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Make that "black hole' fireplace disappear

(ran HP edition)

Question: My contemporary town house has a prefabricated fireplace that's no more than a black hole in the wall with a black metal surround. While I'm pleased to have a fireplace, I would like to make it look a bit more interesting. What do you suggest?

Answer: It's hard to make a black hole look interesting, but you can make it disappear by integrating the fireplace opening with the wall around it. Because most prefab fireplaces are fairly small, your most effective strategy may be to enlarge its scale while making the surround work stylistically with the rest of the room.

I'll assume that the room has a generally traditional design. In that case, it would be appropriate to add a period mantle and to replace the black metal with a slate or marble surround. A decorative mantle could also be used in a contemporary setting because, as you may know, eclectic interiors are often the most interesting.

Wood mantles can be purchased in standard sizes and shapes. Look in a lumber yard for one that can be painted or stained to suit your tastes.

But perhaps you would prefer a more modern solution of the sort seen in the photo. This apartment's small prefab fireplace was originally as problematic as your own. Interior designer Dorothea Marshall made it look wider and quite contemporary by surrounding the opening with three slabs of plain travertine stone. The material was thick enough to protrude beyond the bronze-colored mirrored panels that Marshall also installed on the drywall surface. Vertical wooden strips were then added on each side of the mirror to produce a frame that divides the fireplace area from the rest of the wall.

This is obviously a dramatic treatment, but it's intended to do more than create a powerful impression. Functionally, it's quite a smart alteration because it turns problems into assets. Besides enhancing the fireplace's appearance, the decorative combination of glass and stone establishes a stylistic direction for the entire room. The mirrors also cause the room to look larger while making the fireplace seem as though it were floating in space.

The choice of material was crucial in achieving these special effects. Silhouetted trees and furnishings look more mysterious and abstract in this bronze-tinted reflection than they would have with an ordinary silvered mirror. Darker glass doesn't produce an exact mirror image, which can in fact be rather annoying in a living room setting.