Modern-style fireplaces and hearth products featuring new burn technology were the clear winners at last week’s Hearth Patio & Barbecue Expo 2009, the fireplace industry’s equivalent of Fashion Week. Contemporary designs from such mainstays as RAIS and Palazzetti coexisted with new open-faced, wood-burning technology from Hearth & Home Technologies and Earthcore Industries. Fireplace manufacturers say the breadth and product depth proves that the industry remains committed to innovation and design even in a slumping economy.

Held this year in Reno, Nev., the Expo saw a fair share of introductions in a rapidly growing sector: contemporary designs. “There has been a trend in contemporary architecture overall,” Peter Dircks, vice president of product management at Hearth & Home Technologies in Lakeville, Minn., said on the show floor last week. “Generation Y and Generation X have been bringing new perspectives in design.”

Younger buyers may be driving the market, but Dircks says more older, wealthy buyers are also embracing relaxed design sensibility and contemporary architecture. “There definitely is a polarity in the dynamics—younger and modern and older and modern,” he adds.

Catering to this crowd, Hearth & Home unveiled Solaris, perhaps the most exciting new introduction at the show. This see-through fireplace can be configured with a thin glass burner or with engineered glass so the flame appears to go on and on even though it’s only 6 inches thick.

Even manufacturers producing more contemporary products concede that this sector only represents a small part of the market and say that most American consumers still want traditional or transitional designs.

That modern design is hot overall is one explanation why these types of fireplaces are prevalent. But the other theory is that manufacturers want to capture the business that previously went to European brands. Traditionally, consumers who wanted contemporary design stoves and fireplaces had to look to Scandinavian and Italian companies, but now American companies, sensing a growing demand for such styles, are creating products to appeal to those consumers. “It’s just the evolution of design,” Dircks says.

Kurt Rumens, president of Travis Industries in Mukilteo, Wash., agrees that there is more contemporary products on the market, but he’s unsure whether the modern look is here to stay among fireplace buyers. “We show [our contemporary] products to builders, and we get tremendous response, but most of what we sell is traditional,” he says. “There are a lot of oohs and aahs, but not a lot of sell through right now. What we notice is that people are saying, ‘I want a great fireplace and a quality fireplace.’ The high-end stuff is moving.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Reno, NV.