By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Rather wonderfully (if a little unnervingly) describing herself as a “successful pyromaniac”, Elena Colombo creates highly original sculptural indoor and outdoor fire features that grace hotels and very posh homes. Her own home in Brooklyn is an unselfconscious and creative jumble of styles, a collection of books, objects and antique pieces that have caught her eye and her heart and that reveal her generous, resourceful and humorous personality.
I do have to tell you that when I first looked into interviewing you, I wasn’t quite sure what you did.
I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, that’s for sure.
But then I realized that you’re almost like a ‘practical’ sculptor – you make things that are useful even though they’re also sculptural.
Right. I call it art that works.
The Clinton Hill office and home of Elena Colombo was originally a lunch counter serving The Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The flame red front entrance and garage.
Why don’t you expand upon that?
I’ve always been a sculptor and designer, both 2-D and 3-D ever since I was little. I think I was obsessed with my first dollhouse, aged five. So I was working in miniature then and over the years I’ve progressed to regular scale and now larger scale with this new installation we just did.
And what about the fire sculptures?
The fire came about by being a pyromaniac [laughs] – which I think is genetic! My father was obsessed with it, my mother and my sister are scared of it and my father and I would just stare into the fireplace. We wouldn’t even talk to each other and just sit on either side of the fireplace.
But working with fire can also be dangerous.
Sure and knock wood, I have not hurt myself.
A perforated steel fire bowl sits atop an entryway storage cupboard. In front a mat by Elena simulating 'tree bark' is made out of cast bronze.
A 1950's Danish cabinet holds tools of the trade.
Elena purchased the oversized pre-WWII wood propeller from a friend's lobby.
Hard-to-find Edison bulbs are piled in a wooden bowls.
You’ve never been burned?
You know, just little regular burns – but not burned badly because if you’re interested in fire, you’re also very interested in safety too. You can’t really be a successful pyromaniac and be not concerned with safety. You know fire is the one thing that people know is inherently dangerous. It’s not like a bucket where you have to put a picture of a baby drowning on it.
What is it about fireplaces—everybody wants one?
It’s got to go back to our primal nature. Everybody gravitates to fire.
They do—even if they’re texting at the same time.
Yes, whether it’s the warmth, the camaraderie or the beauty of it … it’s ever changing—you know, it’s not television; it’s not your cell phone. People actually talk around a fire. You might even hear singing. Or you serve food.
An etching of the Twin Towers was found at a Waverly, PA. antiques sale.
A drawing of Elena's recently completed project for Bethlehem Steel is displayed on a Victorian easel.
An Asian Scholar's Rock stands next to a copper-colored mercury glass lamp.
A ceramic Buddha sits atop a Lucite paperweight.
An extra dining chair by Milo Baughman is tucked under a desk from Beall & Bell in Greenport, N.Y.
Elena found this chair on the street and had it covered in a Lee Jofa fabric.
I think the idea of food and warmth are connected.
I think so too. Everybody wants to feel that connection and that everybody is being taken care of at one time, and that feels really good.
Yes, the idea of a hearth … it’s almost a fantasy.
I remember Googling “outdoor fireplaces” because I wanted one for myself. There’s sort of a deeper story but when September 11th happened, I was a television commercial director and all of sudden, the industry was just squashed. Nothing happened. It scared the crap out of me. I was probably like a B-minus director, I guess, not doing the huge ones but I’d been in the business 15 years and I always worried. I was like, how long is this going to last? And all these great people were coming in … I mean I was bidding against Spike Lee for commercials. They needed the work. So I went out to my beach house—I have a little shack on the beach in Greenport—and I just wanted to sit on the beach with a fire and think about what direction I was going to take.
So what did you do?
Well, I thought at that time, Dammit, I wish I could have a fire on the beach, because you’re not allowed to have fires on the beach. And I wish I could hook something up to my house gas. Why can’t I do that? And so I’m looking at my propane tank for my barbecue and I’m kind of looking at my garbage can and I’m thinking … these two things can do together somehow. I wished I had something that was bonfire outside but was controllable, something that was big enough that if you wanted to burn your bed on it, you could. You know, if you wanted to start afresh … you could build your pyre. Fire also has cleansing properties too.
A view across the living room. The Hippo is from One Kings Lane.
Vertical bookcases from Design Within Reach are a chic and efficient way to store books. A nude by artist Sam Kretschmer hangs on the far wall of the above the dining area.
Industrial molds made out of wood are arranged around the living room TV.
An acrylic coffee table stands atop an area rug from The Rug Company.
A lamp from Beall & Bell is topped with a shade from Just Shades.
A branch trough sculpture by Elena stands near the stereo equipment.
Elena designed a screen out of old printer's storage drawers to separate the bedroom area from the living room.
Hanging ceiling fixtures designed by Elena were made by New York Brass.
Peeking into the bedroom area.
Elena's bed is dressed in pillows from One Kings Lane. The photographs are of stone Mandala sculptures made by Elena.
A painting by Matthew William Robinson hangs near a horse head purchased from One Kings Lane.
Bedtime reading is stacked on a vertical bookcase from Design Within Reach.
Elena's beach house in Greenport is included in this book, 'Waterside Living' by Leslie Geddes Brown. That's also Elena on the cover.
What did you do with the garbage can then?
Well, I thought, Why don’t I just see if I can make a big bowl. Being a commercial director, you can build anything. I was never afraid of building anything.
So you’re obviously handy too.
Well I found the right guy too! I found my dad actually! He was the first one to make a burner for me. He’s a contractor. I said, How do I build a gas burner? He said, Just take a pipe and put some holes in it. I didn’t know you could make burners in any shape. The first one was a spiral.
Looking across the dining area. Victoria Strange, Managing Director of Fire Features and Colombo Construction Corp. works at her office desk.
The office area.
A leather hippo stands in front of collage Donn Davis purchased at Max Fish Gallery.
Elena's office area. The Herman Miller desk and chair are from Beall & Bell in Greenport. The white wall sculpture is by Alexis Elton.
Looking towards the front door, a large copper pot is from Gallery 429 in Greenport. The orange Birkin bag is from Colette in Sag Harbor.
Looking toward the front entrance.
I’m addicted to HGTV and they walk into the houses and say, “There’s the fire feature.” It just seems tacky to me, but yours are a whole different level. But I like wood. You miss the smell of wood.
I prefer, personally, my indoor fireplace to be a wood-burning fireplace and then my outdoor ones, I can burn wood on it. The fire bowls are very simple and you put lava rock on top of the burner and then you can just throw wood on the top for the smell. I’m kind getting into more decorative elements, screens and andirons.
I saw those on your website. I thought they were fabulous.
I looked online and I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t traditional New England oak-y looking … crap. It’s so bizarre that I found a huge niche in the marketplace right away.
How did it sort of take off?
Well, I had a very well-placed good friend who was André Balazs’s manager at the Chateau Marmont. And when he did The Mercer here, I asked [my friend] to get something on André Balazs’s desk. It was just a drawing of my idea for a fire bowl because I hadn’t made one yet. And I swear to God, André calls me in two weeks and says, Can you have one by Memorial Day? That was in a month. And I said, Um … yes I can! [laughs]
Colorful votive candles are arranged atop a cherry sideboard from Cutler Antiques in Fleetville, PA. Behind, a large hook from Beall & Bell hangs above a brushed stainless refrigerator in Elena's kitchen.
Flame orange-red Le Creuset cookware stands atop Elena's restaurant stove by Southbend. Brushed stainless cabinets from Lasertron give the kitchen an industrial feel.
Bright flame orange-red Le Creuset cookware warm up the black stovetop.
Asian house Gods statues and favorite postcards adorn brushed stainless refrigerator.
Decorative gilt walnuts fill a Chinese porcelain bowl.
Artwork fills the studio bath walls. The photograph was taken by Elena during a trip to Paris.
A vintage eye chart and other favorite objects fill steel shelves in the studio bath. The painting is by Lisa Stefanelli.
A wooden Buddha lamp stands atop a pine jelly cabinet in the studio bath.
That was a great launching pad.
I figured if he liked it, then they had to be okay. I was doing it by the seat of my pants. He got one for each of his properties and people would get down on the ground to find out who had made it because my name is on the control panel. I would get calls … “I’m on the sand in Miami in front of The Raleigh and there’s this fire bowl …”
You also work with other elements because you do water features. Can you tell the difference between “fire people” and “water people”?
Not necessarily visually although fire people tend to be “butchier” [laughs] and water people are more elegant. The people that like fire also want to stoke it themselves and play with it.
Looking up the staircase. The charcoal on paper drawing is by artist William Chickillo.
More art hangs in the stairwell.
Looking towards the stairs, a painting by Robert Dodge hangs on the wall. Near right, painting by Lisa Stefanelli leans against a dressing room wall.
Pressed ferns hang near a lampshade made out of pinecones.
Elena's downstairs dressing area.
Reflections of the dressing area from a mirrored closet door. No shortage of clothes here!
More collectibles are arranged atop a dresser that once belonged to Elena's mom. The bride and groom cake topper is from a close friend's wedding.
A glass canister lamp, made by Elena's mom, is filled with shells and rocks from the beach near Elena's beach house in Greenport, N.Y.
A dog painting was found on a Tribeca sidewalk. The center ottoman was purchased at Penn furniture in Scranton, PA. The barrel chairs are from Beall & Bell in Greenport.
Part of Elena's extensive shoe collection.
The downstairs bath. The landscape painting is by a Pennsylvania artist.
So tell me what you like about doing all of this.
I love seeing something made real.
I’m happy to see you actually have a lot of real books here. Do you read a lot?
I do read a lot. I love fiction. And I have a mini-library at the beach house. I don’t throw away my books.