The of the Fireplace

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					TheEvolution of the Fireplace
                                    by Larry Kett

                         in Residential lighting

                                                                                            Widescreen WS54 Direct Vent gas fireplace from Town & Country Fireplace

    I have a passion for beautiful, well-designed fireplaces … it’s in my     to the cost savings and its relatively light weight, this new fireplace
blood. I love stepping into a room and seeing a fireplace that causes         greatly expanded the number of fireplaces in homes built during the
me to pause and say whoa.                                                     ‘60s until present.
    I’m a third generation fireplace retailer. The story of fireplaces and         World events in October of 1973 forever changed the fireplace
the fireplace business in West Michigan is my story … shaped by               business. The OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973 quadrupled the price of
events both near and far, and is woven into the fabric of my family’s         oil creating a worldwide energy crisis. People began to look for ways
history.                                                                                                       to conserve energy everywhere, in-
     My grandfather opened a local
hardware store in Seymour Square
                                        Bob started Design Specialties                                         cluding their fireplaces. The intro-
                                                                                                               duction of the fireplace glass door as
in the 1920s. Along with all the
nuts and bolts and broom handles,
                                             in 1980 as the most                                               an energy saving accessory became a
                                                                                                               “must have” product for all fireplace
he carried fireplace equipment. At        innovative fireplace door                                            owners. This began the “fireplace ac-
that time, fireplaces were all brick                                                                           cessory” business boom of the ‘70s
and mortar, designed and built by       manufacturer in the industry.                                          and ‘80s.
masons. A typical fireplace “en-                                                                                    I can recall having waiting lists
semble” included a frame screen, andirons, and matching fire tools.           of customers for glass doors. Glass door manufactures like Portland
Life was simple.                                                              Willamette and Thermo Rite limited the numbers of doors shipped to
   The prefabricated metal “zero clearance” fireplace was first developed     dealers based on their previous purchases. It was not unusual to bring
by Robert Thulman in 1952. Although it took a few years for this new          in hundreds of glass doors during the summer months in preparation
fireplace type to become accepted, the impact was substantial. Due            for the onslaught of demand every fall.                                        64
     In January 1978 I joined the family busi-
ness at the height of the glass door craze.
Coincidentally, that very same year Bob Eh-
mke, working at his father’s glass company in
Milwaukee, created the first all glass, full-view
glass door. I first saw this new sleek alumi-
num framed door in 1982 at my very first

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Hearth Products Expo in Louisville. Every
single fireplace door manufacturer since that
time has incorporated some form of his de-
sign into their products, and I have remained
good friends with Bob to this day. Bob started
Design Specialties in 1980 as the most inno-
vative fireplace door manufacturer in the in-
dustry. The company, still located in Milwau-
kee, remains one of the premier fireplace glass
door manufacturers in the United States.
    Polished brass ruled the day in the 1980s
and ’90s … not just on the fireplace, but
throughout the home with lamps and acces-
sories. During this time of cheaper energy
and relative affluence, gas logs became ex-
tremely popular and there was a demand for
more ornate fireplace accessory treatments.
Large, beautiful homes were being built that
called for screens adorned with ornate cast-
ings and antique reproduction pieces. We
developed strong ties with an exclusive fabri-
cator of high end custom fireplace accessories
located in Los Angeles. We were able to offer
the level of quality and sophistication found
only places like New York, Los Angeles and
Chicago - right here in little ole Grand Rap-
      The single most important product in-
novation in the fireplace industry occurred
in 1987. That year, brothers Dan and Ron
Shimek, in a small company they had found-
ed in 1975, developed the first direct-vent gas
fireplace. This single product innovation has
revolutionized the fireplace industry and their
modest company, Heat & Glo, has grown to a
multimillion dollar corporation.
    This new fireplace, which allowed venting
either horizontally or vertically, has opened
up a myriad of possibilities for having a fire-
place anywhere in the home. As an added bo-
nus, it was also a highly-efficient heater. To-
day, gas fireplaces account for 50 percent of all
fireplaces sold in the U.S., and two-thirds of
those are direct vent.
     The steady rise in popularity of the gas-
direct vent fireplace has also caused a shift in
how fireplaces are purchased. Because of the
myriad of choices, it is not unusual for the ar-
chitect or interior designer to work with the

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                                                                                       homeowner in choosing a specific fire-
                                                                                       place that fits the room. The question
                                                                                       no longer is “I want a fireplace,” but
                                                                                       rather, “I want that fireplace.”

                                                                                         The question no
                                                                                         longer is “I want

                                                                                          a fireplace,” but
                                                                                          rather, “I want
                                                                                          that fireplace.”
                                                                                       Recent innovations include the “Bed
                                                                                       & Breakfast” pioneered by Travis In-
                                                                                       dustries. This small, arched design
                                                                                       fits neatly into a corner and is perfect
                                                                                       for kitchens and bedrooms. The “clean
                                                                                       look” fireplace developed by Town &
                                                                                       Country is characterized by a large ex-
                                                                                       pansive glass face, with tall active leap-
                                                                                       ing flames. This is a favorite of design-
                                                                                       ers and architects, as it most closely
                                                                                       duplicates the look and ambiance of a
                      Chelsea M27 Direct Vent Gas fireplace from Mendota Hearth        masonry fireplace.

     The latest trend inspired by European fireplaces is the “Ribbon
Fire.” This long, sleek horizontal design was presented by most every
major line at the 2008 Hearth Products Expo in Atlanta. Contem-
porary European design has become more accepted, and American
manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon.
    Until now, I’ve been describing the fireplace market for new con-
struction. But, there remains a huge market for converting the mil-

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lions of existing inefficient and little used fireplaces (both masonry
and prefabricated) to highly efficient gas direct vent systems. This
product, called a fireplace “insert,” involves a metal box inserted into
the existing fireplace with flexible aluminum liners up the flue. In the
past, inserts have been bulky, unattractive black boxes. But recently,
manufacturers have seen a demand for upscale, more sophisticated
designs in bronze, pewter and stainless steel. Examples of these are
available from well known companies like Valor, Jotul, Scan, and
   Over the past 30 years I’ve witnessed the transition from the fire-
place equipment of my grandfather, to the fireplace doors and acces-
sories of my father, to the direct-vent fireplaces of today. And now I
have the even greater satisfaction of watching the fourth generation,
my daughter Katie, carry on the family tradition. Not surprisingly,
her ability to tap into the power of the internet is having an immedi-
ate impact on how we do business … just possibly, laying the ground-
work for generations of fireplace lovers to come.

                                                                                70i Direct Vent Gas insert from SCAN/Krog Iverson

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