The Dynamics of Design
By Bill Sendelback
Say the words contemporary hearth products, and most will think of linear gas fireplaces. Rightly so, but while linear designs continue to dominate, new ideas of contemporary design are entering the market. Contemporary designs are showing up in freestanding stoves and fireplace inserts, and that’s not limited to gas products.
Contemporary designs dominate the electric fireplace category and are growing in both wood- and pellet-burners. Nearly every hearth appliance manufacturer has added contemporary models to their lines.
But traditionally designed hearth products are still the overwhelming sales leader. Contemporary gas hearth products captured only 11 percent of the 2013 gas fireplace unit sales in North America, according to industry figures; traditional gas models accounted for the remaining 89 percent.
Manufacturers may be reporting increasing percentages of total sales for their contemporary offerings, but 2013 sales percentages from the HPBA indicate those sales were the same as in 2012.
Where contemporary gas fireplace models really shine for manufacturers and retailers is in net dollar sales. Contemporary gas fireplaces may have been 11 percent of the 2013 unit sales, but they were 21 percent of 2013 net dollar sales, indicating that each gas model brought in more sales dollars. Net dollar sales of traditional models fell to 79 percent. Those figures show a substantial change from 2012, when contemporary gas fireplaces were only 17 percent of total dollars, and traditional products were 83 percent.
“The contemporary linear gas fireplace has really done for the hearth industry what flat screen television sets have done for home entertainment,” says Glen Spinelli, president of Regency Fireplaces. “They have opened up commercial installations, made the fireplace a work of art, and offered consumers a blank canvas with options and upgrades to make that fireplace uniquely their own.
“Yes, they all look alike, but the manufacturer and the consumer can differentiate them by what they put inside. Contemporary linear fireplaces are one of the best things to happen to our industry in 25 years.”
“We’ve normally been a company offering traditionally-styled gas products,” says Kent Roeder, vice president of Mendota Hearth Products. “Four or five years ago we said we would just see how long this contemporary fad would last. But now we’ve jumped into contemporary with both feet, and we’re doing surprisingly well and adding to our line. We’re seeing double digit sales increases, and contemporary is growing at a surprising rate.”
|LHD50 linear from Napoleon Fireplaces.|
“We were one of the first manufacturers to get into contemporary about seven years ago, and we thought we could never sell contemporary models,” says Stephen Schroeter, senior vice president of Sales and Marketing at Napoleon Fireplaces, “but now it’s all over our industry and growing steadily. Linear design is still dominating, and while the consumer is looking for unique items, they still have traditional design in their homes.
“Contemporary design may be used in a modernization of that home or in their next home. Sales of outdoor linear models are going crazy, really taking over from traditional models.”
“We still sell tons of traditional products, but there has been a dramatic shift toward contemporary,” says Glen Spinelli. “Half of our line is now contemporary. It represents about 30 to 40 percent of our sales, and we’re continually expanding our contemporary line-up.” Regency is one company that has expanded its contemporary offerings into contemporary wood stoves and inserts and is adding a linear wood-burning fireplace.
“Contemporary wood-burning models, too, have become a big part of our sales,” he says.
|Portrait from Empire Comfort Systems.|
Empire Comfort Systems has gone from selling no contemporary models four years ago to contemporary designs now representing 10 percent of its sales, according to Nick Bauer, CEO.
“Contemporary is a buzzword that people see and talk about, but they are still buying traditional styling,” he says. “Contemporary is a smaller percentage of our sales, but it’s definitely growing.” Bauer points out that contemporary design is a way for consumers, retailers and homebuilders to differentiate themselves.
“You can do some interesting stuff with logs or ember beds, lights, shapes and much more. It’s turning into art. People want something different. Those in the younger generation want to express themselves, but it’s the 40- to 60-year-olds that are buying contemporary. My generation can’t yet afford a $5,000 fireplace.”
Other manufacturers, however, are looking at the younger consumers as buyers and promoters of contemporary design.
“Contemporary is growing for us by single digits,” says Jess Baldwin, senior vice president of Sales and Customer Service for Vermont Castings Group, “and it now represents from 18 to 22 percent of our business. We see the market for contemporary as the 25- to 39-year olds. And as the housing market comes back, maybe five years out when the younger generations are buying homes, we’ll see a greater influence of contemporary designs. In the meantime, we expect modest sales growth in contemporary, maybe one or two percent annually.”
“Even though sales of contemporary models are more prevalent on both coasts, but picking up all over, contemporary is more driven by age than geography,” says Glenn Thomson, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Innovative Hearth Products (IHP), “and that age seems to be 30-something.
“We’re seeing more sell-through at the dealer level, but even though the percentage of our contemporary sales doubled last year to now 15 percent, contemporary is still, to an extent, an ‘oh, ah!’ product with consumers; they are still buying traditional.” IHP has introduced its new, lower-priced contemporary gas fireplaces, Aries Contemporary.
“Ten years ago I told manufacturers that they needed to come out with contemporary products, but there were no takers,” says Mike Van Buren, president of Blazing Design, a product design firm. “Now things have changed. There are so many contemporary models available, and every manufacturer has some contemporary in their product mix. Some are ‘wow’ products that are beginning to sell, but the majority of consumers like a fireplace that looks like a fireplace. It’s of secondary importance if it’s contemporary.”
|SL-750 Fusion gas fireplace from Heat & Glo.|
Linear designs have been the “face” of contemporary hearth products so far. So where is contemporary design headed?
“Everyone has beaten this linear thing to a pulp. We’re saturated with it,” says Bob Ferguson, president of hearth products design firm Ferguson, Andors and Co. “Now a few manufacturers are trying to do different types of contemporary design with different shapes, footprints, burners, media options, colors and taller designs with taller flames. More companies are paying attention to European designs and are following them. But more manufacturers should push the limits of design.”
“Just how many linear fireplaces can one see?” says Al Wilker, retired co-owner of Red House Design. “This linear fireplace thing has been milked enough. It’s a trend, kind of like granite countertops. Everyone now has to have them, but 20 years from now, today’s homes will be dated by those granite countertops.
“I’ve not seen anything exciting in today’s hearth product designs, but it’s nice to finally see some gutsy designs in freestanding stoves.”
“We always considered stoves as furniture, not just heaters,” says Vance Smith, Wilker’s also retired co-owner of Red House Design. “If the industry got sophisticated, it would go toward furniture designs. With good designs, you can mix and match contemporary with traditional.”
Wilker carries his thoughts about hearth product designs further with a suggestion to manufacturers.
“There’s a niche in the hearth industry just crying for someone really schooled in design, fresh kids with design talents, that we might otherwise lose to the furniture industry.”
Custom outdoor linear fireplace from Moberg Fireplaces.
“Linear design has not run its course, but it’s not the long term solution for the hearth industry,” according to Walter Moberg, president and CEO of Moberg Fireplaces, designer and manufacturer of very high-end fire features.
Perhaps in answer to the designers’ concerns about the “boring” dominance of linear styles, some hearth manufacturers have turned up their creativity.
“The industry is really exploring new designs,” says Nick Bauer. “Who knows what’s next for contemporary design.” Bauer’s Empire Comfort Systems is focusing on contemporary portrait designs, taller and skinnier.
“Contemporary doesn’t have to be linear,” he says. Empire Comfort’s new Forest Hills Portrait Series features a glass-filled fire bowl, or campfire-style vertical logs for a more traditional version, plus black porcelain liner and under-floor lighting. The series also includes traditional models.
Hearth & Home Technologies is also developing contemporary models in shapes and sizes other than linear, according to Becky Scribner, director of Brand Marketing for Heat & Glo and Heatilator.
“Modern, as we call it, is less a trend as it becomes more mainstream. Consumers are asking for it, dealers are embracing it and, driven by consumers, homebuilders are slowing embracing it in everything from tract homes to high-end houses.”
Heat & Glo’s new Revo Series offers square, horizontal and vertical models, all only seven in. deep to be recessed into or hung on a wall. The company’s new SL-550 and SL-750 Fusion gas fireplaces combine, or fuse, contemporary with traditional features.
Jøtul GF 370 DV.
“We’ve been elated with the sales performance of our contemporary freestanding stoves,” says Bret Watson, president of Jøtul North America. “Sales of our contemporary wood models have doubled, and our gas models are up 50 percent, now making contemporary about 10 percent of our business.
“The shift to contemporary wood models has happened much more rapidly than we expected. We think contemporary, both gas and wood, will easily hit 15 percent of the market in the next few years, with contemporary freestanding gas and wood stoves hitting five percent of the market.”
Jøtul recently added its smaller DF 160 wood stove to its contemporary offering and plans a GF 160 gas version by the end of the 2014 season.
Mendota introduced its first linear gas fireplace, the ML-47, at the recent HPBExpo, and sales of the company’s new contemporary fireplace inserts have been a surprise to Mendota.
“We thought sales would be okay, but not this great,” says Kent Roeder. “So we are redesigning our contemporary line around these units, focusing on greater and higher flames and curved firebox panels.”
|ML-47 linear gas fireplace from Mendota.|
“We’re seeing movement toward the European influence of vertical designs,” says Jess Baldwin. “That will continue, and there is enough interest that we’re looking at these designs for our line. More contemporary products are showing real design, such as the portrait style, rather than simply relying on the burn.”
Vermont Castings has added three contemporary fireplace inserts, a 42 in. linear, vent-free fireplace and new clean-faced fireplaces to take either log sets or contemporary media.
Regency, too, has introduced contemporary gas fireplace inserts, but the company has seen huge sales gains in wood-burning contemporary models, including inserts that are rectangular, not square.
|HZ54 Verona glass surround from Regency Fireplace Products.|
“Later this year we’re taking contemporary to the next level with an ‘HD’ version of a contemporary fireplace,” says Glen Spinelli referring to his earlier mention of contemporary fireplaces compared to flat screen TVs.
Everburn Manufacturing supplies log sets, ember bed media and firebox panels for many fireplace and stove makers, so the company has a good handle on what may be in the offering for tomorrow’s contemporary models.
“The most significant trend has been toward driftwood log sets, now going into a lot of luxury custom fireplaces,” says Ajay Gupta, president. “Second are pebbles and stones, and third is glass, including new, larger pieces that are more finished and polished and come in new colors. We’re seeing demand for firebox panels with fluted lines, stucco colors and leaded glass appearance.”
Linear may start slipping as the dominant contemporary design, but it seems new styles, designs and opportunities are on the horizon as manufacturers look to continue the growth of contemporary.
“Contemporary design gives us the flexibility to create what we want,” concludes Empire Comfort Systems’ Nick Bauer. “The fun part is when customers like it, after we’ve spent two years developing it.”