A radiance all their own

Radiator sculptures are the latest decor-cum-utility items to find their place at homes. Their innovative designs have won the hearts of art lovers all over the world, writes
Julie Lasky.

Several winters ago, Guus van Leeuwen, who was then an industrial design student, was riding with his girlfriend in a horse-drawn sleigh in Sweden. Wrapped in reindeer pelts, the couple watched steam rise from the bodies of the sweating animals in front of them.
That’s when “it all came together,” van Leeuwen said. Returning to the Netherlands, he bent metal rods into life-size animal sculptures, then draped them in skins and presented them as his graduate project at the Design Academy Eindhoven. In the group were a red deer, a ram and an arctic fox, and every one of them was a radiator.

Van Leeuwen is the extreme designer who finds poetry in home heating devices. His Domestic Animals radiators, which he sells in an electric version for about $7,700 to $11,600, recall the days when a hearth was the focal point of a home and livestock were welcome in the family huddle. The skins are stuffed with wheat kernels, effective in retaining warmth, and can be lifted from their armatures and wrapped around one’s shoulders. But van Leeuwen is not alone among Europeans in reimagining the radiator as sculpture.

Conversation starter

His Continental peers have designed dozens of conversation starters, radiators that resemble a forest grove, a paper clip, a garden hose that uncoils and snakes around a room, and even a wall-hung homage to an artistic masterpiece.

The European designers of decorative radiators have a big canvas to play with, by necessity, because many of these devices run at the lowest possible hot-water temperature, to save energy. A number of European countries have mandated that no heating system can operate at higher than 75 degrees Celsius, which means a radiator’s dimensions must be large enough to generate sufficient heat.

If you were living in a Victorian mansion in New England, you might be open to a hunk of metal, like a classic upright cast-iron radiator or even a contemporary art-style one that appropriates a wall, said Holly Cratsley, the principal of Nashawtuc Architects, in Concord, Mass.

But most of us are unwilling to commit to the colonisation of wall space even if the radiator is an elegant woven grid of steel or a handsome oak or walnut-veneered rectangular slab. “The push for my clients is more to liberate the walls rather than to add to the walls,” Cratsley said.

One place European-style radiators are welcome, however, is the bathroom. Heated towel bars, long used by Northern Europeans to make their damp, cold winters more endurable, are gaining traction. The devices can work with hot water systems or plug into electrical outlets. Some are on timers, to supply you with a warm towel when you emerge from the shower, and many will heat the whole bathroom.

Visionary

Hot Spring, a radiator that looks like a coiled spring, and it will work even with steam heat, is the work of Paul Priestman, a British industrial designer better known for aircraft interiors and high-speed trains, although radiators occupy an honoured corner of his portfolio. About 20 years ago, he designed Cactus, an electric radiator that looks like a stylised succulent and was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum for its permanent collection.

His recent towel warmer, called Triarc, is shaped to allow warmth to radiate even when a damp cloth is draped over it. “Radiators are strange things because people wonder, ‘Is it part of the building or is it part of my interior decoration?’” he said. “Some people feel they shouldn’t change radiators because it’s like changing the windows or door. Maybe that’s why the radiator market in some countries hasn’t taken off that way.”

Karim Rashid, the New York-based industrial designer, also believes that radiators occupy a zone of overlooked utilitarian objects – first cousins of wall outlets and light switches. Because we have such low expectations, Rashid was able to make a sensation with “Totally Rad,” a 2009 exhibition of avant-garde radiators he curated at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan.

Here were radiators that doubled as mirrors or were combined with planters or looked like silvery grasses swaying in the wind. But four years after trotting out all those examples of a radical leap forward, Rashid conceded that not much progress has been made. “The people who are doing the most adventurous things come from places like Italy, where there are small companies that support them,” he said. Cheeky, arty style comes at a price for necessities like hand fabrication. And even in Europe, the audience is narrow.

Interior designer like David Carter loves the Heatwave radiator, a meltingly beautiful baroque flourish that woke up a lot of bored design critics when Joris Laarman of the Netherlands introduced it in 2003. But it costs between $5,000 and $14,000. “At some point, I’ll use some of the lovely, mad Heatwave radiators, because that’s taking the idea of radiators being a piece of sculpture to a completely different level,” Carter said. “I’d like to have some of those floating across the room, like clouds.”

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