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 says.
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 (not including shipping), 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.
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But van Leeuwen is not alone among Europeans in re-imagining the radiator as sculpture. 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.
In the U.S., we are less fanciful with our heating apparatuses. The typical American radiator is an inconspicuous strip that runs along the baseboard or a corrugated rectangle that hugs the wall.
If you live in a prewar big-city apartment building, you may be tyrannized by a steam-heated cast-iron radiator that sounds like an amateur percussionist and feels like the forehead of Satan.
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 (167 degrees Fahrenheit). This means a radiator’s dimensions must be large enough to generate sufficient heat.
If you live in a Victorian mansion in New England, you may 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, says Holly Cratsley, the principal of Nashawtuc Architects, in Concord, Mass.
But as Americans reduce the size of their homes, they imitate Europeans only insofar as they seek out smaller appliances. That goes double for those who live in apartments.
So even if the radiator is an elegant woven grid of steel (like Stefano Giovannoni’s Trame model for the Italian company Tubes) or a handsome oak or walnut-veneered rectangular slab (like Phil Ward’s Woody model for the British company Eskimo), most of us are unwilling to commit to the colonization of wall space.
“The push for my clients is more to liberate the walls rather than to add to the walls,” Cratsley says.
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 in the U.S.
“It’s like a cool app on your phone,” says Richard Trethewey, the heating and plumbing expert for the television show “This Old House.” “Anybody who tries (a heated towel bar) wants to get one.”
The versatile devices can work with hot-water systems or plug into electrical outlets. Some are on timers, to supply a warm towel when you emerge from the shower, and many will heat the whole bathroom.
“Radiators are strange things because people wonder, ‘Is it part of the building or is it part of my interior decoration?’ ” says Paul Priestman. He’s a British industrial designer better known for aircraft interiors and high-speed trains, although radiators occupy an honored corner of his portfolio.
Twenty years ago, he designed Cactus, an electric radiator produced by Bisque that looks like a stylized succulent and was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum for its permanent collection.
“Some people feel they shouldn’t change radiators because it’s like changing the windows or door,” he says. “Maybe that’s why the radiator market in some countries hasn’t taken off that way.”