Design Driven Column: Fiery Design

A version of this column ran in Saturday’s art section in the Telegraph Journal, my column ‘Design Driven’ on October 13 2012.


Settling into fall, thoughts turn to enhancing or otherwise creating spaces that add warmth to the lives we’ll be living increasingly indoors.

On a modest level, increased warmth can be achieved through small additions, such as replacing summer curtains or bright cushions with heavier textiles and warmer tones.

One obvious source of warmth – and one with real design implications – is a natural fire. But for most homes without an existing fireplace, installation of a wood burning fireplace is either impossible or too expensive.

Photo: Judith Mackin – The fireplace we ultimately decided upon in our living room (above) is the ‘Echelon’ fireplace by Majestic purchased through Alternatives in Saint John)  Painting by Doug Moore (left) painting on right, Bruce Pashak.  Acrylic  Dear Head – Tristan Zimmerman.  Wooden animals by David Weeks, Dustpan and Broom and Reindeer Hide all available through TUCK STUDIO .  

Over the last year and a half my husband and I have been building a house. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the construction implications of a second-floor green roof, we decided to switch from a wood burning to a gas fireplace. I wasn’t happy about the prospect of dropping the more traditional fireplace from the plans. I suspect that the appeal of a wood burning fireplace doesn’t really need to be explained to anyone, especially to New Brunswickers, who probably rely on wood fireplaces, furnaces and stoves as much as anyone in the free world.

It wasn’t so much the loss of wood fire I regretted in the move to gas as the manner in which gas fire was presented – or, perhaps, ‘staged’ would be the more accurate term. There is something inherently false about the spectacle of an industrially consistent flame playing among a mass-produced mock arrangement of wood-like objects calculated to look like a ‘real’ fireplace.

If gas was to merit a welcome in our homes, given its nature (specifically, that its flame comes from the consumption of its invisible self as opposed to wood), it was obliged to provide not merely the flame and attendant warmth of a wood fire, but also the look of the very thing it was designed to replace. I value materials in design that celebrate rather than seek to disguise their natures. I’m drawn to the natural. A gas fireplace with an entirely gratuitous arrangement of artificial wood has always struck me as ‘ugly.’

Since researching gas fireplaces, I am happy to report things have improved. The ubiquitous arrangement of pseudo-wood logs is still the industry standard, but manufacturers of gas burning fireplaces have introduced materials into the frame of their fireplaces that, while not entirely removed from the illusion of wood, offer a stylish alternative for those of us not willing to settle for the unattractive and forced.

Yes, the one we chose looks like driftwood, but it somehow manages to preserve its dignity – it’s at once involved in, and yet distanced from, the flames with which it shares a space.

Judith Mackin runs an interior design company, punch inside. Her other business, Tuck Studio, is located at 40 Autumn St., Saint John. You can reach her through:, twitter:  @judithmackin or [email protected]

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