Classic Mouldings

The frame that surrounds the fireplace: An origin story of the Mantel

The origin of the fireplace as we currently know it was initiated by Norman architects in order to solve the problem of heating the massive stone castles being erected all over England. The central stone hearth fire was not practical in these multi-storied fortresses, so the wall fireplace was designed as an important part of the wall structure. The central hearth survived in the majority of homes as it was cheap to build, heat efficient, and allowed family and friends to gather around it from all sides, in addition to serving as the only cooking fire. By the mid–twelfth century, the Norman fortress gave way to a lighter Gothic style. Those affluent enough to buy privacy had sleeping chambers constructed that were both comfortable and intimate – and adequately heated by their own small wall fireplaces.
In early 16th century England, the reign of Henry VIII brought isolation, both from Rome and from the sophisticated domestic designs of the Italian nobility. Timber became scarce as resources were used to satisfy the burgeoning shipbuilding industry. Ceilings were introduced, both to conserve heat and to introduce a second storey. Brick became popular as a building material, and brick chimneys appeared. Cottages were still serviced by a single central fireplace with a chimney, but as more rooms were added, the fireplace began to be built against an outside wall. The addition of rooms meant the end of the central hearth (despite the loss of heat up the chimney) and reduced social interaction. Inglenooks were a suitable compromise; great, deep fireplaces could accommodate utensils for spit cooking, drying clothes and the smoking of meat. An oven was often built into the side of the inglenook fireplace and sealed with a large stone. Building laws were introduced to ensure that chimneys were built only of brick or stone, with surrounding materials consisting of non-combustible tiles or plaster.
The latter part of the sixteenth century witnessed the late appearance of Renaissance styling in Britain. Medieval designs were discontinued, and the fireplace became a magnificent centerpiece. Flemish, German and Italian ornamental pattern books appeared, inspiring Elizabethan and Jacobean decoration: diamond patterns, strap work, shields, coats-of-arms and floral emblems were carved in stone and oak. Delicate classical figures were mixed with Gothic foliage, combining Renaissance and Gothic styles.

Italian design became even more prominent in the seventeenth century. Trained architects appeared, and in following the descriptions by Vitruvius and Palladio, united the form, composition and proportion of the fireplace with the whole of the interior. The splendour of Baroque, ornate Rococo, the sobriety and balance of the Palladian style and the brilliance of Adam all made an indelible impact upon the 18th century fireplace. Coloured marble began to be used, as were ornamental mirrors. The hob grate for burning coal became common in the late 18th century, and was set into the fireplace opening, with the center coal burning grate being flanked by metal side plates that provided an area to heat food and boil a kettle.

Both the 19th century industrial revolution and the exploding population had an extraordinary effect upon the fireplace

Both the 19th century industrial revolution and the exploding population had an extraordinary effect upon the fireplace, as there was a surge in building and an entirely new industrial middle class to outfit. Design ideas that were heretofore available only to the very rich were now accessible due to methods of mass production. Towards the end of the 19th century, marble became too expensive for the majority of homes, and people made do with slate, cast iron and painted pine. These surrounds were marbleized to imitate the true marble fireplaces of the rich. The average middle-class home might have two fireplaces, one in the drawing room and one in the dining room. Overmantel mirrors became quite common, as plate glass was readily available.

In France, the curvaceous Louis XV and more austere XVI designs were quite popular, as they were smaller and suitable for bedrooms. Fireplaces in general became more diminutive, with shallower hearths and tiny fire baskets to support coals. Neo-Gothic, Elizabethan and naturalistic motifs became decorative elements only, as their original proportions were sacrificed. People were able to travel widely and came back from the Far East and North Africa with a mélange of design ideas to add to the pot. Cast iron mantels with complex designs became increasingly admired. At first, tiles were used only in the finest homes; after methods of mass production became commonplace, they were found flanking firebox openings across the classes, and helped to visually break up the heavy ornamentation that was so popular.

The Arts & Crafts movement paved the way for the modern with its uncluttered, linear look, and the use of natural materials in a generally less contrived manner. Art Nouveau created an international style and covered every aspect of interior and exterior design. Some examples of this consisted of lovely, rather spare shapes inset with glass and mosaic. Other pieces were loosely reminiscent of a barely classical form, featuring prominent caryatids with dramatically flowing hair. Cooking ranges, boilers and primitive central heating systems were slowly becoming more sophisticated, to a point where the affluent enjoyed Beaux-Arts fireplaces that were freed from actual function. Their position was ornamental and symbolic; the presence of an Italian Renaissance chimney piece in the entrance hall, so large that one could step into it, was mainly an indication of the stature of one’s host.
The Edwardian period brought everyone back to the conventional, but in a simpler manner. The fireplace became squarer and more functional, and was often fitted with a gas fire. WWI ended, and Art Deco gathered adherents, adding to fireplace designs a stylized shape with equally stylized natural motifs. This dissolved into the rather bland shapes of the 1930’s. Central heating became widespread, and fewer fireplaces were built. Developments to form and function were minimal, and by 1950, ornament was virtually nonexistent. The fireplace was constructed of chunky brick, and eventually usurped altogether by the encompassing, bluelight embrace of the television set. The idea of the fireplace was considered to be redundant, and the TV became the focus of the room.

The 21st century suggests we’ve almost come full circle with regards to our relationship with the domestic fireplace. After being close to forgotten, it has emerged again as a coveted element in both modern and vintage interiors. Classic Mouldings looks upon its mantel designs as celebrations of the hearth. Pull up a chair and dream with us. We think there’s something to suit most everyone; and if you don’t see it, we can concoct whatever it is you’d like to see.