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Hard choices

It’s a cliché — it’s bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded. Everything depends on one swing. That’s how crucial the right hardware decision can be: adding this one final element to a project can often elevate it to the big leagues or send it down to the minors.

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The effect of matching the perfect pulls and knobs to a cabinet or a piece of furniture can be quite dramatic. We’re all familiar with the iconic way in which hammered medieval iron worked for Gustav Stickley and how a century later people still want that look on their Arts & Crafts pieces.

Hardware makes a statement — and not always an obvious one. Sometimes the client needs to pull out a drawer and let it slide gracefully closed before he or she understands that impeccable quality says the builder cared.

Staying with the belabored baseball metaphor for a moment, here’s something to think about. The home team wears white and the visitors’ uniforms are gray. (Apparently, doing laundry on the road was difficult in the early days and that is the source of the tradition.) Given their languid palette, teams learned to distinguish themselves by wearing logos on their hats and shirts.

Kitchen cabinets are, for the most part, standardized. The units share universal height and depth dimensions. Most people like hardwood or paint with granite tops, so even the most elaborate casework jobs are somewhat mundane. We can play with colors and grain patterns, but small pieces of hardware still seem to have an inordinate impact on design. Changing the pulls and knobs can really change the feel of the room. They are the colorful logos on our caps.

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Keeping abreast of trends can be a challenge. In the information age, where a thousand choices are at our fingertips, clients like to browse online to get a feel for what they want. Then they try to match that look to one of the options offered by the cabinetmaker. Sometimes the reverse is true: we have to go and find a product that is not in inventory because somebody saw it online.

A really interesting snippet came out of the automotive industry a few years ago, when the national economy began to dive. Manufacturers noted that car colors were drifting toward white. First there were grays and silvers and then various off-whites. In good times, it seems, people buy with flourish — reds and blues and yellows. And when uncertainty looms, they become conservative.

The same can be said of cabinet hardware. During the last few years there has been a long, slow trend toward neutrality — natural wood tones and a resurgence of off-white paint/stain/dyes and simple hardware that is devoid of both color and texture. Taking a lead from stainless-steel appliances, designers have leaned toward unadorned steel pulls. Appliances are becoming even more built-in and streamlined: they are quieter in color and context than they used to be. Think, for example, of glass cooktops or the virtual disappearance of appliance garages on countertops. Smooth, clean, uninterrupted lines are in.

Perhaps the uncluttered look plays into a subconscious need to feel more sustainable, more responsible for our world. Whatever the motivation, simpler floor and countertop materials, flat door panels and quiet color schemes have arrived and those values are reflected in the hardware we choose.

So, as times get better, will hardware become gaudy?

Perhaps a hint is hidden in Europe. The farther north one travels there, the more austere and functional both casework and hardware becomes. Indeed, many Scandinavian and German kitchens have concealed hinges and no pulls at all. But travel south through the Loire Valley and builders are still working versions of cabriole and carving into their designs. Here, the hardware is more complex, more three-dimensional — not quite classical, but definitely more expressive. As time passes, though, the northern influence is growing. And it’s worth noting that the German economy is robust, while the rest of Europe is riding the doldrums. Germany sets the pace and Europe follows.

After World War II, America borrowed many of the best aspects of Italian, French and Spanish furniture, food and fashion. Remember all of those 1960s movies with Americans in convertibles racing along the Mediterranean? For a while, Southern Europe was chic. In recent decades, the European influence has been more Germanic.

Julius Blum founded the hardware company that bears his name back in 1952. He established a toehold in America in 1977, with the purchase of a small warehouse in Hickory, N.C. Today, Blum products not only serve the American hardware market, but companies like Blum and Häfele also help shape it. For example, last year’s introduction by Blum of a new premium metal drawer system, Legrabox, underscored a fundamental change in the philosophy of American kitchen design: drawers don’t have to be wooden. Who knew? And if they aren’t wood, will hardware soon obviate the need for traditional joinery, too? After all, it’s difficult to dovetail a stainless steel corner.

But despite their similarities, the two markets (U.S. and Europe) also have their differences. That’s actually a little surprising, considering the shrinking globe and a burgeoning Internet that is homogenizing cultures worldwide. Nevertheless, a latter-day American kitchen still has a certain flavor that distinguishes it from its overseas cousins. One can walk into a home in Connecticut or California and feel familiar. A small part of that is due to hardware. Pulls, knobs, slides and hinges all have both a visual and a tactile role. Pull open a drawer in an original 1970s kitchen, and the action will subconsciously be different than doing the same in a 2015 showroom. There is a feel to hardware, to the way it works, that is more than intuition. It’s cultural ergonomics. Our hardware perhaps reflects, rather than contributes to, who we are.

The future looks like an amalgam of sleek European values and that homey feeling of traditional American design. The mood will be hygienic yet hospitable, convenient yet comfortable. We live on a rock where everything is instantly available. Tap on a phone and we can watch parades in Paraguay or safaris in Senegal. Doing simple things can accomplish complicated ends as technology takes over the legwork for us. There’s no need to walk to the library anymore.

That pattern, that new instinct for convenience, shows up everywhere in kitchen and furniture design and nowhere more so than in hardware. Adding self-closing, slow-action, gentle slides to a kitchen would once have begged the question: “Should we spend that much money on something that’s essentially hidden?” Now the question being asked is more along these lines: why didn’t we?

Access and accents

When one opens a door or a drawer in a high-end, well-designed kitchen, there is generally no need to get down on one’s hands and knees. Good designers use hardware to create an environment where things are easy to reach. Heavy-duty, full-extension slides bring the contents to us: we don’t need to rummage. Sliding trays (instead of adjustable shelves) allow us to open up a wide base box and see immediately what is stored within. Clever corner cabinet hardware and racks that reach around pipes under the sink all say one thing: convenience. Cabinet hardware is trending toward ever-cleaner lines and our customers also expect it to deliver convenient solutions.

But there is a third aspect to predicting the future of pulls, hinges, slides and specialty hardware. Despite the fact that all of it is mass-produced, the incorporation of hardware can be very personal. Choosing knobs or slides allows the customer to affect the look and feel of the kitchen in a very unique way. It can be a mode of expression, an artistic process that is self-actualizing. The countertops and appliances all live in catalogs, but hardware usually needs to shake hands. Customers find themselves touching pulls at the homes of their friends, at work, in showrooms and on displays in big-box stores. A picture or even a single drawer pull in one’s hand still leaves something lacking. Being able to visit the application and view the piece of hardware in place on a complete cabinet — this is what people need before they feel they have enough information to decide. They scour the Internet, but more often than not choose something they have touched rather than something they have merely seen. They are choosing a colorful logo for their own baseball cap and they need to feel that it is unique. Hardware is their signature on the artwork that is their new kitchen. It’s more than just metal.

Being sensitive to that, allowing the customer to “own” some choices, is essential. But so is a little guidance. Somewhere between telling them what they need and they telling us what they want lays a middle ground that serves both interests.

Quality counts, right?

A metal pull is a very small item, both physically and also in terms of a complete kitchen. There isn’t much steel, brass or chrome required to make one, so it’s not surprising that some pulls are very reasonably priced. When a project requires two or three dozen of them, the multiplier becomes an issue. Thirty pulls at $4 apiece is a whole lot different than 30 pulls at $22 each ($120 or $660). The same arithmetic can be applied to slides: most range from roughly $8 to $85 a pair. With, say, 20 drawers, the difference can come to about $1,500. Add in the hinges and hardware can amount to a significant chunk of the budget on a kitchen job. There isn’t a lot of room to squirm on plywood, hardwood, finishes or payroll, so this is one area where a woodshop might be able to save a couple of bucks.

That brings us to China.

Is there a moral dilemma here? Do we buy cheap and ignore the source or buy quality and celebrate its merits in the sales pitch to the customer? Is there an ethical difference between using American, German or Chinese products? Do we care? Should we?

One thing to bear in mind is that, in many ways, China is now following the same route taken by Japan in the second half of the last century. After the war, that country spent a few decades manufacturing laughably inept copies of American products. From 1958 to 1986, Nissan exported a line of vehicles under the trade name Datsun that were, well, pretty awful. But then companies such as Toyota began incorporating traditional Japanese manufacturing processes into a borrowed American model and developed a new corporate culture that gave rise to what we now call lean manufacturing.

China’s products are going to get better, too. And, as they do, prices will rise. That will begin to put them in competitive parity with American, German and Swedish hardware manufacturers and, while their profitability will rise, it’s reasonable to assume their market share will fall. Bottom line: cheap Chinese knobs and pulls will be around for a while, but not forever. The question here is at what point will that transition influence our industry’s buying patterns? And if the supply is going to change, is it better to develop a long-term relationship now with a high-quality supplier that will cost us a little bit of cash, but will augment our shop’s reputation for delivering only the highest quality merchandise?

There is another, far more basic aspect to this. Will the least expensive hardware actually hold up over time? One aging cabinetmaker we know has a litmus test for any kind of knob: he threads the screw into one of them, locks the head in a vise and then uses a pair of pliers to see what it takes to strip out the threads. If there’s little or no resistance, he rejects the product. It’s not empirical, but it gives him some idea of how long the part will last in daily use. (Of course, the guy still uses hand tools, so his judgment is questionable.)

Do the slides you use run on steel bearings or nylon/plastic guides? Can the hinges you install be bent easily to align a cabinet door? (If they can, it will be just as easy for a customer to accidentally bend them out of alignment, too.) It seems logical that we might be able to skimp a little on pulls and knobs, but not on those hardware elements that rely on mechanical motion (hinges and slides). Perhaps the savings in one can be applied to upgrading the other. If we build great boxes and save a little on the hardware, those savings could be eaten up by warranty calls, where we have to supply replacements for failed hardware and sometimes even send somebody out to physically fix something.

The average kitchen is remodeled every 20 years or so. Will skimping on the first job encourage the homeowner to look elsewhere for a cabinet shop when it comes time to redo? That’s a particularly significant question for woodshops in small markets, where the choice is often just between you and factory cabinets. With the continued emergence of outsourcing and the subsequent blurring of the line between custom and factory, that choice is already narrowing. It’s not unreasonable to assume that many of the outsourcing suppliers will eventually get large enough to reach around us and advertise directly to our customers.

Quality counts and people have long memories. And quality is really the only defense we have against factories. Our hardware choices need to be at least as good as theirs.

The near future

If one looks at the unemployment rate (10 percent in October 2009 and 5.8 percent in October 2014), the Dow Jones Industrial Average (7,062 in February 2009 and 17,900 in December 2014), and housing starts (just about double in 2014 over the 2009 numbers), there is an obvious trend in the economy. Things are getting a lot better and, with that, purse strings are getting a little looser. Confidence is a strange animal: President Franklin Roosevelt understood that fear of the future was inhibiting recovery in the 1930s and, even though all the indicators say that our economy is robust and growing, we still have a nagging doubt. As times continue to improve, that will recede and people will start buying yellow and green cars again. When they do, cabinet hardware is going to change, too. Today’s stylish but conservative tastes are going to jump on the pendulum and swing back toward something more flamboyant and exuberant. While knobs and pulls might gravitate away from the industrial look and return to the comfort of French farmhouses, the working hardware (hinges and slides) will remain on the path they have been traveling. Customers will continue to ask for and pay for quality and convenience.

Aesthetically, kitchen designers online seem to have a collective opinion that the next generation of kitchens will be a reaction to the fitted, symmetrical lines we have become accustomed to and casework will begin to incorporate more individual “furniture” pieces, rather than walls of identical doors. If so, there will be a new opportunity for hardware sales. A complex kitchen might use two or three different lines of pulls and knobs on the same job.

That’s like everyone on the baseball team having a different-colored shirt. Good luck with that on laundry day.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue.

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