Director of the Guerlain Spa in Toronto talks about the challenges and opportunities inherent in providing an exceptional spa experience
Q&A with Elena Colombo
Days after the September 11 attacks, Elena Colombo sat quietly by the windswept dunes outside her small beachfront cottage in the picturesque village of Greenport, contemplating how the world had changed; the New York advertising agency where she worked had shut down operations after its studios were destroyed by the attack.
To keep warm on the beach, Colombo built a bonfire that turned out to be a prototype that sparked the birth of Fire Features (firefeatures.com), a full-service design atelier featuring her breathtaking custom fire bowls, water creations, memorials, markers and environmental sculptures. Today, her award-winning creations are commissioned by high-end spas and resorts, homeowners and businesses in the United States and Canada. Fire Features, a division of Colombo Construction Corp., is based in Manhattan with fabrication facilities in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Hamptons.
What is it about fire that attracts us?
Everybody loves fire. Not only is it warm and cozy, but you cook on it, it warms your house and when people are around it, they interact with each other, rather than looking at a screen. They are able to just be themselves.
You sculpt using bronze, steel, stone, concrete and bone to create forms that are at once ancient and modern. How would you describe the creative process when designing these pieces?
The original design for any of my projects comes from nature; she’s the real sculptor. It may be inspired by a simple form or a bird’s nest or just the ripple on a smooth pond. I feel that my pieces should not compete with nature. In a way, they are almost like jewelry for your landscape. I’ll do a little drawing and work with my head of design, Nic Spitler, a master at a 3D modeling program called Rhino, a simpler version of AutoCAD used by industrial designers and architects. He’ll integrate burners and control panels and such. It’s not magic – it’s actually a gas appliance.
You recently installed your work in the Shou Sugi Ban House in New York State?
It’s a beautiful new spa in the Hamptons, a women-led business that is super zen and really simple, pure and pretty. They wanted to bring the elements, a balance of earth, air, fire and water, into the spa experience. So, fire was definitely in their plans from the beginning. They went with a very simple stainless steel fire bowl with a branch insert and really pretty circular bench seating around it. There seems to be a trend for spas to bring in fire.
What is the significance of bowls?
I chose bowls because they are such a simple shape; I imagine bowls were one of the first vessels ever made. It’s an ancient and beautiful vessel and is weighted with symbolic meaning. The bowl represents the feminine nature to nourish and implies the masculine urge to fill. I want these bowls to appear as organic as possible, as if they had mushroomed from the ground. By adorning our exterior environment, we are collaborating with nature in a timeless and ritualistic manner.
Can you share a few of your favourite spa experiences?
My favourite spa is Solage, an Auberge resort and spa in Calistoga, California, which is really famous for its hot spring and mud baths. I just love the Napa Valley, one of the most blessed spots on Earth. There’s nothing like having a glass of wine and going from the plunge pool to a skin treatment and then over to the restaurant, where the food is just mind-blowing. When I first started my company, I went to Napa Valley first because I couldn’t think of a better place for a fire bowl than at a vineyard. When I got out there in 2002 with a bowl in the back of my pickup, I went around to all the vineyards pitching them. I sold seven in two weeks.
What do you think are the attributes of a beautiful person?
The first thing that comes to mind is just an inner calm and peace with themselves. I don’t think that’s easy to find with most people. Spas try to give that balance, and if you are able to manage stress, it benefits your whole mind and body. Something about fire that was always attractive to me was the way it’s a cleansing experience unto itself. That’s part of the ritual that we love about fire. I like to encourage people to make their own rituals around fire.