Contemporary design and new technology took over new fireplace introductions at HPBExpo 2009—the industry's equivalent of fashion week, when manufacturers unveil the latest designs.

Modern designs from such mainstays as RAIS and Palazzetti shared floor space with new open-faced, woodburning technologies from Hearth & Home Technologies and Earthcore Industries. Manufacturers point to this dynamism as proof that there's still innovation and a focus on design in a slumping economy.

Held this year in Reno, Nev., HPBExpo saw its fair share of introductions in a rapidly growing sector: contemporary designs.

"There has been a trend in contemporary architecture overall," said Peter Dircks, vice president of product management and new product development for Lakeville, Minn.-based Hearth & Home Technologies, from 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 older buyers are also embracing a more relaxed design sensibility. "There definitely is a polarity in the dynamics," he continues. "Younger and modern and older and modern."

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 into the horizon even though the actual flame is only 6 inches thick.

Even manufacturers doing more contemporary products concede that this sector only represents a small part of the market and that most American consumers still want traditional or transitional designs. One working theory is that for a long time, consumers who wanted contemporary design had to look to imported products from Europe. But now American companies, sensing a greater demand for such designs, are offering products to cater to those consumers. "It's just the evolution of design," Dircks says.

Kurt Rumens, president of Travis Industries in Mukilteo, Wash., echoes the sentiment, adding that he's not yet sure what it means for the industry at large. "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."

Another category that emerged at the show is open-faced woodburning fireplaces. Frowned upon by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many jurisdictions across the country, woodburning fireplaces aren't as efficient as wood inserts and stoves; they also release more particulates. But manufacturers have begun developing products that meet or exceed EPA standards, and industry observers say more of these types of products will hit the market in the next five years.