They used to be an afterthought, their purpose purely functional and their decor barely even considered.

But now fireplaces and their surrounds are getting our full attention. And the resulting designs are becoming showcases for innovative materials and finishes.

"In the past, the older designs were just kind of squeezed in as an afterthought," says contractor and interior designer Carol Vetrano of The Vetrano Group.

Now the tiles, stones and finishes that decorate fireplace surrounds are "pretty amazing and outstanding," says Vetrano.

Interior designer and decorative artist Kimberly Coffman has seen it all, from cantera stone to fire-hazard-inducing attempts by homeowners to apply papier-mâchè - something she does not recommend.

The most popular fireplace facings right now are natural stone, says Elizabeth Miller, owner of Fractured Earth Tile & Stone in Tucson. She reports a lot of interest in honed sandstone, river rocks set on edge, lava stone and slate.

In the home of retiree Cristina Ng, Vetrano replaced travertine tile around the living room fireplace with multicolored slate and inserts of mosaic glass tile. She kept the original granite hearth the same and added maple and wedge wood custom cabinetry at the sides.

Vetrano suggests keeping your fireplace colors neutral for the sake of longevity. You want your fireplace to be a focal point, she says, but not to fight with the rest of your decor. "I live by the motto 'Less is more.' "

What to do about the brick?

Tucson is full of homes with brick fireplace surrounds, dating from mid-century red brick to slump block from the 1970s and beyond.

And you either love that brick or you hate it. The cheapest and easiest solution with exposed brick is to paint over it. But some say it's a sacrilege, as you'll never get the brick back. And beware pale colors of paint - and certainly bright white - if you have a wood-burning fireplace, as the soot will eventually stain.

Glossy paint is the most durable you can use on a fireplace face, says Coffman. Just be willing to live with its ultra-contemporary look, she says.

Craig Warren went to painstaking lengths to renovate the floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace surround in his 1970s west-side home, so it was less "dated and heavy-handed" and had more of a mid-century-modern style.

He and his wife, architect Patricia Warren, decided to "widen" the brickwork by filling in the vertical mortar joints with grout, then raking it to mimic the texture of the brick faces.

The brick surfaces were repainted from a beige to a pale smoky gray, the grouting that was left was hand-painted a matte pale burgundy, and stainless steel cladding was installed on top of some vertical pilasters.

Charcoal-colored porcelain tiles were laid on top of the Mexican tile hearth, the fir mantel was restained and refinished, and the brickwork inside the firebox was painted with a high-temperature matte paint designed for barbecues.

The five-week process was laborious, says Craig, but removing the fireplace would have proved even more time-consuming, and costly. Plus, the floor in front of it is Italian slate, which the Warrens didn't want to risk damaging.

Two more fireplace solutions

• Plastering over concrete or stucco is a popular alternative to paint. Last month, American Clay Enterprises announced a roll-on application for its Earth Plaster - one that avoids the hawk-to-trowel process the company says used to intimidate DIY-ers. Its Up & EZ! binder still requires a trowel, but only once the clay is already rolled on to the surface.

For more information and a how-to video, go to american clay.com/your-diy-info

• Coffman has had clients who love their gray cantera stone or precast-concrete fireplace but are tired of the color. Her fun solution is tea staining.

"I make the tea really concentrated - for several cups of water, one to two boxes of tea bags - and I do a color sample on top of white first," she says. "I use a heavy brush to brush it on and let it dry. Then keep adding coats until it's as dark as you want. Then you can go back and sandpaper it in parts. It gives it an old weathered look."

What else do you need to know?

• If you're using a product other than stone or brick - such as tile or metal - keep the material to the facing only, and don't wrap it around into the inside of the fire.

• Don't paint with very light colors if it's a working wood-burning fire because the soot will stain it.

• Don't assume you can just cover up what's there. The original substrate (the material the fireplace is constructed out of) may be poorly built in the first place, or the surface and corners may not be level. If in doubt, hire an experienced contractor who can tell you whether you can work with what you have or if you need to rip it out and start again.

Resources

• Supplies for Cristina Ng's fireplace came from Fractured Earth Tile & Stone, open only to the trade. 620-6219 or www.fractured earth.com

• The Vetrano Group, 797-1834 or visit www.thevetrano group.com/homes

• American Clay Enterprises' Earth Plaster is sold at Originate Natural Building Materials Showroom, 526 N. Ninth Ave. 792-4207 or visit www.originatenbm.com

• Warren Architecture, 743-8838 or www.pwarren architecture.com

• Kimberly Coffman's Bellagio Creations, 975-2947 or e-mail kimberly@ bellagiocreations.com