Some issues are worth arguing about.
We selected two home design professionals to make their cases for or against each topic, and then craft rebuttals after reviewing their opponent’s remarks. Presented here is the first great debate: Is it OK to hang a television over the fireplace? Tamara Leicester of Tamara Heather Interior Design argues against placing a TV above the mantel, and Matt Clawson of Clawson Construction argues in favor. Check out their remarks below and then decide which side of history you will be on by casting a vote in our audience poll.
The case against a TV over the fireplace
Arguing against: Tamara Leicester of Tamara Heather Interior Design
Expertise: “I’m an interior designer with 20 years of experience in commercial and residential design, and have run my own company for five years,” Leicester says. “My degrees are in interior design and business from Cornell University, and I am certified by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification.
“I’ve space-planned countless living rooms and designed a lot of fireplaces — modern, traditional, gas, wood-burning, stone, brick, you name it. One of the first home improvements we made when we moved into our 1920s house 12 years ago was to add back a wood-burning fireplace that had been removed earlier in the home’s history.”
Why she’s against it: “I love the traditional idea of the hearth and think it really is the symbolic heart of the home. The family room or living room is a place that serves many functions. It’s a place for relaxing, having a conversation, reading, spending time with friends and loved ones, and, yes, watching TV. But to me, putting the TV over the fireplace instantly promotes the TV to the most important position in the room, around which everything else revolves.
“I think that’s just kind of sad, frankly,” she says. “But my biggest concerns are aesthetic and ergonomic. Most TVs are quite unattractive, especially when turned off, and they are just too high to be viewed comfortably above the fireplace mantel.”
Background: “This debate comes up during almost every project, or at least every time I’m designing a living room or family room for a client,” Leicester says. “In most houses, in both newer and older homes, the fireplace is designed to be the focal point of the room. It’s the most interesting architectural feature, and that’s where your attention is drawn. Typically when you’re space planning, you want to orient the furniture around the main focal point, and it makes sense for the TV to be within easy sightlines of the seating.
“I think the controversy comes in when clients want to give the television that place of prominence over the fireplace, instead of art or something more traditionally beautiful. It’s basically an exercise in prioritization, and that can get really controversial, even within families. I’ve had instances where the husband wanted the TV over the fireplace and the wife absolutely didn’t. I can show them the alternatives and offer suggestions, but ultimately it’s up to the client to decide.”
Main concerns: “The main reason why I would advise a client not to put a TV over a fireplace? Neck strain! Ninety-nine percent of fireplace mantels are too high above the floor for the television to be viewed comfortably. If you have to lift your chin to look at the screen, that’s too high.
“Aesthetics are my other obvious concern,” she says. “If you have gorgeous stonework or a traditional wood mantel, a big black screen sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve seen contemporary applications where it’s done well, but those are the exceptions.
“With regard to wiring, it goes without saying that visible wires hanging down behind the TV are a no-no, and that could be a problem if the wall is brick or stone.
“Also, as I understand it, exposure to heat can be damaging to a television, and mounting it over the fireplace may even void the warranty with some manufacturers.”
Alternatives: “Unless you are building a home theater, there are always going to be some seats that view the TV from an oblique angle anyway,” Leicester says. “There are a lot of activities that happen in a typical family room besides TV watching — conversations, entertaining, reading, kids’ play areas — and they all need to be given consideration in the space planning.
“My preference is to place the TV to one side of the fireplace or on another wall entirely, in or on top of a media cabinet. I do plan at least three to four seats from which it can be viewed comfortably, which works for most families. Sometimes I’ll recommend swivel chairs or furniture on casters to give the homeowners some added flexibility.
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“I had one client with a traditional Craftsman home, a beautiful antique fireplace mantel, and most of the walls taken up with doors, arched doorways and windows. There was actually no good place to put the television, so I designed a cabinet [pictured] that acts as a room divider. It created a distinct entry area at the foyer, and houses the TV and components on the opposite side. It puts the television at a comfortable height and is a beautiful piece of furniture in its own right. That was a win-win.
“As for mounting hardware that swings screens downward, I haven’t used these products myself,” she says. “While they seem to solve the neck strain issue, they make the aesthetic problem even worse. Now you’re blocking the fireplace and looking at mounting brackets and cords. No thanks.”
What not to do: “I’d never recommend removing the fireplace because I think that would be a huge risk in terms of resale value. I have redesigned several fireplaces for clients who insisted on putting the TV over the mantel, and in those cases, I’ve lowered the mantel as much as possible. In my own home, we’ve chosen to put the televisions in other rooms entirely, and that works for us, but I know it’s not a solution for everyone.”
The case for a TV over the fireplace
Arguing for: Matt Clawson of Clawson Construction
Expertise: “I’m a custom home builder of luxury estates, and a Northern California Realtor,” Clawson says.
Why he’s for it: “Fellow Americans, football fanatics and Game of Thrones aficionados, we stand today upon the precipice of great change. We know winter is coming and carry in our DNA a romantic affection for a crackling fire, upon which countless generations depended to cook their food and nourish their souls. But today, my friends, our needs have shifted, and it is the warm glowing flicker of a 60-inch screen that modern souls seek. The fireplace is no longer the center of our daily lives. We want our MTV — or Kardashians, Dancing With the Stars, Stranger Things, NFL Sunday Ticket.… We want to be entertained and informed, and the big screen is where the show is.”
Background: “The plasma screen changed the game. There was no putting those lumpy old box televisions over the fireplace — it simply was not feasible. But with the flat screen came new possibilities, and it did not take long for designers to pinpoint the optimum location for these marvels of technological ingenuity.
“There are already numerous competing factors designers face when orienting a family room, including space limitations, traffic flow, furniture layouts and views, not to mention the fireplace and television,” he says. “It simply rarely worked right, with a uniform and thoughtfully centered focus, until this simple solution became possible.
“The extent and speed with which this setup has been adopted, by both design professionals and everyday families like yours, is compelling evidence for the advantages offered by a television over the fireplace.”
Why he thinks concerns over mounting are overblown: “One by one, newer and less expensive products have been offered to make the installation of a television over the fireplace simpler and more economical. Television costs themselves have come way down, and articulating mounting hardware from companies, such as MantelMount and Dynamic Mounting, to name a couple, allow the television position to be easily manipulated to the ideal viewing angles and positions.
“One of the challenges designers face is getting the television to a lower position, as the ideal height of a television’s center has historically been located at eye level of a seated viewer,” Clawson says. “This is a concern, and possibly one of the forces leading to the increasing popularity of horizontal fireplaces, with smaller vertical dimensions allowing the television to mount in a lower position than taller fireboxes allow.
“Also, new mounts can manipulate a television, lowering the television to a comfortable viewing height. But the fact is, in most cases, families are finding these manipulations unnecessary, and family televisions over fireplaces actually create comfortable viewing. In cases where fireplace mantels are exceptionally high, or the distance from the seating to the fireplace is very tight, alternative mounting hardware can improve the viewing experience.
“The relationship between these optimum viewing heights takes a bit of study, but one good rule of thumb is to simply test out your projected environment. Use tape to mark your TV on the wall, then have a seat.”
“Installers have this thing down,” he says. “There was a backward time when installing a television over a fireplace was considered a cutting-edge, risky, even amoral endeavor, but that time has passed. The biggest hurdle is providing power and cable — nowadays in new homes, home builders often prewire power for this setup — over the fireplace box.
“This can be challenging if you have a stone surround over your mantel but is typically simple when dealing with drywall, and even in challenging cases, obstacles can be overcome by experienced professionals, such as low-voltage audiovisual experts and electricians.
“The mounting hardware itself is a simple installation, and the greatest challenge is locating interior wall studs upon which to secure the hardware,” he says. “You might need some help lifting that marvelous screen up in all its glory, as you set your screen to the hardware, but the mounting-hardware directions are so simple, a novice do-it-yourselfer is usually up for the task.
“As for concerns about damage to TVs from fireplace heat, I have yet to have an issue with heat affecting any TVs we’ve installed over fireplaces. In circumstances with a mantel, the mantel typically deflects enough of the heat from the firebox. In all cases, you should always follow the fireplace manufacturer’s recommended clearances.”
“For generations, the American family has found companionship and connection around the hearth, whether it’s a couple enjoying a romantic evening in front of a crackling fire, or parents reading treasured stories to their children as they cuddle on the sofa,” she says. “The television has been just one of many activities families could enjoy in the comfort of their living room.
“Many Americans remember watching the moon landing, surrounded by friends and neighbors, or more recently, cheering for Simone Biles as she took home Olympic gold. The TV has its rightful place in our homes. But that place is not front and center over the fireplace.
“Because even as TV can bring us together, there is a darker side that threatens to tear us apart. My opponent suggests there is no higher purpose for the family room than to be a place of mindless entertainment 24/7, all conversation muted as we focus our attention on the big screen.”
“And even my opponent admits that most mantels are too high for comfortable TV viewing anyway,” Leicester says. “While he mentions various ugly contraptions designed to lower the screen, the truth is that the whole idea just forces the TV into a location that is suboptimal in every possible way.
“Americans, you can have your television and the meaningful family time that I know you value. Keep the fireplace mantel reserved for family photos, artwork and Christmas stockings. Set your TV in or on a media cabinet that was designed for this very purpose, easily hiding all of the cords, components and your DVD collection — no electrician or costly retrofit required.
“Let your family room be the multipurpose space it was designed to be, a quiet respite, a comfortable haven, a place to entertain and, yes, a place to be entertained. Say no to the tyranny of the television, and demand your freedom to enjoy all of the activities that bring you together with your friends, children and loved ones.”
“We all agree on so many things, yet the television over the fireplace is merely a choice. What is this great country, if not a place where your freedom to choose your television location is secure?
“Contrary to my opponent’s implications, your television can be easily secured over your fireplace, and I will stand up proudly for your right to choose,” he says. “By the way, if you are standing, the television over the fireplace is actually ideally located for viewing.
“Furthermore, if you prefer relaxing on the couch, reclining a bit, the higher television height makes viewing easier. When reclined, you actually need to contort your neck further to view lower-set televisions.
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“Every day, more and more homeowners are unifying the focus of their family rooms, and setting televisions over fireplaces. Rooms orient better. Spaces flow better. Homes look better. The flat screen made it possible, designers made it attractive, and innovators made it economical. Today we no longer need to divide rooms, as my esteemed opponent recently argued when promoting the design of a cabinet to ‘divide’ one family’s living space.
“Americans, let’s move past all the divisiveness and, for once, look one direction together. A place where people play baseball on gorgeous green grass, and sing songs on stage, and tell marvelous stories, and debate our right to stand or kneel before our great country’s national anthem.
“There is a simple solution, friends, to our complex world, with so many distractions pulling our attention in so many directions,” Clawson says. “This is not your grandparents’ family room, with its elephantine entertainment cabinet on the right, adjacent to a stubborn, mulish fireplace on the left.
“Whatever your political persuasion, right or left, can we not agree to look a bit to the middle? It does not take a designer or builder or real estate agent to say the obvious: Americans, there is a better way. You can have your fire and your cable TV package too.“