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Industry Spotlight

In Fireplace Design, Modern Is Hot

Fireplace design is going through a change.Traditional fireplace design, distinguished by its brick, logs, and position close to the floor, is being viewed by some as passé. Modern or contemporary design, characterized by a landscape-style fireplace that appears to hang midway on a wall like a piece of art and features a ribbon flame, is posting sales that are, quite literally, on fire.

Sales of contemporary designs at Wolf Steel/ Napoleon Products (Barrie, Ontario) currently represent 15 percent of total sales overall, “which is nice, since we only introduced them two to three years ago,” Greg Thomas, director of sales, reports. Dave Miller, brand manager at Heat & Glo (Lakeville, Minn.), reports that its Modern collection is growing in the range of 15 to 20 percent, even in a stunted economy.

At Lennox Hearth Products (Orange, Calif.), “The contemporary group has gone from zero, just a couple of years ago, to a steadily growing niche within our line. While the traditional hearth presentation (logs) remains the choice for most, there is no question that this look has traction and will continue to grow,” Bob Dischner, director of marketing, explains.

Something Different

Modern design “is a trend in the United States, but it has been in Europe’s blood forever,” according to Craig Shankster, president, Morsø US (Portland, Tenn.). He suggests that the makeover in design is driven by general lifestyle changes that can be traced back to the U.S. introduction of IKEA in 1985. “The likes of IKEA—with modern, European furniture styling—attracted the attention of the younger market,” he adds.

Miller says that today’s architects and designers take styling cues from all over the world. “Twenty years ago, we used to design for a region. Nowadays, period style or regional style is no longer it. European influence can be found everywhere, including Fargo, N.D.”

Thomas recalls getting requests from designers, architects, and high-end builders who wanted to see “something other than a box with some logs in it,” he says. “In Europe, flame was being incorporated into a different setting within the firebox. The idea was to make a gas fireplace look like something we’ve never seen before.”

The trend, Miller says, was unavoidable. “Just take the iPod, for example. It is sleek, and consumers expect their fireplaces to resemble it. Look at the plasma-screen television trend. It has a different proportion. It has a theater, landscape style to it that has no buttons. It is clean and contemporary.”

Miller continues, “The fireplace has taken on the look of the television. If they clash too much, one of the two gets thrown out—and between the two, the fireplace would go.”

Dischner agrees. When designing its Radium unit, Lennox Hearth Products took its styling cues from wall-mounted plasma televisions. “The decorating trend of using hearth products as wall art, or in other nontraditional settings, has also been present, and to some extent, has been manufacturer driven.”

These innovative designs were first seen in high-end restaurants, resorts, and casinos, Thomas reports. “The opening might only be a foot high, but it could be 5 feet long,” he says. “It created a real wow factor.”

Not Your Father’s Firebox

Today, these wow-inducing designs have moved into the residential market, where they are catching fire in all regions of the country. “We also see a lot of traditional housing out there, particularly in New England, where the younger generation is buying its first homes. It might be an older property that is being remodeled in a more modern style,” Shankster says. “There is still almost a primeval demand for fire. Young people want it, but not in the same box that mom and dad had.”

The trend is not found only among the young; Shankster has seen it grow in popularity among retirees, as well. “They are thinking people, and they are not just looking at the heat output and how big a log they can get onto the fire. They want design, and they drill down a bit further into the construction of the product,” he says.

Shankster views the U.S. market as having two extremes: colonial, traditional styling that has been around since the mid-1970s and supercontemporary design with sleek lines and shiny products. He says that Morsø (the oldest stove manufacturer in the world, with a 155-year history) bridges those two extremes in the market. “We don’t want to ignore our heritage; likewise, we don’t want our heritage to hold our image back. We want to be seen as modern and at the forefront of design,” he says.

“While we have products with a landscape look to them, we also have the portrait products. The styling we describe as modern is not contemporary and not traditional. Modern-path styling allows homeowners to renovate into a more modern style without a shock to the overall feel of the house,” Shankster explains.

Everything Modern is Hot

At one end of Morsø‘s current product line are stoves that date back to 1932 from the outside; from the inside, everything has been modernized. At the other end of the spectrum is Morsø‘s new 7600 series, which “is worlds apart,” Shankster says.

Lennox Hearth Products’ popular Radium model mimics the look of a plasma television. The Dave Lennox Signature collection X-FIRES™ catalytic gas fireplace, which combines contemporary styling with real granite (and now, travertine) surrounds, and the RefleXion flame-into-infinity fireplace were very well received at the 2009 International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas. “The new Merit MLDVTCD, with its reflective porcelain interior showcasing flames in colored crushed glass, sand, or tumbled river rock, also got raves in Las Vegas,” Dischner says.

Napoleon Products entered the contemporary styling market with its Tureen, an all–stainless-steel fireplace. “It has a real out-of-the-box modern look that appeals to a lot of high-end designers and architects,” Thomas says. Last year, the company launched Crystallo, a one-sided glass fireplace. “It’s a combination fireplace and wall-lighting design,” he adds.

Recently, Napoleon Products introduced its HD81, a large, clean-face fireplace that is see through and two sided. It can use a log set or a crystal ember bed, for either a traditional or a modern look. “It is all glass. There’s not a lot of metal exposed. Consumers want to see things that are finished up clean and tight. They want to look at a view of a fire, not a lot of steel,” Thomas says.

Heat & Glo launched its Modern collection a decade ago. It started with award-winning designs for products like the Cyclone and Paloma stoves, and it continues to receive recognition for more recent offerings, such as the LUX60. “The reaction from both dealers and consumers is very positive,” Miller says. “Now, with fire as art, we’ve captured a new audience. This is new business for us and our dealers.”

The Future of Modern

Initially, sales were slow, Thomas reports, although markets such Arizona, Las Vegas, New York, and California jumped at the products quickly. “Dealers in Iowa, Missouri, and other areas said they would never sell one of these new models, but were surprised at the number of sales they made once they put them on the showroom floor. It only proves there is a market for high-end fireplaces,” Thomas says.

“The growth potential is huge,” he continues. “I think this is the type of product that the next generation will want to see. That doesn’t mean that traditional designs will be eliminated. I think the traditional fireplace will remain popular in the family room, but in the kitchen and bedrooms, consumers will be looking at these other models.”

Dischner agrees. “At the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, our new modern designs were a hit. We have had builders, wondering when they will come out, calling every day. They are exceeding our expectations, because we thought it might be a fad, but it looks like this style is here to stay,” he says.

Shankster adds, “Yes, European style is not anywhere near its potential. There is very steady growth in this sector. What stops it from developing more quickly is the reluctance of the retailer to adopt the styling into the showroom.”

He continues, “Because it is a relatively niche trend, compared with the whole market and U.S. economy, there is a reluctance to invest in it and put it in the showroom to exploit the demand. My main objective is to persuade the dealer network to be ready for this.” He stresses that they should project, to the consumer, an image indicating that they understand more contemporary lifestyles and can talk about modern design. “If dealers don’t embrace or experiment with proper merchandising in their showrooms, then growth will be fairly limited,” he says.

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