People either love or hate red brick or used brick fireplaces; there seems to be no middle ground. People see painting brick much the way they see painting natural wood trim; and feel it a sacrilege to paint it. I find it fascinating that some people who don’t like brick fireplaces, but do not want to paint it either, which is a problem for a designer. I regard painting brick in the same way I regard painting furniture: if you do not like a piece the way it is, and it is not valuable as an antique, why not paint it and make it into something I will enjoy?
I was asked recently what to do with a red brick fireplace that the family did not like. I suggested something that I had seen done more than 20 years ago in a home in the San Fernando Valley: smear coating it with joint compound. The homeowners could use as much of the compound to cover the red or used brick as they were comfortable using and still be able to wipe away some if they felt it was too much, giving the fireplace an old world or cottage look.
Today, on design shows you may have seen the use of the German Schemer technique used, which is based on the same process. Outside, this process would use a mortar mix, but the effect would be the same: wipe on, wipe off to the desired effect, but doing it more quickly as mortar sets up far faster and more permanently than joint compound.
I like the joint compound smear because you can try it out and wash it off, if done soon enough and restore your red brick is you do not like the effect. Painting brick is mostly a permanent process. To remove the paint, you would need to sand blast it off, and that is a mess of a serious magnitude; if you think living with drywall dust is a mess, just try living with brick dust!
There are a multitude of other surfaces you can apply over your brick if you do not like the brick and do not want to paint it. You can apply drywall to the brick and paint the dry wall for a more modern look. You can use metals for an interesting change, think of copper or reclaimed wood and a metal mantle. Adding natural stone or tile will require a much larger budget than joint compound or paint.
The application of a smear technique will give your home a more cottage look and may be easier on the eye than solid red brick. One of the problems I hear from people is how to decorate around so much red. A fireplace is usually a focal point in a room and therefore will have a dramatic design impact. I find that the liberal use of a cool color will help tame the red, inside or outside. Outside, adding black trim or shutters. Inside, adding black accents to a red brick backsplash was the answer to my friend’s kitchen dilemma. Using a charcoal or blue-gray color on the trim outside is another good way to tame the abundance of too much red on a house.
I happen to love the look of brick in New England, where we can see row after row of beautiful, architecturally interesting houses on tree lined streets. However, these houses have a historic appeal and do not look as harsh as some newer red brick out West. Besides, if you look carefully at New England houses, they have a lot of black and white accents to compensate for all the red in the brick. I like correcting color with color; remember it is proportion that the makes the difference in many cases.