Often the only solution is to employ an architect, interior designer or fireplace
ANACHRONISTIC, troublesome and costly they may be, but it seems we still can't live without fireplaces. It's not so much the warmth they provide (up to 90 per cent of the heat from a standard open fire goes straight out of the chimney) as their elemental symbolism - an alluring glow that provides a focal point despite the ever-present pull of the television set.
Owners of contemporary homes, however, tend to come up against a problem when trying to buy a suitably sleek, chic and streamlined fireplace. The vast majority of aspecialist to create a contemporary fireplace for you. All sorts of materials may be used - from sand-blasted glass or rough- hewn timber to corrugated iron or copper.
The results can be stunning, limited only by your imagination and the practicalities of the site. Some may prefer an eye-catchingly bold, one- off design. For more minimalist subtlety, however, the simplest answer would be to fit a "hole in the wall", where the fire is raised above the ground and framed in the chimney breast by a stainless steel, raw plaster or stone surround, like a picture. With no mantelpiece and a corresponding lack of clutter, the effect is fashionably cool and restrained.
Buying "off the peg" isn't really an option, unless you choose one of the stylish European imports that are beginning to make an inroad into the British market. Although each model is tailored to your required measurements, there's a set selection to choose from, such as the 35-strong "Focus" range by Dominique Imbert, made from matt-black steel and glass in striking sculptural shapes. One design features a gaping slash that reveals the flames inside; another is suspended from the ceiling with a pod-like basket that rotates like an alien spaceship.
"We have seen a gradual increase in interest in these fires," says Peter Beresford, who imports Imbert's designs. "As our homes are becoming more simple and less cluttered, people want something different for their fireplaces."
Henry Harrison, of The Platonic Fireplace Company, agrees. Thirteen years ago he designed his "Geologs" - ceramic sphere, cube and pyramid shapes that carry out the same function as fake coals or logs in decorative gas fires but are pleasingly clean-lined and unconventional. Last year his sales trebled, which he believes is due to the increased public interest in modern design.
"I put that down to the influence of Terence Conran and all the restaurants and bars with their crisp shapes and clean colours," he says. "This look is now filtering into domestic interiors although we are, generally, a very backward-looking nation."
As an alternative to an open fire, a stove can fulfil a traditionalist's dream or, equally, be a trendsetter's top choice. Both folksy and functional, stoves are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, and the latest pared- down Scandinavian models work just as well in a London loft as a country cottage.
"Our sales have more than doubled in the last five years," reports Sally Barber of The Stove Shop in Hatfield Peverel. "They provide a focal point and you get a lot of heat for your money." Unlike open fires, stoves give about 70 per cent efficiency, and can be used for hot water and central heating, too. Modern designs - which may run on wood, coal, oil or gas - are self- cleaning, with attractive soapstone or steel panels, and glass doors through which you can see the flames. After all, however avant-garde we may want to be, the warmth and glow of real flames is satisfyingly primitive.
Fitting a new fireplace
First, ask an expert to check the condition of your chimney. It may be blocked, cracked, or simply the wrong size for the appliance you want.
Remember that there are likely to be building regulations that govern certain alterations. If you don't have an existing chimney, it may still be possible to install a real fire by fitting a flue leading to an outside wall or to the roof.
Think about what you want from your fireplace. If looks are more important than output, a simple open fire is the least expensive and prettiest option. A convector open fire, which is partially enclosed by a box for better burning and warm air circulation, is twice as efficient, while for heat which you could duct all over the house, you would need a completely enclosed room heater with glass doors.
Next, choose your fuel. "Imitation" gas fires are clean-burning and easy to control. Many people now, however, are turning to enclosed, solid fuel fires which are 70 to 80 per cent efficient - you get the same picture of the fire, but use less fuel.
Chimneys must be swept regularly - at least once or twice a year for coal and wood-fired appliances. Gas- and oil-fired appliances should be serviced regularly. And lastly, put a guard in front of an unattended fire, especially if there are children around.
CONTACTS FOR INFORMATION
q The Fireplace Yearbook (with details of about 300 members and manufacturers) costs pounds 3 from The National Fireplace Association, Freefone 0800 521611.
q Interior Decorators and Designers Association: telephone 0171 349 0800 to be put in touch with one of its members.
q The RIBA's Clients' Advisory Service can provide a list of suitable architects for your project. Telephone 0171 307 3700.
q The Solid Fuel Association: telephone 0800 600 000.
q All gas fires must be installed by a CORGI-registered fitter. Telephone 01256 372200 for local installers.
q For details of local members of the National Association of Chimney Sweeps, Freefone 0800 833464.
q For modern fireplaces, try: Diligence International, 01794 388812; The Stove Shop, 01245 380471; The Platonic Fireplace Co, 0171 610 9440; Real Flame, 0171 731 2704; Modus, 01923 210442 ; Fireplace Designers, 0171 5809893/4.