Moving to Modern – The Evolution of the Gas Fireplace

Moving to Modern – The Evolution of the Gas Fireplace

This is an article that was published in this month’s Design Quarterly magazine

The words “modern” and “gas fireplace” have not always been easy to put together. The earliest gas fireplace designs, intended to recreate the ambiance of a wood-burning fireplace, (but without the smoke and mess), focused on mimicry: ceramic logs replaced the wood, mineral wool simulated hot embers, and brick panels replicated the look of a real masonry firebox.

Though in many instances the illusion was quite effective, the style of these units, with their decorative grilles and distressed faux-brick, presented a challenge to anyone trying to pull together a modern interior. Only in the last decade has the multi-million dollar fireplace industry turned its attention toward designing gas fireplaces that fit seamlessly into contemporary homes. Driven by consumer demand for more aesthetic options, a few pioneering companies took a fresh and decidedly modern approach to fireplace design. The result has been something of a revolution in the fireplace industry, and has given designers exciting new tools to create modern fireplace features.

Town and Country: Paring Down, Firing Up

One of the first manufacturers to take a significant step toward a modern gas fire was Town and Country Fireplaces of Duncan, B.C. In 2002 they designed the first ‘clean-face’ fireplace – a unit in which the fire is framed in a window of glass, without grilles, louvres or screens. They were not specifically trying to create a modern look, but with their clean lines and impressive flames they succeeded in creating a more effective ‘traditional’ fireplace, one that made the fire the centre of attention, without the distraction of a black metal box. Their technology and approach helped to pave the way for truly modern gas fireplaces. The company also went on to develop a selection of contemporary ‘clean-face’ models to complement their traditional offerings.

Spark: Fire As Design Medium

Other fireplace companies soon followed Town and Country’s lead, adding clean-face models to their existing lines. But it wasn’t until 2005 that a fireplace company made ‘modern’ its raison d’etre. Unlike other manufacturers, Spark Modern Fires began with the idea that a gas fireplace should not try to mimic a wood-burning unit – it is after all, an entirely different fuel, with very different properties. Instead, the company focused on the design of the gas flame itself, creating a three, four, or six foot continuous “Fire Ribbon” that gives their fireplaces a serene, modern aesthetic. The fire is presented simply in a minimalist firebox and complemented with natural stone, sand or broken glass toppings, instead of artificial logs.

Spark, which hails from Connecticut and manufactures in both the U.S. and Canada, also took the ‘clean-face’ approach to another level, creating a glass-only look with no visible frame and dramatically long, horizontal proportions. The Spark fireplace, which was conceived for and marketed to design professionals, presented a unique and welcome change in the industry. Its honest approach to its medium (gas) and thoughtful design has allowed designers to create fireplace walls that embrace truly modern design principles.

Ecosmart: The Emergence of Ethanol

Around the same time that Town and Country introduced its clean-face gas fireplaces there was a growing interest worldwide in the development of sustainable and renewable fuel sources. Ethanol, a type of alcohol made from the fermentation of corn, sugar cane, or bio-mass, emerged as one potential fuel source. The key benefit of using ethanol as a fuel is that it burns exceptionally cleanly, creating only heat, water vapour and carbon dioxide. This means that ethanol fireplaces can be installed without a vent or flue, and can be situated in many locations where it would be impossible to have a gas or wood-burning unit.

The Fire Company of Australia was one of the first to embrace ethanol as a fuel for fireplaces. Their EcoSmart ventless fireplaces established the benchmark for ethanol fires with high quality, beautifully finished stainless steel burners that produce bright, mesmerizing flames. The company’s line of ethanol burners includes retrofit grates for wood-burning fireboxes, freestanding designer fireplace surrounds, and outdoor burners that range from the simple to the sculptural. Most notably, their ethanol burners provide designers with an incredible amount of freedom for creating modern fireplaces in unexpected places such as condo retrofits, in millwork, or under counters. As the newest of the fire mediums, the design potential of ethanol fireplaces has only begun to be explored.

Modern Fireplace Design

With the development of clean-faced gas fireplaces, ribbon flames and ventless, open ethanol burners, designers now have the raw materials for modern gas fireplace design. Modern gas fires are not simply appliances, but design elements that can be used create fire features that tie into and complement their environs, using contemporary proportions.

While the image of a crackling wood fire still strikes a romantic note, the reality is that wood-burning fireplaces are, at least in urban centres, a thing of the past. The passing of local bylaws to protect air quality, as well as the development of more convenient and efficient alternatives has effected this change. No longer lesser replacements for traditional wood-burners, modern gas fireplaces embrace the differences, treating the fires produced by clean-burning fuels as mediums for expression and freeing designers to create features with contemporary and complementary materials.