Playing with fire: Inside the studio of fireplace sculptor Cathy Azria
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Tucked away in a mews in Queen’s Park on a former industrial estate off Kilburn Lane, it’s hard to believe that Cathy Azria sees her studio as a major achievement.
This isn’t because it’s not impressive: the space covers two floors, with a fully equipped metal workshop on the ground floor and a more informal light-flooded artistic and business area upstairs. Rather it’s because Azria’s fireplaces, which she creates under the business name BD Designs, adorn some of the most spectacular homes in London, and indeed the world.
Although too discrete to name names of clients, Azria, who grew up in Nice in the south of France, confirms that her signature fireplace installations can be found all over the world in the homes of footballers, music moguls and even royalty. Not that she’s always aware of who the client is while working on a project.
“I don’t always know the name of my clients because I get contacted by the designer,” she says. “I was contacted to do a house in Holland Park for one of the most famous men on television. I did not know it was his house because I got it through Mena Interiors. I’ve never even seen the sculpture in situ.
“I also worked on a piece for the London pad of a Middle Eastern king and queen and I didn’t know. I went to the house so many times and when I finally delivered the piece I saw a photo of the owners and realised who they were. One of the rooms I created a piece for had a bean bag in – it was the king’s playroom!”
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Other spectacular locations for the fireplaces include a house in Kuwait (“I said ‘Ok, I’m very happy you want one but when are you going to use it, it’s so hot?’ They said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll put the air conditioning on.’ Why not?”); and the home of an influential arts patron, where one of Azria’s Metropolis sculptures sits among paintings by Canaletto, Modigliani and Degas.
Not all clients are rich or famous, however, and Azria is approached by many people who have saved for years to buy a piece of her functional fireplace art.
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“Many times the client would have pulled a page from a magazine or a newspaper. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes to see how old the paper was, and hear them say, ‘I’ve wanted this forever and now I’m doing my house,’” she says. “I get beautiful emails from my clients. I had an elderly lady, very dynamic, very stylish, who couldn’t have fire in her home, so we installed a light box with orange leds. She said that it’s the only light she leaves on when she goes out and when she comes home she has a cup of tea by it. It’s always happy for me to know that my work gives pleasure.”
The project has come a long way since Azria – who was working as financial director of her father’s olive oil trading business at the time – first decided to stack loose rods in her fireplace at home to create a pleasing centrepiece. When one of the heated metal rods fell on the floor, she realised she should weld them for safety. The entire business has grown through a similar process of happenstance and trial and error.
“When it first started it was a concept, although I didn’t realise it was a concept,” she says. “At the beginning I did it for myself. Then my sister in law in San Diego said she’d like one, so I had to figure out how to ship to America. She has a beautiful house in San Diego, so a local interior designer popped in and loved it and before I knew it, I was commissioned by a client in LA. It really happened in a very natural organic way.
“The first press I ever had was in Homes and Gardens magazine. I sent a picture to every magazine and then went away on holiday. I didn’t tell my husband, no-one. I came back from holiday to find I was in the January 1999 issue, which came out in December 1998. I remember Papa left the office to go and buy it. He passed away at the end of December but he saw it so that was nice.”
After her father’s death, Azria decided to pursue sculpture full time and hasn’t looked back as demand for her bespoke steel or bronze pieces, each of which is made by hand, snowballed.
BD Designs has also branched out into making furniture. Side tables, with bases of twisted metal are a natural extension of the fireplaces, while a chunky, humorous tea trolley, inspired by the British tea time tradition, which charmed Azria when she first moved to London in 1981, is a chic, practical dinner or cocktail accessory, rather than a twee retro hostess trolley.
With so much success under her belt, it seems strange to hear Azria wonder if she deserves her studio, which she bought in 2001.
“When I started I had half a studio. When I bought this place I was very anxious because I wanted to deserve my studio. It had to pay for itself. I put the money Papa left me into this place. He was a very hard-working person so I thought ‘I’ll invest it into work and if I can’t make it pay, I’ll sell it’. I didn’t spend money on anything but what I need for work. That’s my parents’ sofa from Nice, that chair’s from my friend’s place.
“Now my clients come and they love the studio so that makes me feel happy. And I hope papa would be happy.”
BD Designs work on commission, with prices starting from £3,000