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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
Do you ever have nightmares about fire?