When Mac and I bought our 1921 Craftsman bungalow, we decided that, while we wanted to renovate and update, we also wanted to stay true to the bones and soul of the home. We intended to keep all the permanent details as close to historically accurate to a Craftsman as possible while bringing in some modern updates with the furniture and accessories. And this has been pretty easy so far. The home still had a few original windows that we were able to use as a template for any replacement window and door casings we had to build, and it still had its original built-in shelves flanking either side of the fireplace. I was also desperate for real hardwood floors, just like they had in the old days.
But there’s one spot, one little teeny tiny area that had been melting our brains. It’s a space so inconsequential that in most homes, it goes completely unnoticed. But it’s also at the center of the living room, so making the wrong choice could truly upset the balance of the space. That spot is none other than the fireplace hearth.
When we bought the house, the floors had been completed tiled over with a cream and red ceramic tile:
That was the first thing to go, and once it was removed, we found original hardwood and a real fireplace hearth underneath. It was our first peek at what could be, and it was VERY exciting. Unfortunately, the wood floor was too damaged to refinish and similarly the tile in the hearth was disintegrating, so both would need to be replaced.
The flooring pick was easy—2 1/4″ solid oak is the Craftsman standard and you can’t really go wrong with beautiful hardwood flooring. The hearth tile has been a different story. It’s been months since we’ve replaced all the wood flooring, but we’re still living with the horrible rapidly evaporating hearth tiles. The question of WHAT to replace them with has been a much more difficult conversation than Mac or I could ever imagine.
In our goal to stay traditional, we started looking for images of true Craftsman-style fireplaces…AND WE JUST WEREN’T INTO IT. Craftsman fireplaces can be extremely decorative, colorful, and honestly, just not the look we wanted for our living room.
Don’t get me wrong, if we had bought the house with an original fireplace in good condition, we wouldn’t have touched it. But because we’ve been given the opportunity to rethink it, we want to go with something a little more neutral while still feeling like it “fits” the house. So where do we go from there? Modern? Understated? Traditional feeling in a neutral color? Just a big ol’ slab of stone? We kept going back and forth, changing our minds, and almost losing our sanity. But then we pulled Velinda in on the conversation and she very quickly brought some real options/vision to the discussion. I’ll let her take it from here…
Hi, guys. Velinda here. So, when Sara and Mac looped me into chats, they were torn between several different ideas. Here are some of the fireplaces they had pinned as inspiration:
These real-life Pin-spirations resulted in hours of Photoshop trials at the hand of poor, poor Sara:
I get why tile can be a crippling creative climb. Maybe pattern? Something trendy? Color? And tile isn’t the only option for a hearth…cement, stone, brick, slab and on and on. This minuscule square footage of house can manifest a migraine.
Helping Mac and Sara hone in on which crayon was right for them when their figurative crayon box had far too many colors involved focusing first on what we knew:
- It’s a Craftsman house.
- Fire-resistance was necessary.
- Mac wanted something classic (preferring tile over slab).
- Sara wanted something more modern (perhaps soapstone).
- Both think they prefer something dark.
Let’s start with that last one. They were at least fairly sure they wanted something dark, so I sourced some darker options from Bedrosians. They did the countertops for my tiny kitchen and had always been super easy to work with/quick to respond, so I was able to get confirmation that each of my selects were safe to put near a fire. Besides the obvious fire-hazards, I wanted to make sure for the tile’s sake, that each was made in a way to avoid fading/discoloration next to heat. These were my picks:
A couple of my picks were large (12×12 and 12×24), but I knew these could be cut. I also thought it’d be handy to have a larger scale option to help visualize what a slab might look like. To slab or not to slab was an in-progress debate when I stepped into the mix. At that time, these samples were already on hand:
So, we did some tile speed dating one morning over at the house. But before I get into the tiles we met, here’s a bonus consideration we were keeping in mind as we sampled: What fit the space? I don’t mean aesthetically…what scale of tile would result in (at least mostly) full tiles along this hearth? General goal: reduce weird tile slivers, or at least carefully place/hide them so they don’t pull attention. “Slivers cause shivers! Slivers cause shivers!” (that chant is sure to catch on).
First up is this 2″x4″ tile from Fireclay (colors from left to right: Peabody, Cyclone, Loch Ness). To work with the fireplace’s scale and staggered pattern of the brick face best, we’d likely have to stack these lil’ guys vertically. Of these options, I really liked the color of Loch Ness. However, Mac and Sara wanted to aim for something darker. Considering grout wouldn’t match these colors (unless we wanted to do something super modern and use colored grout), it felt like there’d be a lot of visible lines—very “unslab.” It didn’t seem like the happy middle ground for our hero couple.
Next up, 3″ Hexagon Tile from Pratt + Larson (colors from left to right: C45, C86). Not opposed, not opposed, but it still felt like a lot going on with the brick. Mac and Sara actually had these samples on hand because it’s what they’re using in their master bathroom. Now, I realize hexagon tile is a classic shape and could work in a Craftsman (think hexagonal penny tile). But something about the scale for this particular space was throwing me as not feeling true to the home’s character. Our homeowners totally agreed. Sara said it felt like a “cheesy nod toward classic” here. Funny how the same tile can work and then not really work in the same house.
Then came Cloe. When I saw this online, I dubbed it my first choice. It’s glossier in real life than it looks online, which I wasn’t sure about at first, but grew to love it. Glossy is both “in” again AND classic, but it was still going to come down to preference. Sara and Mac really liked the subtle variation in tone/texture, but they were torn on the gloss. Ultimately, we leaned away but I’m still looking for the right wall to house this dude, because I like him.
Then we met some fraternal twins—Absolute Black Honed and Absolute Black Tumbled. The finishes changed the appearance entirely. Gotta confess, this was a learning moment. I knew that honed was a smooth, matte finish. But why was tumbled so different, but also matte? Turns out a “tumbled” finish tile has gone through an added process to have an antique, rough-edged look (notice the imperfection of the tumbled tile edge). It’s been spun in a drum, as in, it has actually “tumbled” to get those “desirable” abrasions, y’see. We did like those imperfections but leaned unanimously toward the darker tone of the honed finish.
We all loved that we could cut this 12″x12” option to whatever scale we chose. And I loved the natural look not only because it felt organic, but also because the right color grout could blend seamlessly, creating a more slab-like effect.
So…to slab or not to slab? Our next potential, Uni, helped us visualize. The tile’s incredibly smooth, black surface was showing dust already as we were playing, so we deemed it better for a wall than a floor, but thanks to it’s 12″x24” profile (which, again, could be cut), we were able to really discuss a slab surface as well as a large tile option.
I was pro slab, but anti large tile (if we’re going tile, might as well lean toward a scale more traditional to a Craftsman fireplace). Slab is simple, clean and could bring a nice contemporary feel. But, going with one of these dark tile options with seamless grout lines would also be a nod in that direction and include a touch of classic tile. Ultimately, it’s where we all landed. We just needed the right tile and scale.
Scale is where we switched it up with our last tile option—Metro Plus. She’s a dainty 2″x2″ shrouded in that organic, matte look we were loving. Could work. There’d be a line of half tiles along the face of the fireplace (so a single strip of 1″x2” tiles), but if the grout matched perfectly, this seemed an unnoticeable sin to commit. We liked her. But as we’re going back and forth on scale—which looks best with the brick’s lines, which might feel the most seamless, which reduces dreaded slivers—I realize the grid was right in front of us! Sometimes things are done right the first time and an architect in 1921 nailed it. The original tile was 6″x6”, which fits the space perfectly (no tile slivers!), looks great with the scale of the brick AND is a wink toward the home’s original character.
Ultimately, our winning tile was the one we loved that we could cut to size: Honed Absolute Black cut to 6″x6″ squares with a black grout! Going with a tile, but in an organic texture made both clients happy and kept with the traditional vibe of the house, while bringing a little modern twist.
Quick cry for help: How do we “date” different options without samples? Guys, we WANT to avoid wastefulness, but how when they’re so, so helpful? Seeing our winner, Absolute Black, in the space changed everything. When it first arrived, to be honest, I thought “nah…too much texture. Looks like a countertop.” And then we took it home (it’s our collective home now) and it was perfect. None of that could have happened with a photo pulled from the internet. Like, internet dating is cool, but you’ve gotta meet in real life at some point, yeah? Honestly, I’d love to hear from any designers who have found a way around the wastefulness of samples.
Install starts in a couple of weeks. EXCITEMENT! We finally get to see what’s been a mostly 2D world gain a dimension or two. Can’t wait to share very pretty photos with you guys (hopefully *holds breath*). But there’s a bonus room to throw in before the big reveal, so stay tuned! In the meantime, has anyone ever renovated a classic fireplace? Did you stay traditional or go modern? And which of our options was your favorite? WE NEED ANSWERS (in the comment section).