The thinking behind fireplace design: Artistic vision or market-led process?

The sources of inspiration that feed the creations of interior designers have long been a point of great discussion. Some designers argue that their work is something that could be counted as art, treating it as a profound set of installations based on symbolism and hidden meaning.

Others say the aim is simply to produce a desirable look for the homeowner, whereas others see it as a full-blown marketing process that serves a purpose of keeping manufacturers in profit.

The reality is that the true essence of design is something that sits in the middle of this venn diagram. There’s also the view that the depth of a design is directly linked to the function of the item it will be applied to.

To gain greater insight into how the designers themselves view what they do for a living, we spoke to the Design Director from J Rotherham stone masons, a firm that has been at the forefront of interior design for the home since the early part of the 20th century.

J Rotherham started in 1927 and uses a range of materials to produce fireplaces, staircases, flooring, worktops and other fixtures. Since starting out as a small, family enterprise with a handful of customers, it has gone on to become one of the biggest providers in the UK – serving the needs of people all over the world and picking up some famous commissions along the way.

We picked the brains of Design Director Jamie Rotherham to establish exactly what it is that takes his ideas on the the journey from his head to customers’ living rooms.

There’s no ‘one rule for all’

Jamie explained that the way ideas come to fruition very much works on a case-by-case basis, with a number of variables that must be carefully considered and balanced to ensure that the end result is exactly what the customer would like – in terms of aesthetics, functionality and price – while being achievable within the company’s resources.

He said: “A good design is like getting something for nothing. You’ll get a lot out of it without it costing you too much if it’s well designed.

“The design normally just comes to a logical conclusion, like a formula that you can sort of follow.”

Artistry as a way of adding value

The insight provided by Jamie tells us the level of artistry that goes into fireplace design is often dictated by the price a customer is looking to pay. At the cheaper end of the scale, customers can purchase fireplaces that are still perceived to have the same level of quality as their more expensive counterparts, but these ‘off-the shelf’ models are more homogenised, following plainer and more standardised designs that are less likely to polarise opinion.

In this respect, the process that goes into producing them is very much based on the constraints of manufacturing and carefully monitoring costs.

However, J Rotherham also offers a bespoke design service – an option that allows customers to receive something more personal and to their exact specifications. In these situations, the customer will give Jamie a brief and they will then be shown a quote of how much this is likely to cost. Realistically, the extra artistic touches that go into this mean it could carry a significantly higher price tag.

But with mass producers always keen to emulate any original designs that start to catch on, Jamie questions how much of an “asset” the artistic side of fireplace design could still be considered to be.

He commented: “There are some designs that are originals of mine [and others that are standardised]. It’s a mixture of both really.

“The other thing is if you come up with a completely original design, the Chinese are so quick to copy it now. I’m not sure how much design originality is still an asset anymore. But of course it is a great thing to have when doing bespoke work.”

It would appear that – within this industry at least – it is those who can really capture the imagination of customers who can command the highest prices, suggesting that artistry is still something that can initially carry a great deal of value. However, the ease with which competitors can capitalise on emulating originality means that those who are true artists must continually reinvent their approach.