Paint colors for the large block fireplace in Kathy’s mid-century modern house

mid-century-living-room-befor-eafterDesignDilemmaReader Kathy has an impressive mid-century modern house with oodles of amazing original features including a biomorphic wall screen, mahogany wall panels and clerestory windows. However, There is one feature that has been bothering her since the day she first moved in. The paint color of the large concrete block fireplace — she calls it “the big blue monster — is not jiving with the rest of her home’s decor. Now Kathy has asked for our help with ideas to tame this turquoise tyrant.

mid-century-living-room-beforemid century living room fireplaceKathy writes:

Dear Pam and Kate,

A good friend told me many years ago to live in your house for a while, and let it tell you what it needs. I have lived with it for nearly a year, and the same thing is bothering today as it did the day I first saw it. The big blue monster.

mid-century-den-beforeMy design dilemma is my fireplace wall. It is a double-sided fireplace in the living room and den. It is painted turquoise block and is in need of new paint or something different.

mid century living room

retro-fireplaceIt is the focal wall in the living room. The part I don’t like is the contrast of the blonde brick that matches nothing else.

mid century living roomThere is blonde paneling on the short walls and the ceiling. Another block wall in the room is more interesting, with concrete caps placed between the blocks, and it is painted cream color.

mid century living roomThere is also an eight-panel helix patterned wood screen and a wall of glass overlooking the patio. All other rooms in the house have mahogany panels and doors. I feel this accent is lacking in the living room. The fireplace wall is 15′ long x 9′ high, and the opening is 55″ wide x 33″ high.


mid-century-aqua-wall-ovenMy idea is to somehow incorporate mahogany either in shelves or panels and paint the block to more closely match the original double oven which is more blue green than the fireplace. The hearth may also look good clad in mahogany.  Not sure how to blend the block and brick.

mid-century-double-sided-fireplaceThis is what people see when they stand in my entry and I feel it is not as attractive as other details in the room. Please help me tame the monster.

Readers — What paint colors or other design ideas would you suggest to make this fireplace fit in with the rest of the room?

Pam and Kate’s solution for the space:

For this Retro Design Dilemma, Pam and I jumped online together to ogle and talk — and together we came up with a solution we both agreed on:


As you can see from the Before & Afters above, we believe that in this room, the key to success may be: Harmonizing the color of Big Blue — paint it the same color as the other concrete blocks on the wall visible, above.

Here was our thinking:

  • There are already many finishes in Kathy’s room: Light mahogany wood, dark mahogany wood, cream cinder block walls, black decorative screen, beige carpet, tan fireplace brick and blue fireplace block. They are all very pretty. But, hmmmm, adding yet another color to the mix — that blue — is giving us finish overload — our eyes don’t know where to rest.
  • The architecture of the room is very graphic, and the space, very open. Any finishes you choose, or accents you add, must work within this graphic framework.
  • All of the existing finishes are warm and organic feeling. The blue of the fireplace is really the only “cool” color in the space. Because of this, and because it takes up such a large area, it makes it stick out and feel out of place.


To solve for the issue: Simply paint the fireplace the same cream color as that back wall. Kathy can then use her desired accent color — a turquoise blue — in furnishings and accessories throughout the room. In fact, the color “pops” quite nicely … artistically … graphically … once you harmonize that big block fireplace.

Kathy’s idea of possibly covering some part of the fireplace with mahogany was also on the right track, we thought, since that would repeat the mahogany and help make the fireplace feel connected to the rest of the space. However, Pam and I both agree that there is already quite a bit of wood in the space — walls, beams, ceiling — and think the best — and surely, a way easier — bet would be to repaint the fireplace the same cream color as the other cinder block walls. This also will prevent the room from feeling too heavy with all of that wood.

In the mock up above, you’ll notice that we didn’t paint the cream colored bricks around the fireplace opening. We think that instead of painting the bricks, leaving them natural and then paint the ledge the same color as the brick. This will help make the area feel more grounded and part of the whole design. In general, we also like to avoid painting original brick.

mid-century-fireplace-all-whiteAbove: We tried painting the bricks that immediately surround the fireplace opening and the hearth ledge, too. We do not like this look as much as our ‘keep these natural’ board. Too … stark .. we like the warmness of the beige brick and ledge.

Two mockups of reader suggestions:

Quick-like, Kate mocked up to ideas from reader comments:

Painting the fireplace black certainly is graphical. But, we think this makes the room too dark… also, it is yet another color on another surface [black on concrete].
Paint the fireplace wall a color similar to one of the woodtones. Certainly harmonizes with the woodtones elsewhere in the room — but Kate and I remain concerned that adding yet another color-on-another-surface is just too much.

Use high quality paint — we suggest subscribing to Consumer Reports to access their independent tests

Pam wanted to note that when selecting paint for the fireplace, it is important to pick the very best quality paint that you can afford. You will also want a finish that is easy to clean. When painting, also ensure that the surface is prepped and paint applied using the best quality products and practices available — the surface of that fireplace is such an important element in the room, you want that paint and finish to be absolutely delicious. Good paint really can make a difference! This will help prevent headaches down the road — painting a fireplace is a big job. Pam suggests checking Consumer Reports for the paint quality testing. You will need to subscribe, but she thinks it could be worth it.

In addition to painting the fireplace and mantel, we suggest:

  • Reupholster or replace the chairs flanking the TV and choosing a rich teal fabric. The room itself — walls, ceilings, flooring — needs to stay neutral to look cohesive. Add color in the furniture and accessories.
  • Add the accent color in other accessories — such as in pillows, throws and artwork.
  • Instead of having several small pieces of art on the fireplace, try one large painting or print. The art we used is a print called “Morning Fjord” available at Art.com, which picks up all of the colors in the room while the black frame mimics the room divider.
  • Try not to have too many small accessories scattered around the space. The scale and style of this room dictate fewer, larger accessories. Instead, move the smaller accessories in the main living room to the built in shelf in the den, or make a colorful tablescapes that group items together.
    • Think of the design of this room as a piece of modern art. The lines, textures and shapes speak for themselves without needing much additional decoration. The huge expanses of windows frame the “art” that is the world outside and work to bring the outside in.

mid-century-den-before-afterWe agreed that the same treatment should be applied to the opposite side of the fireplace in the den. Again, the fireplace is painted to be the same cream as the home’s other cinder block walls, leaving the beige brick and painting the ledge to match. Another framed print from Art.com — entitled “Plumb Forest Floor” — hangs above the fireplace in a mahogany frame that echoes the built-in shelving. Have lots of fun using that terrific built-in shelving to make art-scapes with your smaller collectibles!


blenko owl bookends
From junk2funkbiz on etsy

When it comes to adding small pieces to the living room, sometimes a collection of similar small objects can read as a part of the bigger picture. And minimilist mid-century modern can get… ascetic feeling — we we believe in not taking it all too seriously and being sure to add some whimsy. Here we’ve illustrated that point by going a bit overboard on the scale of this Blenko Amber Glass Owl bookend from Etsy seller MoonshineAntiqueShop. We also liked these fun vintage Amber Glass Blenko Elephant bookends from Etsy seller ShootingCreek.  And how about these Blenko Owl Amber Glass bookends from Etsy seller junk2funkbiz and a great Blenko Amber Glass lamp from Etsy seller HostaHillFarmWe like that these bookends are silly. We like that they are from a famous mid-century glassmaker. And we like their color — the amber glass works well in the space because its warm feel echoes the warmth of the wood, and the color contrasts nicely with the aqua, too found in the room. These Blenko pieces can get expensive – but put them on your birthday and holiday lists and in a few years, we guarantee you’ll have a collection!


  1. Lynda says:

    Hi Kathy,
    You have a lovely home & wonderful living room. Curious as to what you finally decided to do with the fireplace. I kinda liked the turquoise and with the right artwork, would have looked nice “as is.” Would love it if you’d post updated pics.

  2. Lori D says:

    My vote is for painting the fireplace in a sandy neutral color similar to the brick trim and also the wood walls. There is a lot going on in this room visually. I love so many things about it. The sunken living room,the decorative screen, the textural white wall. I think since the fireplace is so massive it would give the eyes a rest to let it recede a bit into the warm wood tones. For the back side of the fireplace where the room isn’t that deep I think it would help make the room look more spacious. A bright color like white or blue just brings the fireplace forward, visually. Cool house!

  3. Jeannie says:

    Another vote for leaving the brick trim natural. It looks like the interior of the fireplace has these same bricks, and they sort of pull the inside of the fireplace forward.
    The rough brick is another natural element to complement and contrast with the smooth wood on the ceiling.
    I also agree with painting the wall to match the existing one (cream).

  4. Joe Felice says:

    The current color is not so-much turquoise as it is robin’s egg. I do notice a section at the very left of the panel drapes that is turquoise. I would use that as my color for the fireplace wall. With this fireplace, it is the row of tiles around the opening that I would replace.

  5. Kathy Davey says:

    I am so impressed with the mock-up, love tying the painted block together in the same cream tone.

    I would love to know how the mock-up was done, what program was used to change colors in the photo. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!

Comments are closed.