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The best fireplace
in the world?

Yeah, it's totally the wrong time of the year to be showing you a fireplace, I know. But when I discovered this wonderful work of art (quite literally) I had to give it an unseasonal share.

The fireplace is designed by the Cincinnati-based Rookwood Pottery Company, founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols and the first female-owned US manufacturing company. And I can't imagine liking a fireplace more than I like this one.

If you happened to be at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), in New York in May, perhaps you saw it exhibited there. Or you might have seen it on display in Cincinnati (where it is still on display – details below); some older Rookwood designs are also in evidence at Grand Central Station in New York – the company installed the gothic pierced tile grilles over the train platform entrances and lifts; Rookwood tiles are also visible at Wall Street and Fulton subway stations.

But  for now, back to the fireplace.

Aren't these tiles incredible?

The fireplace was a collaboration with the University of Cincinnati and Rookwood and the design team includes two of the university's professors – Katie Parker, assistant professor (ceramics faculty) and Guy Michael Davis (adjunct assistant professor, fine arts), centre and right in the picture on the right, along with resident Rookwood artist, Terence Hammonds, far left. And more of him shortly. 

The face tiles in the fireplace portray individuals important to the history of Rookwood and ceramics, including Rookwood’s afore-mentioned pioneering female founder, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, American industrial designer, Russell Wright, Josiah Wedgwood (that Wedgwood, yep) and midcentury ceramicist, Eva Zeisel. Their portraits, explain the artists, are set against a pattern inspired by Victorian wallpaper and Islamic tiling. The artists specifically used antique Rookwood patterns and tile moulds – and, of course, its historical narrative – and mixed them up with with new elements that reflect Rookwood's hometown of Cincinnati today. 

For instance, the tiles above the mantelpiece are modern, but intended to echo a 15th century tapestry from the Indian subcontinent; but where, in the original tapestry, there would be deer and cheetahs, in this there are contemporary urban beasts instead – such as dogs, pigeons and rodents. Very Timorous Beasties (see below for the Scottish textile designers' take on London).

Also in the mix is a print maker and wallpaper designer Terence Hammonds, currently working at Rookwood. And I love his work. Hammond's input is visible in these amazing faces, surrounded by highly decorative pattern – and in the image below, you can see his Hip Hop wallpaper behind the fireplace.

I couldn't get an image of the wallpaper close-up, but you can just about make out that the blue part of the pattern features faces – hip hop icons through the years.

Below is another of Hammonds' artworks, using a similar idea.

This design features the face of 1970s civil and women's rights activist, Shirley Chisholm. incorporated into the motif on the wallpaper. Hammonds is one to watch. The concept reminds me of certain West African fabrics. A while back I wrote about Rose Repose, a Senegal-based cushion and accessories maker who specialises in using the stuff.

Here's the apron she made, featuring fabric depicting the 12 founding members of the African Union. Totally brilliant, no? Do check out her other finds too, including cushions with Princess Diana, Obama and Nelson Mandela on them.

If you happen to be in the Ohio vicinity, you can get a glimpse of the fireplace in person: it is part of an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, which continues until 2 September. Full details are here.

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