What to do with an off-center roman brick fireplace?

Living-room-roman brick fireplaceReader Lisa is having some trouble figuring out how to make her off-center retro roman brick fireplace work for within her living room design. She initially wanted to paint the bricks white to match the built in bookshelf next to it, but her husband is a purist and prefers his brick au natural. How can Lisa make the room more aesthetically pleasing to her and still keep the natural brick for her husband? I’m thinking she was on the right track — but needs to reverse her thinking.


Lisa writes:

Hi Pam and Kate-

I love reading your blog – it’s definitely made me appreciate my 1954 rancher so much more.

Roman brick retro fireplaceI have a retro design dilemma though, and need your help!  We have a Roman brick (as I understand) fireplace that sits asymmetrically at the end of our living room with a built-in shelf next to it. Previously, there was a 1980’s fireplace insert covering the fireplace, which we just removed (yay!), but now I’m not sure where to go. All the neighborhood houses have had the brick painted white or tan over the years – I initially lobbied for that option, but my husband is very anti-paint on original brick. I also read the blog on your site about staining brick, but I’m not sure if that’s the right solution for me either (is my brick too dark for that?)  We recently painted the grey on the walls, which helps ‘tone down’ the red, so I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should just live with the brick the way it is – you know, ‘love the house I’m in.’ And beyond the bricks, I’m not sure what to do to the structure of the fireplace – does the asymmetrical thing work?  We could cut the bricks off the side to make it centered in the space and with the hearth, add a traditional mantle and drywall above, remove the built-in in the corner – I’ve reached the point where I’m totally stuck. Help!

Built-in bookshelvesOur style is definitely artsy/eclectic with a little splash of collected random collected furniture thrown in (and a couple things left over from college that need to be thrown out!) Hubby is an arts and crafts furniture builder on the side, so there’s a lot of that influence in our home (I’m still waiting on a few key pieces for this room, clearly).  We also have a family/extended family of artists, so we do our best to incorporate their work into our home – which is wonderful, but challenging at the same time.

Roman-bricks-retroI’m so hoping that you pick my room to help with – I’d love – no wait, I NEED a fresh perspective!  And I’d love to do my rancher justice – I didn’t even realize how great it is until I started reading your blog (which I stumbled across while researching shingle colors last summer).  Thank you!


My key tip: Paint the built-in bookshelves to blend with the brick wall

Lisa — I think your fireplace is related to my house. I have probably the exact same roman brick covering 3/4 of the exterior of my retro ranch. That being said, I agree with your husband — I wouldn’t paint this brick — it is really beautiful just the way it is. Instead of painting the brick to match the bookshelf, why not paint the bookshelf to blend with the brick. By painting the bookshelf a medium brown that coordinates with your fireplace — it makes the whole wall on seem like one piece — thus reducing the off-center look. To further “center” the fireplace opening, try getting a tall plant (real or fake if you have a black thumb) to put on the other side of the room. The plant will occupy some of the “extra space” on that side of the fireplace and make the opening feel more centered.

Living-room-warm-creamy-wallsI asked Lisa — even though she just painted the walls grey — if she would be game for Pam and me to each suggest a wall color for her living room for fun. Lisa says she is always open to suggestions, so Pam and I both set out to pick a color and also a rug for the space, keeping in mind Lisa and her husband’s love for Arts and Crafts style furniture and wanting to tone down the brick. I chose a warm creamy color for their walls (similar to Sherwin Williams Inviting Ivory) to tie in the color of the brick without bringing out the red tones. The rug I chose — found on Overstock.com — coordinates with what is already in the room and also has an Arts and Crafts feel to it.


Pam noticed that Lisa had green curtains and suggested a green from a story she wrote about Arts and Crafts paint colors — from California Paints called Jukebox. I found the green rug to coordinate with this color scheme from Shaw.

Living-room-grey-rugEven if Lisa didn’t want to change the grey walls, adding a rug to the room would help pull it together and make it feel more finished. This hand tufted grey wool rug from Overstock.com would be a good option.

UPDATE– After several suggestions from readers wondering how the wall color would look wrapped around onto the bookshelf, some further “digital painting” was done and the following shows how each wall color would look if it were carried onto the bookshelf.




Lisa, I hope I’ve given you a few ideas on how to make your space feel more symmetrical — without painting your brick fireplace.

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  1. Sara says

    I love the fireplace! My fireplace has the same brick, but mine has pink mortar. I am so glad you’re not going to paint the brick! I love the idea of painting the bookcase to “match” the brick and I like all of the wall color options, especially the green. I love love love arts & crafts style and I think green really sets off the wood tones. So many great comments above…I’ll just say you have a beautiful room and good luck/have fun!

  2. Kelly Wittenauer says

    You have a gorgeous mid-century modern fireplace! Instead of trying to traditionalize it with paint or, worse yet, a mantle – try embracing the modern. It cries out for a star burst clock or some metal & wood artwork instead of the paintings that hang there now. I like the asymmetry, but if you prefer to minimize that, painting it to match the brick seems to do that best. Remove the soot stain from above the fireplace if possible. I like the idea of a swag light to the left of the fireplace. And agree with Pam about swapping the furniture layout. Your window sits high enough to get away with the TV in front of it, especially if you put it on a slightly lower stand. I also agree with those who’ve said the room needs a bit less furniture.

    Meredith R.
    Our last house had a difficult to furnish living room. I found that not limiting myself to furniture placed against walls helped. For example, where you mentioned the implied hall from front door to kitchen – an L-shaped sofa with one leg along a wall & the other extending along part of one side of that “hall” might work. Perhaps with a credenza or sofa table behind.

  3. Sarah g says

    I painted me fireplace and have never looked back, it looks so much better but mine was a really dark red brick. If you do paint it I would suggest anything BUT white… Too stark! I recommend Manchester tan or bleaker beige by Ben Moore

  4. says

    Since you already have a taste for Arts and Crafts I would suggest you look for inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright. The horizontal lines of the brick fit into the Prairie and Modern style. I’d look at photos of Fallingwater or Usonian homes to get ideas.

    The colors the furniture and brick want are earth colors; greens, Cherokee Red, and warm oranges and ochres and maybe a textured grasscloth on an accent wall.

    You can mix Arts and Crafts and Modern. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.

  5. bux1234567 says

    After reading the owner’s original request and other people’s comments, I’m wondering if balance, simplicity and organization is what the owner really wants, and not strict bi-lateral symmetry.

    If indeed balance is what you’re after, I offer this:

    1. Leave the brick unpainted.

    2. Paint the walls and bookcase the same color. The gray in the last image offers enough contrast in hue to make the fireplace remain a focal point, but the gray’s and the brick’s similarity in weight/darkness still holds the room together. I’m afraid that the cream and green paint schemes disintegrate the room.

    3. A wall-to-wall, textured carpet will also integrate the room, as well as add warmth, without introducing more complicating lines to an already busy room. While adding an area rug might help anchor the furniture, the rug’s perimeter introduces more uneccesary lines..

    4. Place the couch along the wall opposite the window and center the couch on the window. This placement will balance the room side to side, and, because the depth of the couch is also about equal to the width of the bookcase, makes the bookcase make more sense.

    5. Center the television below the window. Consider a console storage unit to contain the TV. This will give the TV some weight to balance the couch, as well as conceal equipment. Also, having the TV away from the fireplace means that these two focal points don’t compete with each other. Keeping the TV low is not only more in keeping with the mid-century period, it also is more natural for viewing. The viewing angle for humans at rest is about 5 degrees below horizontal. Given this, placing a TV up high, like over a fireplace, just creates a strain. Last of all, this placement prevents glare on the TV screen.

    6. Get larger draperies that run floor to ceiling. On the right side of the window, take the draperies all the way to the left corner of the fireplace. I’m not sure what’s happening to the left the window. Ideally, take the draperies to the next left inside corner. This further simplifies the room and will give the window more presence. It also creates a clean back drop for the TV.

    7. Place a square corner table to the right of the couch, and then place an armchair perpendicular to the table. This makes an L-shape arrangement of your couch, table and chair—good for conversation, TV viewing and fireplace viewing.

    8. Getting a slimmer couch and armchair, like Crate & Barrel’s Petrie sofa, would also help. Your existing upholstered pieces, while nice, have much heavier proportions than the sleek, horizontal proportions of your Roman brick.

    Looking forward to seeing what you actually do. Good luck.

      • Bux1234567 says

        Hi, Pam, yes, I’m a contract commercial designer, mostly designing office spaces, but I’ve also designed for restaurants, senior-living communities, and retail.

        What really brings me to Retro Renovation isn’t what I do for a living. I, like so many others on the site, own a mid-century-modest house—in my case, a 1955 split level. Your manifesto expresses my sentiments on mid-century-modest housing exactly, and your site’s a continual resource as I “love the house I’m in”—such great information so well presented with enthusiasm, insight, warmth and wit. You do such a great job. Thanks for the site!

        • pam kueber says

          Awe, thank you, Bux, you made my day! I feel like a rank amateur compared to you when making my suggestions! Glad you are reading — and contributing!!!

    • nina462 says

      Thanks bux! I entered my comment way below, but then forgot to mention that I did purchase a 1960 RCA console tv, that I will be putting in front of my window, and then rearranging my furniture so that my room will be more ‘square’ than ‘rectangle’…and that the tv doesn’t compete with the fireplace.
      In fact, I had an old tv guy come to the house to look at the RCA, and he was amazed at it. He also would install a newer tv in the cabinet if needed, but he managed to get the RCA working with cable. Wow!
      Can’t wait to rearrange my furniture this weekend – thanks to Bux suggestions.

  6. Kate H says

    If it were me, I’d rearrange the furniture, and here’s why:

    This room is full of separate little units – three chair/lamp/tables for reading; sofa and lazy boy for TV watching; fireplace. There’s no focal point. Think of this instead as one unit and don’t arrange the furniture as if it is a great room, which may need separate little areas. Put all the chair/lamp/tables somewhere else where people may want to read. On either wall, center the sofa, with the lazy boy at a right angle facing the fireplace, and a table and light in the L. Maybe get a coffee table, maybe not. Center the TV on the opposite wall. Next time you buy furniture, get it all at one time and all in one color (which is not black or brown) and make sure you can see the feet. That way it doesn’t look like it’s designed for asthmatic giants.

    If you center everything else, the off-center fireplace will look right. If the fireplace were centered, you’d want to make everything else off-centered (which is what you’ve got now).

    Alternatively: Hire a house stager for a half-day and let her tell you what to do with what you have. And get two teen-aged boys to help move it, it looks heavy. You can pay them in pizza. This is so much easier and cheaper than hacking at your fireplace or buying rugs or repainting.

  7. says

    It’s probably too difficult to do with Photoshop, but I wonder what happens if the back and interior of the bookcase is painted gray, and the face of the bookshelf left white or painted to match the bricks.

    I think a gray interior would add depth.

  8. Larry says

    I hope I’m not repeating a suggestion already posted, I’m throwing this in on my lunch hour and didn’t have the chance to read them all. How about building a matching bookcase on the left of the fireplace? It would of course be a bit skinnier than the one on the right but maybe it would visually ‘scoot’ the brick section toward the center just a bit. You could even leave the brick there but just sort of cover it with the new bookcase. That way if you decide you don’t like it, you could take the bookcase down and the original brick would still be there.

    • Diane in CO says

      I had that very same thought when considering this design problem a few days ago. I wish Kate could “photoshop” that second bookcase into the room so we could see how it looks!

      Also, I would play with facing the sofa toward the fireplace with a sofa table behind it. (NOT touching any wall) That could separate the room from the main entry, assuming the front door is just off to the left in the picture.

      Also, the color of gray on the walls just misses the mark – it’s too BLUE-gray. Look at the mortar; it is a WARM gray. Just painting the walls the warm gray (paler, lighter tone) of the mortar would help! Look better with green drapes as well. The blue gray against the drapes is not attractive, to my eye. Other wall color options are good as well, but the blue-gray doesn’t seem to go with other elements in the room, which seem to be “taupe-ier.”

      Lisa, hope you aren’t sorry you asked all of us for advice!! :-)

        • Larry says

          Yep, you’re right, the fireplace isn’t really centered but I’m thinking that the second bookcase might sort of trick the eye, and it might ‘appear’ more centered that it does now. But then again it might even draw more attention to the dilemma. I think a photoshop session might indeed give us an idea, but I have no clue how to do that. :)

  9. chase says

    My vote would be to paint the bookshelf either the color of your mortar on the fireplace, or even a deep deep brown or black. Embrace the asymmetrical style.

    If you want an idea of what these colors would look like, I did some mock-ups in Photoshop:

    Seeing as your taste in furniture is a little more traditional, I’d probably also suggest a small piece of moulding between the bookcase and the ceiling. Something VERY simple, however (like the end table you have next to the bookcase and what your lamp is sitting on next to the window.

  10. Kelly M says

    I don’t think the bookshelves are original. If it were me, I’d rip them out. Without them, I think asymmetry of the fireplace would make more sense.

  11. Scott says

    I had the same dilemma in my 1954 ranch… a not too large living room overwhelmed by a massive fireplace that dictated an extremely limited furniture arrangement.

    I probably took the most extreme measure possible, having a false wall installed over it! This may seem like madness but the proportions of the room magically fell into place and now I have a big showcase wall for my Zenith console stereo as well as some of my favorite paintings and lamps. The room feels infinitely more clean and modern now (modern in a 1950s/1960s kind of way) and it literally changed the entire vibe of the house.

    PS And before anyone panics, the fireplace is sitll there, perfectly intact, hidden by some simple framing, drywall, and moldings, waiting for some future owner to rediscover it.

  12. Nancy EC says

    I love grey walls, but not in this room. For me, the grey seems a little cold with that lovely brick. I am a fan of the green walls. But if nothing else, at least get rid of the white on the bookcase. Too harsh and jarring. Either paint to match the walls or the fireplace. Is it original? If not, consider having hubby build a beautiful and ‘arts and crafts -ish’ bookcase in quartersawn oak or go mid-century and have him do something in ’50’s appropriate wood.

  13. nina462 says

    I am having the same dilemma, with an off center fireplace. Someday I’ll send it in. My living room/dining room is one big room, with an off center red brick fireplace in the living room. There is a bookcase to one side (it’s only up to waist level, no top shelving). I used to put my tv on the other side to make some symetry out of it.

    I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one with a off center fireplace.

  14. Jim says

    I agree with Diane in CO. There is nothing wrong with the fireplace or the bookshelf. The problem is the furniture placement. To begin with, the love seat is too close to the fireplace (WAY too close), and there seems to be an attempt to create a long sofa from the love seat and recliner. If at all possible, get a long sofa and center it in front of the window. Place the love seat to the right of the sofa at a right angle facing the fire place and put the recliner in the corner in front of the bookshelf. I realize that the current arrangement might be the most comfortable for watching TV but it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing and it’s crowding the fireplace.

  15. Lisa says

    I agree, don’t paint the brick. You may regret it later. Paint the inside of the book shelf the same color as your walls and leave the outside of the bookcase the way it is.
    Also paint your curtain rod the same white color as the outside of the bookcase to bring some cohesion to the room.
    You need some larger elements on the left side of the fireplace. The pictures you are currently using are too small for the space. Something large and eyecatching to also balance the bookcase on the right.

    • bux1234567 says

      About wall art: You may want to consider grouping your individual pieces of art into a proportionally tense, larger composition of perhaps seven or eight pieces that collectively form a large rectangle. This would be in keeping with the symmetry-asymmetry of the fireplace and the original period character of the room. It would also address the fact that your individual pieces are underscaled for the other elements in the room, which is the reason why I do not recommend peppering them as singles and duos throughout the room as they are shown in the photograph. What I’m not quite sure about is where this composition should go and whether the composition should be vertical or horizontal. If you arranged the furniture as I described in an earlier post, to the left of the fireplace opening you would have an open, unobstructed, clean area in which you might place a vertical composition that’s about as wide as the bookcase and which would run from just above the hearth and just below the ceiling. The composition of art to the left of the fireplace opening would be about as tall and wide as the bookcase on the right of the fireplace opening. You may actually like having nothing above the fireplace opening itself. A close example of this approach can be seen in the Stephen’s fireplace from the first two seasons of “Bewitched”. (Their house as originally decorated was a great example of blending traditional with modern and symmetry with asymmetry.) I have pictures of this and would like to share them with you, but I don’t know how to post them here. Good luck! ;-)

  16. marta says

    I would not paint the brick. I’d remake the bookcase with better hidden supports, doing away with the vertical stabilizers in the front which cause the eye to stop short when looking at the bookcase. I would then stain or paint the bookcase to match the fireplace emphasizing horizontal lines similar to the bricks. This will make the room seem wider.

    If finances allow, I’d get rid of the overstuffed furniture currently blocking the window, and put two slim/low love seats on the opposite wall, one backed to the wall across from the window, the other at 90 degrees facing the fireplace, with front corners touching to create a space for a square table with a lovely big mcm lamp on it. I’d put another lamp table and big lamp in front of the window centered, with the Morris chair currently being rehabbed on the left of it, angled toward the bookcase corner so whomever sits there is comfortably positioned for conversing with people sitting on the love seats or watching tv. The mission rocker might go on the other side of the table in front of the window if there’s room. If it’s a working fireplace, go with a flat screen above it. If you don’t use the fireplace, put the tv in or in front of it.

    I think you could pain walls whatever you like, bright and cheery, or warm and cozy. I’ve got a long narrow living room, too, with a different set of awkward problems, so am totally relating to yours. Good luck, and truly hope we get the see the final version.

  17. marta says

    Oh, also meant to suggest starting the curtains/drapes at ceiling height to mimic the fireplace height, or mount plates, platters, etc., above the current drapery rod.

    • Marta says

      Darn! I made a much more detailed comment just before this one that said awaiting moderation, but it disappeared!

  18. Sandy says

    I’d paint or stain the bookcase to blend with the fireplace to avoid dueling focal points. The window is big and the room gets a lot of light, so the walls can handle a rich color — Sherwin-Williams Peppery and Ruskin Room green are both beautiful with oak and the tan colors of the sofa, so either would work well. I’m not a fan of the gray walls with all the brown tones. Ruskin-Room Green is from Sherwin-Williams Arts and Crafts collection, and other choices there would be nice as well.

  19. Carl Youngblood says

    That’s a great fireplace. I’m with an earlier post that suggested painting the bookcase black. I say embrace the asymmetry. My second choice would be to strip it and stain the wood similar to the floor. The grey looks terrific but I’d do the baseboards the same as the bookcase (black or stained wood) to tie it all together.

  20. Ruth says

    I know there are two sides to painting the brick, but once its done, it can’t be practically undone. You can try to brighten it up a bit by cleaning the soot stains. We had a fireplace with very porous brick, not gazed at all. Used Oven cleaner and a wire brush and it really perked up. Do you use the fireplace at all? I would look at putting the tv directly in front of it. After all, it’s far more natural and comfortable to look straight or slightly down at a tv, rather than crane your neck up to see one on a mantle.

  21. joanne says

    I have the same thing but no bookcase, just all brick. I do not like it at all, I’ve tried so many variations with decore.

  22. Rebecca says

    I think you should ditch the picture above the fireplace because it draws your eye to that spot and makes it very noticeable that it’s off center. I love the off-center FP, but it’s not for everyone.

    Instead of a single picture above the fireplace, put a collection of three staggered long/tall decorations or pictures above the fireplace. This will make the eye move up and down and not notice what is off-center to the left and right.

    I can’t add a photo, so I mean like this:

    l l

    • Rebecca says

      Wow that didn’t come out like I planned LOL

      I’ll try again, just ignore all the little periods:


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