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Getting a handle on hardware

An old friend and woodworker (who currently feeds his pension to a herd of horses) once said that a pony is still a pony without a lead rope, but a cabinet is just a box without hardware. His concept isn’t universal, but it’s still a pretty good rule of thumb.

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Hardware can make or break a kitchen or bathroom and, while bad choices are hardly irreversible, good choices can add an awful lot of wallop to a custom job. Sometimes hardware just works in a certain situation: the light and colors and shapes in the room all contribute to the feel of it. And sometimes we simply follow trends and do what other designers are doing in an effort to capture the magic.

There are a couple of ways to look at trends. Some manufacturers sense a cultural shift and adjust to follow it. Others take a gamble and put innovative products on the market in hopes that they’ll start a movement. The former are generally well-established larger suppliers with long and successful marketing histories. The latter are most often art-based, smaller design houses that seek to share a vision.

Both approaches are valid and both give cabinet and furniture builders some options. They both point down the road. It’s up to you which fork you follow.

Sleek and slim

In March, Belwith’s Hickory Hardware launched its new Velocity Collection — cabinet hardware that was “inspired by dynamic, graceful speed forms first developed in the automotive and aeronautical industries.” The line lies comfortably in the mainstream of current trends — metallic, crisp, clean and minimalist with just a touch of industrial flavor. Hickory also added a bright nickel finish option to its popular Bungalow Collection, another line with a sleek rectangular design. The Velocity Collection is available in two finishes, brass and nickel, and reflects a mainstream trend toward basic, unencumbered metal hardware. This “new” style in a way harkens back to post-war European architecture that gave us Bauhaus buildings and the more streamlined designs of Charles and Ray Eames. Less form, more function. Hickory’s hardware is both elegant and beautifully made, which is in line with a trend in the custom wood market toward higher quality — a reaction in part to the flood of mass cast imports we’ve seen hit the big-box stores in the last few years.

That glance over our shoulders to a time when life was less complicated (if we ignore social unrest, Southeast Asia and the Cold War) shows up again in Belwith’s use of the word bungalow, an architectural style that we associate with a high degree of craftsmanship and comfort. Belwith was there: the company has been around for more than 120 years, so it knows how to identify, and sometimes instigate, cabinet hardware trends.

Most of the other major manufacturers are also riding the trend toward austerity. Factory after factory is turning to mere metal, straight lines, polished reflective finishes and simplicity served with elegance. The move in casework toward monochrome cabinetry, flat panels and stone countertops obviously influences hardware trends. As life becomes louder, homeowners, hotel chains and office buildings seem to be seeking a way to quell the ruckus. Our private spaces are becoming more streamlined, efficient, less decorative and perhaps more masculine. Cabinet hardware trends, at least in major markets, follow suit. But while the industry en masse seems to be pivoting toward unembellished metal as the norm, there are a few smaller companies that are endorsing a different trend.


The Manhandles collection from Jaye Design.

One notable collection here is the Enmeshment Series from Mrs. H’s Handles — hardware that melds the feel of Tiffany, Art Deco and ultra-contemporary design into jewelry-like handles and knobs that are simply stunning. The designer uses stainless steel or brass mesh to lend soft accents to hard metal. Enmeshment would be at home in Gatsby’s mansion or the lobby of the Empire State Building. It’s romantic, rugged and yet rocking, all at the same time.

Speaking of rocks, another collection that epitomizes the whimsical trend comes from Skipping Stones Studio (distributed in part through Spokane Hardware). It cuts stones to provide matching knobs and pulls and even full-size interior door hardware to match. No two stones are identical, although they are similar enough to lend cohesion to cabinetry. Spokane Hardware has also been offering a very inexpensive collection of stone knobs, called Nature’s Handles, since 2004.

Sticks and stones are trending across the board. For example, Rocky Mountain Hardware offers a number of quite lifelike branch and twig pulls, along with full-size door handles and even stair balusters. A similar offering comes from Wild West Hardware. In addition to twigs, the company’s catalog includes a number of Old West motifs such as longhorns, five-point stars, spur rowels, barbed wire and hammered iron pulls. It also offers clavos, which are decorative, sturdy, hand-cut rustic nails. These pooling ripples in an ever-more-still pond give woodshops and their customers some choices that personalize a project. For designers who would eschew the sleek stainless option, whimsy offers hope, joy, playfulness, color and perhaps an organic need that is no longer being met by mainline manufacturing.

Glass to grizzlies

Moving far away from metal, Windborne Studios hand makes glass decorative hardware that it describes as running the gamut “from classic to quirky.” There are seven collections, ranging from stripes to shells and pebbles — and because they are handmade, some variations occur, so care must be taken when selecting matched pairs. The manufacturer also notes that one shouldn’t use an electric drill to install the hardware, which might be a minor challenge for larger commercial jobs. But the effect of these dramatic and colorful pieces in a monotone kitchen or bath can be worth the extra effort. Seeing them in place is akin to watching spontaneous dancers do their thing at a classical concert. They bring more than bravado to a door: they wake and shake your senses.

Another glass handcrafter, Sietto, offers six distinct product lines with descriptive names such as Glacier, Reflective and New Vintage. The latter, Sietto claims, will “put the fun back in functional.” In addition to white ceramic knobs with decorative faces that include typewriter keys and Victorian cameos, the line’s artwork includes everything from the Eiffel Tower to farmyard animals and dog breeds. 

Cari Jaye Sokoloff has designed several lines of hardware and one that definitively follows the trend toward artistic pulls is her Manhandles collection. Each handmade pull or handle is individually cast in bronze or stainless steel and celebrates the beauty of the human form. Her company, Jaye Design LLC, has wide distribution across the country and around the globe. The hardware is available in 10 standard finishes, plus custom coatings.

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Another unusual line of products, manufactured by Sierra Lifestyles, is available through distributors such as My Knobs and features themes including coastal, wildlife and woodlands knobs. The coastal collection includes iconic castings ranging from dolphins and lighthouses to flamingoes, manatees, whales, pelicans and sailboats. And the wildlife menu includes lots of grizzly bears — heads and paw prints — plus moose, deer, elk and a host of antler and other images found in national parks. Sierra also finds inspiration in the comfort and familiarity of organic forms such as branches, leaves and pinecones. And the company produces its own Western collection that includes buffalo skulls, cowboy hats, boots, horseshoes, howling wolves and saddles.

Moving about as far as one can from Yellowstone, both physically and culturally, the British manufacturer Turnstyle Designs is a major producer of design-led architectural hardware. This family-owned company combines materials in a way that most American manufacturers have moved past. There’s a strong presence of leather in Turnstyle’s “furniture handles,” which is perhaps a more apt term than cabinet hardware for what the company does.

Identifying trends in any industry is a tricky proposition. Usually by the time one notices them, they are already passé. The trend toward cleaner lines and less decorative pulls has been happening for a long time, so perhaps it’s more of a shift than a trend. And the need for individuality and artistic flair has always been with us. Perhaps the splashes of color and drama we’re seeing now are just more noticeable because they’re superimposed on casework that exhibits less grain, color and figure than the red oak cabinets of our childhood homes.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.

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