Throughout history, functional objects have offered designers an opportunity for expression, invention, even fantasy. Andirons, for example, exist solely to hold logs inside a fireplace, so that oxygen can circulate beneath them and the wood can burn more efficiently. But for centuries, designers have turned andirons into an important decorative element in even the most simple interiors. Here is a quick peek at andirons from the medieval era until the 20th century.
Andirons are the horizontal bars inside a fireplace where logs can be placed. They are used in pairs, and are often connected to vertical stands or guards. In the UK and elsewhere, andirons are known as firedogs, supposedly because their upright form can resemble an eager dog on alert. Ironically, though, it's rare to find andirons that are actually in the form of dogs, though you can find them in most every other shape!
Like most fireplace implements, andirons were originally made from wrought iron, and were relatively simple. The guards often had ratcheting attachments and hooks where you could hang pots, rotisserie spits and other cooking tools. By the medieval era, blacksmiths had begun adding minor decoration to andiron guards. The above andiron from 14th-century Italy, for example, sits on a trefoil-arch base and has a serpent head growing out of the top. Keep in mind that in most interiors throughout history, the fireplace was the most important part of the home, not only the sole source of warmth in winter, but also where all the cooking happened.
During the Renaissance, designers were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman statues, and they explored the figurative and sculptural potential of objects. A pair of bronze andirons in the Getty collection (above) was probably made by an Italian artist for Fontainebleau, the château of French King François I. These feature male and female figures growing out of acanthus leaves and supported by grotesque masks. On their heads, they hold bowls with playful salamanders inside (the salamander was, believe it or not, the personal emblem of François I.)
By the 18th century, the exuberant asymmetry of the Rococo style lent itself particularly well to the abstract depiction of flames in gilded metal. A pair of gilt bronze andirons at the Louvre (above) are in the form of perfume burners (they actually served a double function) sitting on a rock and surmounted by a burning flame. You can see from the way the goldsmith sculpted the lines that the form would have been extremely beautiful in actual firelight, both reflecting and simulating the brilliant flames.
Andirons could often take the form of different animals, particularly in more whimsical or informal settings. Marie-Antoinette, for example, commissioned a gorgeous pair of andirons in the form of camels (above) for her private Turkish boudoir at Fontainebleau (a couple centuries after François I lived there). For her house at her rustic village at Versailles, she is also thought to have commissioned a pair of 'rustic' andirons in the form of two goats eating grapes, over a frieze of cherubs shearing a ram (below).
These three above examples of 18th-century gilt bronze andirons made for royal patrons demonstrate the exquisite level of artistry that was expected of such objects in that milieu. I saw the camel andirons in a temporary exhibit at the Frick Museum last weekend, and was amazed at how detailed they were — even down to the hair-by-hair fur on the camels' bellies! And yet these were objects that never left the fireplace floor, a place that not even the most avid 18th-century connoisseur would have crawled down to in order to inspect the queen's andirons!
Of course, this royal level of manufacture was not the norm. Most andirons, even decorative ones, were still usually made of iron, and were relatively simple. A folksy pair of firemaidens from the last quarter of the 18th century (above) is almost primitive — other than the careful attention given to the ladies' corseted decolletage (seriously, it's like Easter Island meets Victoria's Secret).
Higher-end andirons were often made out of brass, and were highly decorative even if they weren't sculptural. Paul Revere was a prominent American metalsmith, in addition to being a famous midnight rider, and he made a beautiful but restrained pair of brass andirons now in the collection of the Met (above).
Andirons were again an important aspect of room decor at the end of the 19th century, when an emphasis on tradition collided happily with an impulse to decorate everything, bringing a renewed focus to the fireplace and its tools. Louis Comfort Tiffany was a master of glassmaking, and his interest in iridescence married nicely with the effects of firelight on his brass, glass and iron andirons (above) from 1894. Meanwhile, the sunflower was the favorite symbol of the Aesthetic movement artists (top image), who saw in their own quest for beauty a mirror of the sunflower's quest for the light of the sun. The designer Thomas Jeckyll put his sunflower andirons in his client's porcelain room, which soon got hijacked and redesigned by James McNeil Whistler, who literally painted over and obliterated nearly all of Jeckyll's influence — but he wisely kept those gorgeous sunflower andirons!
Andirons are no longer typical these days, with many people preferring simple, functional log holders. But antique andirons are plentiful and often inexpensive at flea markets and auctions, and can be a subtle but charming way of referencing the past. Would you ever buy one?
Images 1 Thomas Jeckyll's sunflower andirons, c. 1875, in Whistler's Peacock Room, now at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC 2 14th-century Italian wrought iron andirons, Metropolitan Museum of Art 3 Virgin and Child in an Interior, Workshop of Robert Campin, before 1432, in the National Gallery, London 4 Italian bronze andirons in the form of a female and a male herm, for François I at Fontainebleau, 1540-45, at the Getty Center, LA 5 François-Thomas Germain, gilt bronze andiron/perfume burners, 1757, probably for the duchesse d'Orléans' grand salon at the Palais Royale, at the Louvre 6 Pierre Gouthière, pair of andirons with a seated dromedary, for Marie Antoinette's Turkish boudoir at Fontainebleau, 1777. In the Louvre, but currently on display through September at the Frick Collection 7 Pierre-Philippe Thomire, pair of andirons with goats eating grapes and cherubs shearing rams, probably for Marie Antoinette's "Queen's House" at her rustic Hameau at Versailles, c. 1785, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 8 A pair of American iron andirons, c. 1770-1800, at the Met 9 Brass and iron andirons by Paul Revere, c. 1760-1790, at the Met 10 Louis Comfort Tiffany, Bronze, glass and iron andirons, 1894, at the Met
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