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You are a king by your own fireside, as much as any monarch in his throne.

--Cervantes, preface to "Don Quixote"


Besides regal, other adjectives that come to mind when describing the wonderful feelings one gets from the hearth are romantic, toasty and cozy. A fireplace is one of the three top features people want in their homes, a desire often brought to the forefront by that very first fall nip in the air.

"People enjoy a fire," says Ted Corvey, head of Tulikivi Group, the North American branch of a Finnish company that manufactures natural stone fireplaces (the name Tulikivi, pronounced too-le-KEE-vee, means firestone). "The fire tends to be the focus of an event, whether it's a party or family gathering. It's the central part of a home. It's not just the visual but the sensual appeal: You can see it, hear it, feel it, smell it."

According to the trade magazine Hearth and Home, roughly 75 percent of those building a new home rank the fireplace as the No. 1 amenity. And according to government housing forecasts and statistics from McGraw Hill, there are fireplaces in about three-fourths of that market.

Architecturally, a fireplace can contribute significantly to the layout of a room. It draws the eye and can serve as a starting point for arranging furniture. It may even divide the space.

Stylistically it can be traditional, with a mantel of wood or stone reflecting designs from 18th and 19th century French, English and neoclassical motifs, and Victorian, Colonial, art nouveau and art deco influences. Or it can be contemporary, a streamlined unit integrated into a wall.

"The fireplace industry is paralleling most other home furnishings industries [in terms of design]," says Glenn Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing for the Majestic Co., a manufacturer of gas fireplaces. "The consumer is becoming more sophisticated, moving the product mix upscale."

Such design innovations as see-through fireplaces, peninsulas, coves, bays, islands and even installations that accommodate windows above and to the sides, have added to the variety of decorative fireplace options in the last four years. Most of these sophisticated units are showing up at the high end, retailing from $1,500 to $4,000 and up vs. the typical price of $300 to $600.

But design isn't the only improvement of recent years. Technology has been driven by environmental issues as well, including all aspects of pollution and waste disposal, particularly the way emissions may contribute to the greenhouse effect. Fireplaces must meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA) regulations for clean air.

"It's changing the makeup of the traditional fireplace," says Mr. Thompson, "moving manufacturers to cleaner wood-burning technology as well as gas technology."

The EPA took an active role in 1988, requiring wood stoves, which started to gain ground in the '70s during the energy crisis, to meet certain emissions standards. As of July, non-certified stoves could no longer be sold. The EPA publishes a list of certified wood stoves (see accompanying box).

What most people know as a traditional wood-burning fireplace pulls about 90 percent of the heat generated by the flames up the open flue and out the chimney. Airtight glass screens slow down the heat loss by eliminating drafts from the room up the chimney.

To improve efficient convection (hot air) heating in chimney fireplaces, options include placing an insert within. Or a free-standing stove may be installed in the fireplace chamber (the stovepipe is run up through the chimney). The trouble with the latter option is that heat that otherwise might radiate into the room is lost from the sides and back of the stove.

Gas has become an attractive alternative for those who don't like to haul wood, who prefer instant light and heat (there is even a remote-control option) and who aren't fond of cleanup.

The blue flame characteristic of gas fireplaces is not appealing to wood-burning die-hards, who don't want what they consider to be an artificial look. So some manufacturers have responded by producing a more "realistic" golden flame.

As far as style is concerned, there's a tremendous range. For period looks, you might try an architectural salvage house, or an antique shop.

Fourth Bay/Condor is an excellent source for a Victorian look. Its most popular seller is made of hand-cast iron and tiles imported VTC from England. It is available as an insert and as a factory-built fireplace that burns wood, coal or charcoal briquettes. A natural gas and propane-burning unit also is available. The cost ranges from $2,100 to $3,000.

Style and technology come together in the designs of Tulikivi. It has taken an old concept -- radiant mass heating -- and updated it for application to a variety of home settings. Its fireplaces are soapstone, which absorbs most of the heat produced by each fire, releasing it into a room more gradually and consistently through a contra-flow system. The result is higher combustion fires of one to three hours' duration.

"You need to light only two fires a day to produce heat for up to 24 hours," says Tulikivi North American head Ted Corvey. "It has the efficiency of a modern-day wood stove. Because of the slow, even delivery of heat, you don't overheat or dry out the air."

The units weigh from 2,000 to 10,000 pounds and range from $2,400 to $10,000. Naturally, installation requires know-how and plenty of reinforcements and floor supports. A 28-page guide is available from the manufacturer to explain how the system works and what is required for installation.

Wood-burning stoves offer still another design alternative and color choices. Although country style seems to suit the look best, contemporary settings work equally well. Vermont Castings, which has been in business for 15 years, offers automatic thermostats, cooking griddles and fire screens on some of its models, such as the "Defiant Encore," which sells for $1,725.

Style choices also have been expanded in the zero-clearance category. This kind of fireplace, available in wood-burning and gas, has a firebox made of prefabricated metal (generally sheet). It has a self-cooled air system that allows it to be placed to within a half-inch of combustible materials. In other words, it can be installed flush within a space. Since it may be used with a prefabricated high-temperature chimney, it's easier, and therefore more economical, to install.

In addition to fireplaces, fire tools also have taken on more sophisticated styling. Sointu and Cose are two manufacturers popular with architects and designers for these reasons.

There are even a small number of artist-designed tools. Brian Russell, a Memphis, Tenn., artist, had such an enormous reaction to a commission of screen, andirons and tools he completed for a restaurant that he since has gone into the business of producing them for people's homes. His work leans toward art nouveau, highlighted by the fluidity of the forged steel with which he works. He works on a custom basis. Standard prices are $500 for a screen, $375 for andirons and $175 for tools.

He says people are less likely to balk at the expense because of today's emphasis on well-designed fireplaces. "If the fireplace is indeed the focal point of a room," he reasons, "why put a $79.95 screen in front of it?"

Selected sources

Brian Russell Designs, 2537 Broad, Memphis, Tenn. 38112; (901) 327-1210.

L *Dovre, 401 Hankes Ave., Aurora, Ill. 60505; (800) 368-7387.

*Eljer, 901 10th St., P.O. Box 869037, Plano, Texas 75086-9037; 800-PL-ELJER.

*Fourth Bay/Condor, Box 287, Garrettsville, Ohio 44231; (800) 321-9614.

*Majestic Co., 1000 E. Market St., Huntington, Ind. 46750-2579; (800) 962-3123.

*Nu Haus, 1665 Old Skokie Road, Highland Park, Ill. 60035; (708) 831-1330.

*Tulikivi Group -- North America, 30 Glen Road, West Lebanon, N.H. 03784; (800) THE-FIRE.

*Vermont Castings, Prince Street, Randolph, Vt. 05060; (802) 728-3181.

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