Log, gas or biofuel? Freestanding, floating or wall-mounted? Luke Rix-Standing explores the many elements of contemporary fireplaces

They may be more associated with medieval banqueting halls, Hogwarts common rooms and, once in a while, Santa Claus, but the traditional fireplace has been having a distinctly modern makeover of late.

More than mere sources of heat, fireplaces provide a visual focus for a room with a mixture of light, colour and movement. Cosy has always been the classic fire feeling, but many contemporary flames boast bolder, more artistic designs that fit well with contemporary interiors. And whether you're looking for an ultra-modern fireplace or just an updated twist on an old-fashioned one, there's a diverse range of products and heating methods out there to indulge your fiery fancies.

Here, we take a look at some of the key points to consider...

Fuel options: Pros and cons

All but a sliver of human history has been dominated by one kind of fuel: Wood. Wrought out of stone or brick, a classic wood fire is dreamy, romantic - and a right pain in the behind to clean and maintain. Soot clogs the lungs, ash scorches the brickwork, and a good portion of heat is lost up the chimney.

Would-be lumberjacks aside, you'll also have to buy your own logs and then go through the unenviable task of igniting them. Throw in a smattering of environmental concerns, and it's no wonder that modern homes may be moving away from wood-burners.

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STAND OUT: Globus freestanding fireplace, RRP £499, from imaginfires.co.uk. Picture: PA/Imaginfires

Most domestic fireplaces now tend towards one of three fuels: Gas, electricity, or ethanol. Gas fireplaces have long been the market-leader - an instant, authentic flame that's cleaner than a sooty real fire - but generally require expert installation, annual check-ups and a fixed flue. In the 1980s, electric fires became a la mode, as cheap, easy-to-install alternatives to gas. They can't hold a candle to gas for raw heat, but won points for convenience and cleanliness. Their biggest drawback is simple: It's not real fire.

A relatively new entrant, ethanol fireplaces are ventless units that run on denatured alcohol, producing no pollutants beside negligible quantities of CO2. "The UK market has been around for the last decade or so," says a spokesperson from biofire company, Imaginfires (imaginfires.co.uk), "but it's only really got going over the last couple of years."

They can't lay claim to the warmest blaze - and are sold as a secondary heat source only - but they burn with superb energy-efficiency and have a flare for the dramatic. Ethanol doesn't roar or crackle like a wood fire on a cold winter evening, but the flames dance and flicker attractively, sustained by biofuel poured straight into the burner.

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• CONTEMPORARY: Marlow White wall-mounted fireplace, RRP £549.99, from imaginfires.co.uk. Picture: PA/Imaginfires

A style feature

With the substance sorted, you can now turn your attention to style. Once a stationary object, confined to a square metre or so below the chimney, fireplaces have now found their way into almost every part of your living room.

Some protrude from the wall; some rise up through the floor; some hang precariously from the ceiling. There are even fireplaces that can be controlled remotely through an app on your smartphone, and that can change the colour of their flames at will.

Though they may not pack the most punch, ethanol fireplaces lead the pack in flexibility when it comes to styling a room. Needing neither chimney nor plug socket, freestanding units can be re-positioned at will, while initial installation takes around 10-15 minutes. Weather-permitting, they can even be taken outside, providing light, heat and atmosphere for an evening on the patio.

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• STYLISH: Howarth White freestanding fireplace, RRP £999.99, from imaginfires.co.uk. Picture: PA/Imaginfires

For those wishing to channel a wood burner's old-world charm, ethanol fireplaces can fit snugly into the hearth of any country house, or be made up as traditional, standalone stoves. As Imaginfires notes: "A lot of our fireplaces look like wood-burners and they're free-standing too, so they're easy to set up and move around if needed."

For the more modern-minded, fireplaces can now be accommodated into all kinds of cubist structures, while a popular option involves inserting your fireplace into a frame hanging on the wall. Fireplace or wall-mounted television: From a distance it can be impossible to tell.

New twists on old models

Not to be outdone, the usually chimney-bound gas fire has been working overtime to keep up with modern trends. Consumers who know where to look can now purchase 'ventless' gas fires, units with low emissions that can burn in any corner of your home.

Ventless gas fires can work well for those hunting a heat-centric unit with a more traditional aesthetic, but the low-level emissions they do release flow straight into your living room. Designs are strictly regulated - but make sure your carbon monoxide alarm is in good order, just in case.

Ordinary gas fires have been evolving too: "We recently launched The Elemental Range," says Paul Chesney, managing director of leading fireplace supplier, Chesneys (chesneys.co.uk). "We've taken five of our most popular designs, reduced the size and altered the design to make them appeal to those with less space." They don't come cheap, but many Chesneys fireplaces are made with luxurious limestone or marble.

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• HOT: Chesneys Elemental Clandon fireplace. Picture: PA/Chesneys

Even wood burners are returning to the fold, with the upcoming Ecodesign Ready initiative laying down a new set of regulations that should limit environmental impact. "Wood-burning stoves remain popular," says Chesney, "and can be highly effective barbecues, with capacity for grilling, roasting, baking, wok-frying and steaming."

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• FEEL THE HEAT: Chesneys HEAT 600 fireplace. Picture: PA/Chesneys

The finest flames

Imaginfires sells their ethanol units for £120-£700, while limestone models from Chesneys start at around £1600 - but for customers seeking the very finest flames, this is the tip of a swiftly melting iceberg.

Those looking for more from their fire can buy a 'multimedia' fireplace - an electric fire built into an entertainment unit that can include anything from a CD rack to a widescreen TV and BOSE sound system. And at the very pinnacle of high-end, you will find the experimental designs of American company Heat & Glo (heatnglo.com). The 'infinity flame' design on their Solaris Fireplace is more art installation than hearth: It uses lighting effects to create a thin line of fire that hangs suspended in mid-air, before retreating backwards into the wall.

They also briefly marketed the ground-breaking, if wildly overpriced, Aqueon Fireplace, which, for a cool $50,000, produced a sustainable flame by separating hydrogen - quite literally making fire from water.

Filled with increasingly inventive designs, and facing down pending environmental regulation, the fireplace industry will surely be trailblazing for some time to come.

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• GLOW: Chesneys Devonshire fireplace. Picture: PA/Chesneys