How to Decorate Your Fireplace
Fireplaces provide a readymade focal point like no other. If you have the time and fuel you need to keep it flickering, you’ll appreciate the transformative power of a glowing, open flame. They can be tricky to live with, though, especially if the bare bones of what you have inherited isn’t quite to your liking.
We don’t want to sound ungrateful but Victorian fireplaces – for all their charm and character – can dominate a room with their hulking black mass. And that’s if it isn’t covered in 50 years’ worth of gloss paint. So, if your chimney breast isn’t clad in original wood panelling, or your fireplace is lacking a glorious stone or marble surround, here are some fireplace decorating ideas for making the most of what you have …
Words | Nell Card
Read Before Burning
Victorian fireplaces made from cast iron are relatively easy to restore, even if they have been neglected for decades. First, make sure you get a registered chimney sweep to assess your fireplace before attempted to burn anything. The Victorian Society have a useful guide to buffing up cast iron grates and stripping back painted surfaces. With the dirty work out of the way, you can focus on the fun stuff, like colour …
Painting Your Fire Surround
If your fire surround and mantlepiece is made of wood then you can easily incorporate it into your colour scheme. The obvious choice would be to paint the surround the same colour as the rest of the woodwork in your room (skirting boards, window frames etc). A white surround will look crisp and classic, especially set against a dark, dramatic wall. But there’s nothing stopping you from choosing something altogether bolder. Interiors consultant and blogger, Kate Watson-Smyth of Mad About the House painted her fire surround neon pink.
“This pink fireplace is in our spare room, which doubles up as an office and the room where the children have their Xbox,” explains Kate. “As it isn’t used all the time we decided we could afford to be brave with the colour. I decided to subvert the usual rule of having a coloured wall and a traditional black fireplace by doing it the other way round. The wall is painted a dark charcoal grey and it is the fireplace that is the focus of the room. Why pink? I love pink, it crops up all over the house in both bright and muted shades.”
If you’re tackling the decoration yourself, follow Kate’s advice: “It’s a good idea to sand first so that the surface is rough or has a “key” that will take the paint well. Undercoat is good, then two or three layers over the top. Make sure you are using the right paint for the surface. This fireplace was done in gloss because I wanted it to be shiny and look almost lacquered. For the rest of the woodwork in the house we have used eggshell which has a much softer sheen.”
If the fireplace in your living room is Victorian, then it may still retain the original tiles either side of the grate, perhaps even a tiled hearth. If you’re not enamoured with the (often-florid) design, you could pay a builder to remove the entire surround and/or hearth and lay tiles of your liking. (Be warned: this is a messy and costly job, that involves power tools and a good sprinkling of brick dust.)
If someone has got there before you, you might find your fireplace now incorporates square tiles from the 50s or 60s – often in slightly sickly shades of beige, yellow or brown. We are not averse to fireplaces that tell a story, mapping the interior trends of previous decades, but if you are looking for some decorative cohesion, you can simply paint these the same colour as your surround (make sure you prepare the tile surface properly to avoid flaking), as the interior designers, Russell Whitehead and Jordan Cluroe (AKA 2 Lovely Gays) have done here (below left), in their master bedroom.
Russell explains: “This look was achieved by carefully stripping back all the layers of wallpaper we found when we bought the Victorian property, to get to the bare plaster of the original walls. We fell in love with the texture and so we just rubbed the walls down and then gave definition to the look by painting the skirting, fire surround and tiles in one colour – a soft blush pink.”
For a more drastic overhaul, you can tile between the grate and the surround with a design of your choosing. Bold, glazed tiles in emerald green, or royal blue look great against cast iron and stripped wood – think of this as a modern twist on the Arts and Craft aesthetic. Herringbone patterns also work in this context: pale, neutral shades will create a peaceful, Scandi fireside scene (above right). Patterned tiles – as our Victorian forebears knew only too well – create instant impact, especially if continued down on to the hearth.
If you are replacing your fireplace with a woodburning stove, this gives you more surface area to play with allowing you to tile from the hearth, into the cavity, and – if you don’t have a mantlepiece – up behind the flue all the way to the ceiling, if you so choose (see main image, top). This “anchors” the stove and will create interest in an otherwise architecturally bare room, even when the fire isn’t lit.
A Fireplace Without Fire
Do not despair if you find yourself with nothing more than a empty hole in your wall to fill. The minimalist aesthetic is alive and well, and there are several ways to bring this negative space to life. Whatever you do, resist the urge to fill it with candles or fairy lights. Instead, go for something organic: a stack of logs is fine, even if they will never burn. We have seen a giant tumbleweed used to fill a hole, and it looks great (curiously, you can buy these on Amazon). A tangled web of antlers looks slightly macabre, but also works, as will a collection of vintage hardbacks. Dried flowers, such as thistles or alliums mimic the explosive shape of a flickering fire and can also look good in a disused hearth.
You can of course tile the cavity of a disused fire. Glazed tiles are a good option here, as they will reflect any available light, making the feature less of a dark force to be reckoned with. Go bold or neutral, depending on the rest of your scheme.
• Inspired by these fireplace decorating ideas? For a beautiful surround, check out our collection of patterned tiles.
• Or browse our Pinterest board for more fireplace inspiration.