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The Firestarters

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Story by Simon Keane-Cowell for

What do you do if you love fire? Why, head up a fireplace manufacturer, of course. Bart Leenders, son of Harrie Leenders – founder of the eponymous Dutch woodburning-stove producer – knows a thing or two about combustion, heading off regularly into the wilderness to bring fire into the homes of his customers.

Bart Leenders takes things personally.

You see, as managing director of the premium wood-burning-stove manufacturer Harrie Leenders, he’s not one for a hands-off approach. He spends a lot of his time, quite literally, making fires. Depending when you go looking for him, it might take you a while. The self-confessed outdoors addict spends a significant amount of time every year in the forested wilds of the remoter parts of Scandinavia or Canada, with just a tarpaulin between him and the stars. Before you start thinking ‘What a charmed life’, know this: it’s work. Well, kind of. Having built and lit a fire with a trusty magnesium stick and some kindling he’s collected and (‘It’s the most reliable way to make a fire outdoors. It always works’), he connects with nature, allowing his mind to divest itself of the 9-to-5 routine and open up to creative thinking, thinking which feeds directly into both the products that the company develops and how the company perceives itself, all via a set of always-to-hand Moleskin notebooks.

You could say he has fire in his belly. And in the blood. ‘My father grew up on a farm, where he was responsible for making the fire. They just had wood-burning fires for cooking, cleaning and making the pigs’ food. That was just two generations ago.’ The father in question is the eponymous Harrie Leenders, who, along with his wife, Margriet, started the business in 1979, growing it into one of the leading manufacturers of premium-segment fireplaces, all without a single penny of external investment.

For Harrie Leenders, it’s all about authenticity, you see. ‘Everything we do is based on what feels good for our gut,’ explains Bart. ‘What models to introduce to expand our collection, which suppliers to work with, who to recruit as new personnel. It’s got to be right for us. Life’s too short for shit.’ Such a resolutely personal, uncompromising approach to business has stood Harrie Leenders in good stead, its loyal customer base recognising the value in quality design products whose makers put their heart and soul into what they produce. ‘Every product we make, we don’t actually build for our customers. We don’t build it for our retailers either. We build it for ourselves. It needs to be our stove.’

The company’s latest product, ‘Boxer Plus’, which Bart developed with a colleague in the Harrie Leenders factory just outside Eindhoven, took as its starting point sketches his father made and is based on one of the brand’s old products, ‘Boxer’. The latter has been out of production for some time, pulled from the collection as only half a dozen a year were being built. ‘Just imagine. We decide to build a new fireplace, put over two years of development into it, based on a product that didn’t sell. That’s not really commercial logic. And it’s our best-selling fireplace now. But we built it because we wanted to show ourselves what we can do. What we know about wood-burning techniques.’

Knowledge is key to the Harrie Leenders MO. Out in the wilderness is where Bart hones his expert understanding of the properties and behaviour, indeed the science, of the element upon which his business is based, fire, and where he feels most inspired. (He confesses to having stopped visiting trade fairs, disliking the lack of innovation, as he sees it, in thefireplace-manufacturing business.) Indeed, on one level, fire itself is the product that Harrie Leenders is selling. It’s the means by which one connects emotionally with what the company offers its customers. ‘I honestly believe the best-looking fireplace is the one that’s outdoors. Just a few rocks, on the shore of a river or lake. Our stoves are, in essence, fire carriers. It’s the fire that we want to bring to the customer.’ Designs such as the strikingly rational ‘Fuga eL’, particularly in black, testify to this, placing the fire within it centre stage and fully in the foreground, while its housing recedes optically. ‘It’s like a good butler,’ says Bart.

The high level of know-how Bart and his team possess is not only embodied in the stoves they build, but is actively imparted to customers via instructional ‘fire evenings’ at the Harrie Leenders factory – where they learn how to achieve an optimal performance from the products they’ve purchased – and tutorials on YouTube. This kind of knowledge-sharing is all part of the deal. ‘We bring fire back into people’s homes. People – and that includes about 30% of our customers – have forgotten how to make a fire, which, if you think about it, is the one thing that separates us from any other living creature on earth.’ The fire-making events for customers are opportunities for the manufacturer to learn something, too, however. ‘We get a lot of feedback, which enables us to make products that are viable and buyable. Yes, we build what we like, but we have to make money, too. But we try to innovate with each product.’

Innovation is great, of course, particularly when it comes to energy efficiency, but what about user-friendliness? Isn’t it always a trade-off? ‘Well “Boxer Plus” is our most advanced fireplace to date. But the more control you have over a fire, the more difficult it is sometimes. It’s not necessarily the best fire you get. I guess we take our customers seriously, explaining what fire is, what happens in the stove, how it works. With that new knowledge, they know how to use it better.’

So who are these fire-loving customers? They’re primarily end users from, in the main, France, Germany and Benelux, but also from Switzerland, Italy and the UK, who want to introduce something more than just another piece of furniture into their domestic landscapes. They appreciate the transformative effect that fire has when it’s placed in a room. ‘Our customers understand that there’s no on-and-off switch, that there’s an art to making a fire and they’re open to that. A fire changes everything. If you’re in a room lit by a TV and one lit by a fire, they couldn’t be more different. Everything else will be different.’ Although the majority of the current Harrie Leenders customer base are end consumers, the pleasingly rational language of the products, plus their quality construction, makes them ideal for specification in architectural projects, too. Planners value their graphic quality, their clean lines dovetailing with contemporary interior architecture.

Something else to like is the honesty of wood-burning as a source of energy. Bart explains: ‘We’ve forgotten how much energy there is in a piece of wood, in a log. We’ve forgotten how beautiful this portable energy source is. If I told you I’d come up with an invention – a portable energy carrier that gives us oxygen when it’s made and it’s so much energy that you can cook your dinner on it and heat the room, I’d be a millionaire. A billionaire. But there is it, the trees. Yet we’ve forgotten this because we’ve embraced fossil fuels as being more comfortable.’  It’s all relative, of course. What real fire does, above all, with its immediacy, its beauty, with the effect it has on us on an emotional level, is to make us fully aware of it in the moment, to help root us in the present. It asks for our attention. It makes us mindful, in short. Not an easy feat in this day and age of ever-rising stress levels and endless stimuli. And being more conscious of the act of consuming fuel while we’re consuming it can only be a good thing in environmental terms.

Moreover, with Harrie Leenders having successfully developed an innovative new way of preparing air for combustion, which means a whole new generation of stoves, the future of real fire is indisputably bright. ‘It’s like we’re starting out again,’ Bart enthuses.

In the words of Morrissey, ‘There is a light that never goes out.’

Perfect imperfect


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