Fire Features Founder Elena Colombo Talks Spa Design Trends and More
If you’ve visited a resort, spa, museum or vineyard, chances are you’ve seen Elena Colombo’s work. The renowned sculptor and founder of Fire Features—a full-service design and build firm that specializes in custom environmental sculptures, firebowls, and water and wind features—produces stunning creations and works of art that are on display around the world.
Most recently, Colombo designed a stunning fire bowl for the new Hamptons wellness resort Shou Sugi Ban House. Other notable clients include André Balazs, Jonathan Adler, Tony Ingrao, and others. We chatted with the sculptor, who discussed her sources of inspiration, the popular design trend of fire and water features at hotels and spas, and more.
Tell us about your journey as an artist.
The answer to that question is basically my life from birth to now—age 56. From my first memory, I was always a visual artist and designer. From collecting abandoned bird nests with my mother, to decorating my FAO Schwartz Country Mouse House, to directing television commercials, to designing the Bethlehem Bridge—making visual decisions is just the way I live. I don’t have to think too hard about it, I just answer the question with images, not words. So answering that question in words is pretty much the most difficult task you could ask an artist—I imagine that is the same for most visual artists. The struggle comes from distilling an idea down to its pure meaning, and removing what isn’t necessary to get to the point.
I want to be clear: I’m not a fine artist in the true sense of the word. My art is not solely for art’s sake. I do not make things that are purely for looking at and pleasing the viewer, though that is integral to their success. I design sculptural yet functional gas appliances. I call it “art that works.” Everything I have done in my life for work and pleasure has been to put an idea or feeling into visual form.
My father was a builder and contractor while my mother was a naturalist and place maker. They both built/created places where people and family could thrive, whether it was building a library, planting a garden, or choosing a comfortable yet beautiful chair to sit and read in. I grew up in a nurturing environment where we were encouraged to create and solve problems. I want my work to create a beautiful place where people gather to commune with each other and fire is the medium—and it’s second to none in that regard.
What inspires your designs?
Nature and functionality.
Why are fire and water features so popular in hotels and spas?
Fire is particularly primal—it’s ever changing, necessary, warm, beautiful, and draws people to it because it creates a small community wherever it burns. It’s also respected. We have built our whole civilization around controlling it for nourishment, heat, and killing disease. It’s one of our greatest tools, yet it’s also one of our greatest pieces of art. Fire is truly art for art’s sake. Water is similar in its effect on us—we need it for our survival, yet a plain pool of water is one of life’s simplest gifts. Spas and hotels are places where the elements are loosely harnessed for our enjoyment. They are places where clearing the mind is the goal.
How are your designs made and how long does it take to create one?
We build our designs in a 3D CAD program called Rhino, which is the best program for me to loosely sketch an idea, then build upon that to the point where we send final cut paths to our metal fabrication shop to create the parts that go into the build. Drawing it to final takes longer than building it in most cases. Once we have a final drawing, the build takes only a week or two once we have all the parts in one place. The time it takes from the first phone call from a client to delivery can be as short as eight weeks—and as long as a few years. We are working on a job now where the first drawings were created in 2016, and we will be delivering it by the end of this year.
Any favorite/memorable designs you’ve created?
Many. My mother’s memorial and the Bethlehem Bridge are the first that come to mind. And of course, the firebowl, which started the whole thing.
Do you create designs for people’s homes and do you take custom orders?
Yes, that was my first criteria when I designed the firebowl. It was for people to sit around wherever it was— most preferably outside the back door. I have since designed some of my most interesting and complex pieces for private residences.
[Images courtesy of Fire Features]
Kamala Kirk is a University of Southern California graduate and has been an editor/writer for more than a decade. She has written for E! Online, Total Beauty, TravelAge West, Malibu Times Magazine, and many more. She resides in Los Angeles and is a proud pug mom. Follow her on Instagram: @kamalakirk