Property: Why old-school radiators are hot stuff

No, it's not just a necessary bit of plumbing. The radiator has assumed the gravitas of art and anybody who's anybody has got designs on their central heating system. By Rosalind Russell
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The Independent Online
Radiating style has rarely been a problem for the high-profile TV presenter Jonathan Ross. Or for comedian columnist Harry Enfield, or musician Peter Gabriel. Their suits, their wives and their homes all breathe class. Now, it seems, even their radiators radiate style. The fashionable trio are among those who have contributed to the annual pounds 50m market in designer radiators. Long overlooked as a boring but necessary bit of plumbing, radiator design is now assuming the gravitas of art, or sculpture. After all, when you've spent a fortune on a property - and the furnishings - why stick something conventional on the wall to clash with the Bratby? "The designer section of the market has grown tremendously," says Michael Mainstone of Essex based MHS Radiators. "Customers are looking for something better than a steel plate to look at."

June and July are the busiest months for MHS as many customers have their boilers replaced at the same time as their old radiators. It specialises in cast-iron column radiators, supplying them primed ready for painting. The Liberty, decorated with scrolled relief work, is popular with DIYers and developers renovating Edwardian or Victorian houses. It certainly beats stripping generations of paint from a reclaimed original. The Liberty is also used by the National Trust in its historic houses. Where period detail is important, MHS also offers a polished brass valve with art deco flower styling.

Ross, Enfield and Gabriel bought their designer radiators from Bisque, which recently launched the radical chic radiator Hot Springs, designed by Paul Priestman. Design award winner Priestman began designing radiators with attitude while still a student at the Royal College of Art. His Cactus radiator is exhibited in the Design Museum. The Hot Spring, which has a high-heat radiation, can be mounted almost anywhere in a room: either side of a window is popular, creating a curtain of warm air. "The reaction has been fantastic," says Priestman. "It seems to be very tactile, people just walk up and touch it."

The coil design is similar to the ringbinding of a notebook, but the stainless steel underside was inspired by the plumbing under a French sink. It must be the first time French plumbing has inspired anything other than exasperation. The Hot Spring has just been launched in New York, where the nickel-plated version has been bought by the barrow load. Prices start at pounds 350.

Bisque radiators can be fitted along a skirting, curved into an alcove, installed as a dividing screen between two spaces, or hung on the wall as a sculpture. The new Flowform design is based on industrial heating elements, the kind that used to be hidden behind grilles in railway carriages - think The 49 Steps. The stacked circular fins increase the surface area, giving it the same advantages as a solid, old-fashioned block of steel, with none of the bulk. With a circumference not much bigger than a cigarette packet, it can be run along a skirting, releasing wall space. Prices start at about pounds 120 plus VAT.

There's almost a Charles Rennie Mackintosh element to the Corinthian column radiator, made by Imperial Towel Rails. Tall, slim and wall mounted, it looks like the back of a Mackintosh dining chair. The chunkier versions are more likely to remind anyone over 40 of school and warm milk, but as school-conversion developments have blossomed, the design has come into its own. Prices begin at pounds 350.

As an investment, most estate agents would agree you'll never make back what you pay for a designer radiator. But they will add to saleability, especially in a period property.

London-based Radiating Style and its German manufacturers will even make a radiator that looks like a piece of art. Until it became caught up in a copyright row, its heated aluminium cast of two dolphins was a strong seller. That radiator's future depends on a court hearing. Radiating Style also introduced the sun god radiator and a Stubbs Horse.

"We can make anything you want, at a price," says the firm. "At the moment, we're working on a new range of animal shapes for children's bedrooms. They will include a Jungle Book-style elephant and a polar bear. But if anyone wants a grown-up elephant-shaped radiator, we can do that too."

It might seem excessive spending pounds 1,000 on a radiator when the gas bill is bad enough, but when did you last see a piece of art that you could dry your socks on?

For stockists of MHS radiators, ring 01268 591010; for Bisque 01225 469244; for Imperial 01543 571615; for Radiating Style 0181-577 9111

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