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 — 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 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. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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! 😉

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

    1. 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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