For thousands of years—and until as recently as the late 1800s—the fireplace was all about function: cooking, warmth, even light. Now, in most homes, it’s more about form—a mantel that lives on as a warm and welcoming vestige of yesteryear. But it has more potential than that, says Mark Melonas.
He should know—the owner and designer at Baltimore’s Luke Works, Melonas has created several custom concrete fireplace surrounds—“surrounds” being the design and construction elements around the fireplace opening.
“People often miss an opportunity for design with fireplaces,” says Melonas.
The style and design of a fireplace—from the sleek, modern lines of a linear gas insert to the rustic statement of a mantel made from reclaimed wood—dictate the feel not just of the fireplace, but of the whole room. We found a few examples of homeowners making the most of their fireplaces, envisioning each one more as a blank canvas than just a hole in the wall.
William Hamilton and Paula Jackson hired James Battaglia of Sandtown Millworks to create the reclaimed wood mantel and designer Amber Nelson to create the tile surround for the fireplace in their historic Bolton Hill row home.
A Custom Art Piece
William Hamilton and Paula Jackson hired James Battaglia of Sandtown Millworks to create the reclaimed wood mantel for the fireplace in their historic Bolton Hill row home. The drywall around the fireplace was bare and smoke-stained, so the couple reached out to artist and designer Amber Nelson to create a tile surround.
After visiting the home, Nelson decided a hand-glazed tile would fit the transitional feel of a modern home in a historic neighborhood. The warm brown and gold colors she chose contrast, yet also coordinate, with the room’s existing colors, while craftsman-style tiles manufactured by Michigan-based Motawi Tileworks fit with the rustic mantel and help to “marry the past and the present” in the space, she says.
“I thought about who they are, where they lived, the things they enjoy as a couple, and the art they had on their walls,” Nelson says. “What they needed was not a design, but rather art.”
The final idea came to Nelson while looking out a panoramic window from The 13th Floor, then a cocktail bar in Mount Vernon’s historic Belvedere hotel with a view of the city. “I saw the city in all of its glory, with the sky all lit up,” Nelson recalls. “I had my ‘aha’ moment. I was going to use the tiles to ‘paint’ a silhouette of the cityscape with a golden sky.”
Jim and Jackie Melonas of Columbia turned to their son, Mark, owner and designer at Luke Works, to create a custom, asymmetrical mantel out of textured, molded concrete.
A Textural Focal Point
When their ’90s-era home in the Hobbits Glen neighborhood of Columbia was in need of updates, Jim and Jackie Melonas were eager to give it a makeover to better suit their modern taste. As the couple tore out trim and updated fixtures, they decided the see-through gas fireplace—with a dated cream-painted wood mantel and green marble fireplace surround—needed a fresh look, too. So they turned to their son, Mark, to create a custom, asymmetrical mantel out of textured, molded concrete.
Concrete offers a design freedom unmatched by traditional fireplace materials like stone or tile, which come in standard sizes and thicknesses, says Melonas. “We can cast it differently, or in a different mold material, and achieve a unique surface, because the concrete takes the surface of whatever we cast it against,” he says. While the design is the same on both sides of the see-through fireplace—asymmetrically placed horizontal beams above and below the fire, with thick vertical columns on each side—the eat-in kitchen side has greater depth and texture. By pouring the concrete from the top into a smooth, vertical mold, Melonas captured the concrete’s vertical movement in the surface. To achieve the texture on the top and bottom pieces, he created a mold box out of roughly hewn oak boards.
The new fireplace’s sleek lines set the tone for the room, which the family has updated with modern furniture.
“It was a really dramatic change, and because you can see it when you walk in the door, it certainly becomes a destination in the room,” Melonas says. “People haven’t seen a fireplace surround that looks anything like that, so they walk right up to it and rub the corners.”
Belinda and Michael Stern embarked on a yearlong journey to design a custom fireplace and entertainment center for their Fells Point townhome, with the help of Timonium-based Gramophone, the entertainment-system firm.
A Luxury Entertainment Center
Located on Aliceanna Street in Fells Point, Belinda and Michael Stern’s four-story townhome has an open, industrial design atypical of the area’s historic row homes and cobblestone streets. High ceilings, large windows, and floating stairs contribute to the space’s airy feel, which encompasses the living room, dining room, and kitchen on one floor.
“The previous owners had a gas fireplace sitting in the middle of this huge, empty wall,” recalls Belinda Stern. “We hated it.” After tearing out the old unit, the couple embarked on a yearlong journey to design a custom fireplace and entertainment center with the help of Timonium-based Gramophone, the entertainment-system firm.
Happy with the design but looking for unique materials, the Sterns also turned to installer Bill Mavroulis of Elite Home Design—and, again, designer Amber Nelson of Architectural Ceramics—to complete the project. Nelson selected statement-making 32-inch-square porcelain tiles to surround the linear gas fireplace insert, while Mavroulis ordered quarter-sawn wood from 100-year-old Montana maples to build out the connected media furniture piece to the right of the fireplace.
“We wanted a little bit of storage, but we wanted to keep the feel open,” Stern explains. “[The design] was like a living, breathing entity as we went along.” Copper Formica, joined with painted upholstery pins to mimic a ship’s sheathing, covers the wall behind the state-of-the-art TV, while suede sourced from Tandy Leather in Essex lines the entertainment center’s drawers and cubby holes.
“Everyone who walks into the room goes right to it,” Stern says. “They are fascinated and they really can tell that a lot of love went into it.”