect light but also reflect the next room in open-concept designs. They add interest and make it seem as if there's something beyond the fireplace niche.
You can style with mirrors when something is in the fireplace, too. Young chose natural wood, but statement pieces such as the stone slab or oversize vase that Emma Lee of London photographed would also complement a mirror-lined firebox.
"Just have fun with it," Young says. He has long loved fireplaces and mantels; he and his husband bought a 1730s home that was once called Hearth House because of the large number of fireplaces, and his forthcoming book features nine of them. "They just speak to me," he says, "and I don't care if they're functioning or not functioning, because I'll find a way to make them interesting."