Obituary: Geoffrey Ward

Tim Bullamore
Friday 26 February 1999 01:02

GEOFFREY WARD transformed the humble domestic radiator from its utilitarian origins into a designer object. Today his creations heat Stansted Airport, Glyndebourne opera house, and some of the nation's most fashionable bathrooms, living rooms and cloakrooms.

He elevated a bland heating device into an art form, an aesthetically pleasing vehicle for warming both body and soul: "Beautiful radiators are not a passing trend," he said. "People are conscious of how a thoughtful, stylish design can enhance their living and working environments."

Curved radiators, cactus-shaped radiators, radiators designed like abstract modern art - Ward, through his company Bisque Radiators, designed them all. At the top of the Bisque range is the X-tream, a series of sweeping pipes in the shape of an X, that retails at more than pounds 2,000.

It was while on a cycling holiday from Bordeaux to Biarritz in France some 18 years ago that Ward stumbled across his idea to revolutionise the nation's domestic central heating arrangements. He spotted and purchased a towel radiator.

Returning to London with the new gadget, Ward displayed it in the window of his bathroom shop in Kilburn, where it attracted growing interest from passers-by. Within a year the demand was so great that Ward revamped his shop, throwing out his bathroom suites and finding manufacturers who would interpret his up-to-the-minute radiator designs.

It was a bold decision. Few were prepared to take this upstart plumber and his "heating art" seriously. Being "Mr Radiator" was not the coolest sobriquet in town, as he once explained: "I tried to borrow a small amount of money from the bank at the time and they just laughed at me and said go away." Other problems surfaced: an attempt to open a "central heating outlet" in the centre of Bath met with objections, while many die-hard traditionalist plumbers informed home owners that the new-look products couldn't be connected into their pipes.

Before long the bank realised the error of its ways: "Within six months they were asking, `How much do you want?' " Similarly, the residents of Bath, duly placated by the "designer concept", were won over, and gradually members of the plumbing trade accepted the move forward. Finding suppliers who met his high standards was not easy either, and even today much of Bisque Radiators' Stock comes from Switzerland where Ward found he could rely on an outstanding level of service.

His efforts were recognised when on 2 April last year the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced that Bisque Radiators' Hot Springs range had been selected by the Design Council as a contender to be displayed in the Millennium Dome at Greenwich.

Geoffrey Ward was born in 1944, the son of a one-time head keeper of London Zoo. He studied at Haverstock Comprehensive School and took a City & Guilds in plumbing at Hackney Technology College. With a pair of friends, he established Bisque Solar Installations Ltd and secured a contract to instal solar panels in the newly emerging city of Milton Keynes. Ward said: "I spent 10 years building up the business, moving from replacing tap washers to installing bathrooms and central heating systems. We eventually employed about eight plumbers and carried out contracts for house builders, housing associations and local authorities. All through those years I heard that one continuous cry, `Aren't there any nice radiators?' "

The first turning point for Bisque - named after the ceramic term for naturally sun-fired - came with a visit to their premises in Belsize Road by an officer from Camden Council: "He pointed out that we should not be using designated retail space for offices. So we hived off part of the front downstairs, stuck a couple of bathroom suites in it and pretended it was a bath-room showroom."

It was into this window that Ward, his company now called Bisque Radiators Ltd, placed his French towel rail. Meanwhile, he kept what one reporter described as a "Battersea Radiators Home" upstairs where slightly damaged radiators were stored and rented by film companies wanting something a little different on their sets.

Designers and developers began flocking to his door as people began spending more money on a radiator than on a complete bathroom suite. Ward explained: "A few retailers are turning over pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000 just on our radiators."

Journeying to inspect a possible West Country site in Bristol, Ward fell in love with Bath and in 1986 acquired premises in the city centre, to where he soon moved Bisque's head office. The topography of the area proved ideal for his regular cycling trips, although he frequently journeyed much further on his two wheels. In 1995, he met his partner Hazel Pennington on a bike tour from Prague to Venice.

With damp towels and wet coats consigned to the history books, Ward could only look forward, yet he remained frustrated by the attitude of many to such an essential part of their domestic furniture: "I still see so many expensive interiors with a boring radiator in them. People just don't know that they can have something better."

Geoffrey Ward, plumber and radiator designer: born London 12 April 1944; married 1965 Ivorene Davies (one son; marriage dissolved 1984); died Bristol 19 February 1999.

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