Radiators are a fact of life in lots of older houses and apartments. Whether they're cantankerous cast-iron Victorians or boxy, unlovely models from the '60s or '70s, when you live with them, you've got to plan your rooms around them.
The trick is making a virtue of necessity.
Washington architect Ernesto Santalla of FORMA Design came up with an idea for a sleek piece of furniture built around a vintage radiator in a tiny foyer that opens to a grander living room. The mahogany credenza with a matching mirror frame on top encloses a radiator in its base and provides storage on either side. A decorative wire mesh front is removable for easy access as well as ventilation.
The piece is shallow -- not much wider than the radiator it conceals -- but is a handy place to put down mail and keys by the front door. "It's a simple solution," says Santalla.
Another slim built-in by Santalla and his business partner, Andreas Charalambous, conceals a '70s radiator placed awkwardly in the middle of the wall in an apartment living room. Their solution: built-in cabinets crowned by a marble ledge running the length of the wall. Part of the built-in holds the radiator; the rest is for storage. Seen as a whole, the unit has the effect of wainscoting, but with slender wooden vents cut into the marble top.
Such well-designed covers can elevate the hard-working radiator to a design element within the room. The recent National Symphony Orchestra Decorators' Showhouse, in a radiator-filled 1929 house once owned by Paul Mellon, was a laboratory for good ideas.
In a guest bedroom, Bethesda, Md., designer Camille Saum turned a radiator under a window into a cushion-topped window seat. Voila: An eyesore becomes an asset.
In the master bathroom, Nancy Colbert of Design Partners in Great Falls, Va., built twin white radiator covers with louvered tops, sides and fronts, on either side of the freestanding tub.
One cover camouflaged a radiator, but the other was all for show. It filled up empty space and gave a more-balanced look. "They helped give architecture to the room," says Colbert. One by itself made the room look lopsided. Two, she says, "gave it a sense of symmetry."
In the tiny butler's pantry, designer Dee Thornton hid a radiator in plain sight by painting it the same brave fuchsia as the walls (Benjamin Moore's "Hot Lips," No. 2277-30.) "If you paint a radiator the same color as the walls -- not the trim -- it will blend right in and become far less visually important," says Thornton, owner of Houseworks Interiors in Old Town Alexandria, Va.
When a vintage radiator is in good shape and suits the decor, she says she often just leaves it uncovered. If the radiator has been stripped, she proceeds with a primer coat meant for metal surfaces, but usually paints right over what is there with an alkyd paint. She cautions that in rare circumstances, radiators that reach the boiling point require a special high-heat paint or else the paint could peel.
When she does decide to cover a radiator, she likes to echo the architectural features in a room.
"I've done some with narrow vertical slats that look like Stickley, some with fleur-de-lis and some with Chinese fretwork grilles," says Thornton.
Once, she even combined approaches: She topped a radiator with a thick slab of tempered glass that rested like a console top on fancy wrought-iron legs. Beneath it reposed the radiator, exposed but framed like artwork on display.
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