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Sara’s House: A Fireplace Design Agony (To Be Or Not To Be…Historically Accurate?)



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:

Sara Moto Before6

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.

Craftsmanhouse Fireplace
top and bottom images fireplaces by pasadena craftsman tile

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:

Fireplace Inspor Grid
image sources from left to right: design by house of jade, photography by travis j photography | design by sheena murphy, photography by michael sinclair | design by magnolia | design by amanda jane jones, photography by stoffer photography

These real-life Pin-spirations resulted in hours of Photoshop trials at the hand of poor, poor Sara:

Fireplace Ps Grid

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:

Fireplace Tile Sample Grid

Absolute Black | Cloe | Uni | Metro Plus

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:

Fireplace Tile Sample Side By Side

Fireclay 2″x4″ Rectangle Tile in Peabody, Cyclone, and Loch Ness | Pratt + Larson 3″ Hexagon Tile in C45 and C86

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).

Catch up on all of Sara’s Makeover Takeover: Sara Buys A House Part I: Six Tips For First Time Home Buyers | Sara Buys A House Part II: The Renovation | The Designing Begins: A Floor Plan Design Agony | The Designing Continues: Time To Pick Furniture | The Final Design PlanSara’s Moody TV Room Plan | How Much It Really Costs To Work With A Designer: The Final Tally Of Sara’s Project 

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I actually really love the look of the original tile and might have gone for blue or terracotta based on that, but the one you’ve chosen is also very nice.


A couple things that are only slightly helpful in reducing sample waste. First, I work in commercial design and most (but certainly not all) manufacturers have developed return systems to recycle/reuse their samples (this works especially well in the carpet world). Of course, there is added transit in doing this. I have found that the visualizers available online help me cut down on how many samples I order (I still need a handful but don’t need to order 15 to find out 10 of them immediately don’t work when I get them in hand). I always try and think ahead… Read more »

LJ, thank you for the insight. It’s so nice to hear about these zero landfill events.


We have a raised hearth that is original to our house. Babyproofing nightmare trust me. We currently have a very unsexy foam surround as the centrepiece of our room 🙂 If you ever plan to have kids use something that is flush with your floor.


The sample vs. reducing waste dilemma is always a challenge! Usually these days most manufacturers will take back their samples (especially carpet and tile!). Another option is Save a Sample! ( an organization that recycles samples by donating them to artians and local schools for use in their projects. I work in an architecture office, and we ship almost a box a month full of unused/discontinued/unneeded samples, which is great for us because it reduces clutter in our library, and great for these artists who get free amazing materials to use in their work!

Michelle, I’m so thrilled you gave us a recycling organization to look into. SO appreciated.


Material Bank has been really helpful for our firm in reducing sample waste. They have a bunch of different manufacturers that can be shipped together (cut down on shipping/packaging) and they have an easy return process (again, just one box for all the manufacturers).

And then we give everything else to Zero Landfill every year. That way those samples get used by teachers and artists.

Pokie, THANK you for your insight. Definitely looking into Material Bank.


I renovated my 1956 fireplace which had the original hearth of damaged brown colored tile. I painted the brick fireplace with matte black masonry paint, and used a black and white circulos cement tile on the hearth. I love it so much, I have to stop and stare for a moment every time I walk by. The tile pattern feels like the perfect era.


I want to see a picture! It sounds lovely.

Marisa, sounds amazing!


Material Bank! It’s a great resource with tons of manufacturers (and the list is always growing). They send you samples over night and the best part is they come in a returnable box so you can send back everything you don’t need whenever you’re ready!

I had no idea this was a thing! Definitely saving this resource. Thanks SO much for the rec.

Jenny B

We had a 1920’s fireplace that we renovated – when we bought the house it had a colonial wood fireplace mantle and fake plastic marble surround that we immediately ripped out and found some original tiles underneath, some broken. The original tiles were a tan/beige/with hints of blue handmade square California Art Tile, and we happened to go to a salvage yard in Berkeley and they had A MATCHING MANTLE AND FIREPLACE SURROUND MADE OF THAT SAME TILE. Huge score, and only about $250 bucks. So then we were forced to use it because obviously the universe wanted us to… Read more »


Now, that sounds PERFECT.


We’ve left the two craftsman fireplace surrounds in our 1928 house as is — they’re a lot like your first reference Craftsman photo, but instead of the one big feature tile in the middle there are two smaller ones near the corners. The tiles on the front of the fireplace and then on the floor in front at all squares (I think 4×4) but on each fireplace the floor tiles are a different colour than the front. I like that the floor tiles are flush with our wood floors. We had other tile we added/replaced though and I think we… Read more »

How lucky you had original fireplaces that could be saved! So cool. A return/reuse/recycle would be SUCH a great service.

Roberta Davis

I like what you chose! I have not renovated a fireplace. Had 2 that were traditional and gorgeous, and kept them that way, and the last one, modern, I tore out completely (long story).

I researched Craftsman style a couple of years ago. The original was custom and only for the super-elite (Gamble House- in Pasadena). Then came Craftsman for the masses- you could buy an entire kit from a catalog. As an inspirational treat, go visit the Gamble House- it’s a museum and I still dream about it- would love to live there!

Roberta, I actually got to tour the Gamble House when I was in school! I loved it. SO much character.


Love your process and choice. As for my experience….all I can say is it was the 80’s. Truly a crime happened in that beautiful craftsman of mine what with the pink marble and all. Thankfully I was bright enough to protect the original tile underneath and it was easily restored.


We’ve been having a similar debate with our 1922 Craftsman bungalow (also near Pasadena!). The original facade is unpainted brick, but the bottom of the surround isn’t in great shape and I’ve been wondering if we should do a bachelder-style tile over it or keep it original, if worn. We have a similar mantle/shelving system to Sarah but might be missing some glass doors over the bookcases My POV is that it’s rare to regret original or period touches in a home…they add so much warmth and character. Don’t get me wrong, updated things are lovely and look lovely and… Read more »


Absolutely! My own POV is “don’t buy a older character home if what you want is a featureless, modern, colorless box.” Once those original features are gone, it can be a major effort if you want to restore them.


I’ll keep it simple and say you choose correctly with the absolute black!
As far as feeling wasteful about the samples… if you felt indecisive because you didn’t look at enough samples, then hating it and ripping it all out, seems more wasteful.
But now if you feel having all of these extra samples is waste because you plan to throw them out… then don’t throw them out! Use them in a creative way.

Rachel Whittekiend

Shoot, I think you are missing an opportunity to add a bit of whimsy, style and sparkle by choosing black tile. All of those tiles individually have special qualities, however the hearth floor is so small they are just going to read a ‘black tiles’ and not anything special. The space is so small you could get away with something super special and a bit more pricey without spending a ton: Chinois Field tile, Kelly Wearstler Tableau, anello, craze. My two cents of course. I love what you’re doing and following along 🙂

jenn aka the picky girl

I’m struggling with something similar in our 1906 home. The people who renovated replaced the firebox with an electric one. We won’t switch it any time soon, but they also lined the surround with a black/gray granite and continued it onto the floor. I hate it, and it doesn’t fit at all, but I have nooo idea where to start in reworking it. This helps, though. I need to just start looking.


How about a Cle/handmade tile in an earthy red vein that would be typical of a Craftsman, and modernize the look with the shape of the tile and grout?

Korin B

Burning question. If you cut a larger tile into other sizes/shapes how do you avoid sharp edges? I’m anti sliver but also anti ouch.


We are currently debating going through the same thing with our 1920s craftsman. Mind sharing…
1-can these be done without damaging the wood floors around it?
2- what is the aprox install cost (just the labor)?


I am FEELING this. Currently agonizing over what do do with the fireplace in our 1911 home. The original tile, aside from being extremely green, was damaged when a previous owner tiled over it with cheap white field tile. I want something true to its Edwardian roots, but those folks leaned a little gaudier than I would prefer. You have given me many tile rabbit holes to fall down!


I think I try to be more “historical conscious” than “historically accurate.” When it came to replacing specific things in our house, it was hard to pick things that didn’t feel like -me- just to be historical accurate, but I’m definitely aware of the history and the design elements of that pieces, and I try to honor them when I can. I think as long as you aren’t tearing out and starting from scratch just because you don’t like the style, you can honor the history of the house while still pulling in modern elements.


In our last house (1920s Craftsman-ish bungalow) we had a brick fireplace with original dark red 6×6 quarry tiles. We left them as-is, and they actually blended into the oak floors pretty wall, so you didn’t notice them. We moved last year to a 1918 four square; the fireplace mantle is original but the tile on the hearth and around the firebox were removed by a previous owner and replaced with PINK GRANITE. It’s very pink, but totally functional and we have other more pressing renovations, so it’s pretty far back on the replacement list. When we finally get around… Read more »


This was such a great read. Thank you for walking us through your process in renovating your home. I love the homes tile. I believe if you are happy with your home then your home will be happy with you. The bones and soul of a home should do just that, promote happiness.

Dariana, thank so much for reading along and chiming in!


EHD team, I am 98% sure that y’all did a post a while back about rules for sizing coffee tables alongside a sofa with a chaise lounge, but I can’t find it to save my life! I feel like I remember diagrams and everything. Will you link it for me if you have a moment?

Sorry for the post not related to this post… 🙂


Firstly, of the photos provided, I love the fireplace in the top photo of Pasadena Craftsman Tile. And I also really like the look of the photo for the “something dark and organic — almost like stone”. Of your samples, my pick is the one you ended up with, honed absolute black, and 6” tiles are perfect! I have a 1912 Craftsman that was mostly original when we moved in, dark trim, windows and doors, hardwood floors, many light fixtures, and most likely, the fireplace. The fireplace was massive for the space made of cast stone that had been painted… Read more »

Suzanne, it sounds like a beautiful space where you’ve mixed classic and modern! LOVE it.


Thanks, Velinda! I can’t wait to see how Sara and Mac’s house progresses. I love following along and being allowed to be a fly on the wall!


That sounds so gorgeous!


Thank you!


I feel like we need to see what they have planned for the rest of the room before chiming in. What is the “look” they have for the room if not craftsman?


I think you did a great job of identifying what the look and feel of craftsman is about, then using a modern material that had the same look and feel. When renovating I try to preserve original materials when they are adding to design and use, but not just for the sake of being authentic. Most of our houses are not exactly worthy of architectural preservation, but keeping in the spirit of the architecture makes for good design.


I find it sad when classic homes are “improved.” There are so few left that haven’t had encrustions of whatever was trendy over the decades. But your tile was in really poor shape, so something had to be done. The brick was sadly already painted white (I really hate white painted brick), so I guess if you had to go neutral, a blackish tile was the best you could do. I just find the contrast a little harsh and hard-edged, when mellow is the Craftsman vibe.

kristina ginorio

I think that the size and the shape of the tiles will honor the past. If you want dark, earthy; that’s a nod to the Craftsman vibe. Do NOT go with something from another era!!!

Thanks for chiming in, Kristina!


Since this is a small room and the fireplace has a simple design I agree with going with a pared back, classic style. I find the honed black a little underwhelming. I would choose the Fireclay tile in the Loch Ness color to bring a color accent to the focal wall, in the 6×6 size. I was surprised you didn’t consider the 6×6 size.


Thanks for this post. I’m struggling with the same issue, a 1919 craftsman in NJ. At some point the original hearth was ripped out and huge ugly reddish ’80s tiles installed. I’d like to replace the hearth and have looked at too many tile options to remember; your process is so organized! My front door opens up sorta-onto the hearth. You don’t step on it as you walk into the house, but you know it’s there. The fireplace is non-operable (would cost $25k or so to change that, not going to happen in my lifetime) so I’m wondering if I… Read more »

Monique Wright Interior Design

Love the one you chose! That would be my choice too. Can’t wait to see it finished! Love the character of an old craftsman home.

There’s so much character!I just love craftsman homes.

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As a design consultant at a tile distributor I say…Return your samples! They can be helpful many times over I the future and cost a great deal of money to provide.


So I definitely think you need permission to update. But interpreting the spirit of the Craftsman style may help. They were resisting a time of mass manufacture, cheap throw away goods and harkening to a time when “craft” mattered. These values matter more than the fact they were big on pastels and decorative flowers. So go dark. Go modern. Just maybe try to show the hand of the craftsman in the result? If the grout isn’t machine perfect? Or if that doesn’t work, feel free to create a lovely backdrop to your hand thrown pottery. Honoring the past is about… Read more »

Michelle, really solid point about the craftsmanship being key. Love these ideas.


I couldn’t agree more with this. While I love a museum-quality craftsman home, I really think the spirit of the craftsman movement is what matters. Of course, if you were ripping out gorgeous original tiles I would be horrified, but you have to replace them anyways now. I agree that the tiles could have been slightly more exciting, but if you are going to have a lot of art and color in the room, its a good idea to go neutral with the fireplace. I recently redid my bathroom in a black/white/grey/wood color way, which is pretty on trend at… Read more »


I have a 1930s house with a near identical fireplace — except with doors on the shelves (with diamond glass front) and a thicker mantal above. It is also painted all white. We have terracotta tiles on ours – not sure when it was installed — possibly 80s or 70s….unclear! But it looks good. We have espresso hardwood floors in the room.


You should check out rarehare_designs on insta (no affiliation just a big fan of her work/ethos).. she creates jewellery out of laminate samples and it is amazing! Not helpful for EHD samples specifically as she is in Adelaide but still very inspiring stuff.

Jessa, what a cool suggestion. Thank you!




Look at Pewabic Pottery in Detroit.

[…] MORE gift guides (Emily’s and kids), queried about what might be the new marble, got real about Sara’s fireplace design agony, perused TONS of Black Friday sales (many of which are still happening—so head over quick), […]


lovely story – I cannot wait for the reveal, did you change the surround? paint the bricks? more, I need more. Our bricks are painted kind of red and our tiles are terracotta but in a semi circle, and the mantel is wood (too much I know).

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