For his submission to the Radical Radiators of the Future competition, Italian designer Tommaso Colia envisioned a playfully ironic large-scale heating device, its pipes shaped into the letters H-O-T. Colia’s project, one of more than 3,000 entered into the contest put on this past winter by the Italian website Designboom and U.K.-based Bisque Radiators, is part practical warning and part cultural thermometer: Once eyesores that could be disguised only by an insipid selection of coverings, radiators have become popular among designers seeking to make utilitarian objects more beautiful.
New designs range from extreme experiments in form, like Amsterdam-based Satyendra Pakhale’s perforated, wafer-thin Add-on Radiator, distributed since 2004 by the Italian company Tubes, to materials explorations such as the forthcoming Silhouette by 25-year-old Central Saint Martins graduate Daniel Ashley, who has rendered a classic Edwardian model, trompe l’oeil style, as a ghostly white pattern on glass plates.
The trend may have begun in 1996 with the launch of Hot Spring, a 6-foot-tall spiral-shaped unit that remains one of Bisque’s best-sellers. “I never understood why radiators were just seen as flat screens of metal screwed to a wall,” says Hot Spring’s designer, Paul Priestman of PriestmanGoode in London. But more pivotal was Rotterdam designer Joris Laarman’s 2003 Heatwave prototype, an extravagant rococo concrete piece that recently graced New York bus stops as a poster child for the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2006 National Design Triennial. Droog made an electric version available in February 2006, and Jaga, a Belgian company specializing in energy-efficient heating units, unveiled its hot-water incarnation (as Laarman had originally conceived it) at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair.
Beyond its value as eye candy, Heatwave’s unique form has changed the way radiator manufacturers can do business. The unit’s success as a decorative object has persuaded retail stores to carry it, opening an additional sales channel for Jaga direct to consumers. “We’ve tried to distribute other models this way in the past, but there was no interest,” says Tony Michiels, a Jaga product developer who worked closely with Laarman on Heatwave. “Now the roles are reversed, and we’re fielding requests from shop owners.” The effect is cyclical: Once radiator manufacturers realize they’re able to cut out middlemen such as installers, who show a preference for complicated models that incur big labor costs, they’ll have more freedom and incentive to experiment with design. “The radiator has remained boring because there are too many people between the producer and end-user who dictate what gets sold,” says Michiels.
But even the contract design market, until recently a province of sleek, visually unobtrusive forms and contemporary chrome finishes, is taking more risks. Early next year, Bisque plans to release Archibald, the model that won the Radical Radiators contest. It consists of a single tube bent into a vertical chain of clothes hangers, onto which more than 20 garments can be laid to dry. Two short-listed entries Bisque also hopes to manufacture don’t just stand out visually, they actually invite user interaction: Fedora, a convex model with a removable felt nook for a pair of cold feet or, as its designer describes it, a “lazy cat,” and Simple, an ultra-thin flexible rectangle of hot-water tubing that can be clothed in a custom decorative silicone rubber cover. Similarly, Marco Dessi’s yet-unnamed porcelain prototype, which the Viennese designer presented at January’s Cologne Furniture Fair, is a twisting column of individual square plates, each of which radiates its own heat and can be turned on and off with a slight rotation, allowing clients to dictate the product’s output, length, and appearance.
Karim Rashid’s Klobs radiator for Italian manufacturer Tubor is equally sculptural, and its steel and aluminum “bubbles” which may soon be available in a finish that changes color as the heater warms can also be rotated around a freestanding or wall-mounted pole. Though Rashid has long been famous for spiffing up unglamorous goods like brooms and dog bowls, he sees radiator design as a kind of gateway drug. “When I designed Klobs, I started to think about all of the other banal parts of housing like wall plugs, baseboards, and air grilles,” he says. “Now I’m fascinated.”
Bridget Moriarity is an editor at Travel + Leisure.