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Jessica Steinha§user of Stonehouse Pottery stands beside kachelaðfen installed in Toronto home of Marko Duic. Photos by Dean Palmer Photography
Jessica Steinha§user of Stonehouse Pottery stands beside kachelaðfen installed in Toronto home of Marko Duic. Photos by Dean Palmer Photography

Wood stoves

A traditional heart(h) for a modernist home Add to ...

When Marko Duic commissioned an ultramodern house in Toronto's Casa Loma area, he asked his architect to include something warm and cozy to offset the cool of the design.

Specifically, his request was for a kachelofen, a wood-burning stove made of clay, the kind he grew up with in his native Croatia.

Designed in Germany in the 1700s, the ovens are highly efficient and need only a few logs. A small opening combined with a snake-like flue and refractory brick on the interior forces heat to rise slowly without need for rekindling. Clay tiles on the outside absorb the heat, radiating it out and up.

"I wanted the functionality and efficiency of a wood-burning stove, but I was also motivated by nostalgia," says Dr. Duic, an emergency-room physician at St. Joseph's Health Centre who immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1967 at age 9.

"At home in Zagreb, we heated the entire house with one of these. My grandmother also had one in her house, which she used for cooking. I built this house to spend the rest of my life in and I needed it to connect to me on an emotional level."

While ubiquitous across Eastern Europe, kachelofen are harder to find in Canada. Dr. Duic eventually contacted ceramicist Jessica Steinhauser, who owns Stonehouse Pottery in located in Guelph, Ont.

Ms. Steinhauser learned how to build kacheltofen in a ceramics program in Nuremberg, Germany, where she grew up. Today, she bakes them by hand and fires them in kilns, one ceramic tile at a time, in a process that takes more than two months. An oven builder helps her install the stoves, which cost between $20,000 and $30,000.

"In Germany we call it both the hearth and the heart of the home," she says. "Mark Twain once wrote that there is nothing more efficient than a German stove, and he was referring to a kachelofen."

A long-time promoter of the stoves as an energy-efficient choice, Ms. Steinhauser had virtually given up on them and was concentrating on traditional ceramics when Dr. Duic contacted her a couple of years ago.

"I really think that old-fashioned kachelöfen are the way of the future," says Ms. Steinhauser, who had travelled to Austria to perfect her stove-building skills.

But no seemed to be listening.

"I was so broke I promised myself not to waste any more time on these stupid stoves," she says. "I decided I'd just make mugs for a living, to pay the bills. Then I got Marko's e-mail."

The request was for three kachelofen, which almost made Ms. Steinhauser, at that moment drinking from one of her mugs, spit her coffee.

"I think I didn't really believe it at first because I was very rude in my response, telling him if he were really serious to get back in touch."

Mr. Duic did. But then Ms. Steinhauser didn't follow up: "I really thought I was done with these things."

Monica Kuhn, Mr. Duic's architect, called again last January to request a studio visit, making it clear the client was serious.

In Toronto, Ms. Steinhauser's first visit to Mr. Duic's property took place amid a pile of rubble.

The new house takes the place of an old, dilapidated one purchased in 2007 and razed to make way for Ms. Kuhn's modernist design.

Taking 18 months to build, the house has high ceilings with recessed lighting that augment a sense of unlimited space. A shiny new stainless-steel elevator connects all three storeys. Other than that there is little in the way of architectural adornment. Clean lines, a neutral palette and a paucity of walls underscore the home's minimalist direction.

Ms. Steinhauser says she worried at first that her handcrafted wood stove might clash with the home's spare design. She decided to make its bespoke homey attributes serve as a counterpoint to the otherwise stringent layout. The stove she made for Mr. Duic's study, a large room with a high ceiling, is tall and narrow and capped with a ceramic crown moulding decorated with an egg-and-dart motif.

"It was going into a tall room and so the crown had to be majestic, to give a sense of balance," she says.

As the room is also pale and sunlit, Ms. Steinhauser wanted the stove to be a brilliant colour, ultimately choosing a vibrant lapis lazuli blue for the glaze.

Built in a corner of the room, it looks like a jewel and works like a charm, Mr. Duic says. He tried out the stove when temperatures plummeted in early May.

"And wow, what an amazing thing it was," he said in an e-mail. "Sure, the fire looked very pretty when burning.  But when the flames were gone and only some embers remained, I shut off the air inflow as per instructions.  By this time, all the blue tiles from the firebox to the top were too hot to touch. As the heat drifted out of the room and upstairs, the blue kachelofennever seemed to cool off.  … It was not until Sunday evening, 36 hours later, that it was just warm. All this from about five to six logs and a fire that burned for only three hours! This exceeded my every expectation."

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