Hardware heaven

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Historically, cabinet hardware has been chosen to complement colors and shapes in casework, countertops, walls and appliances. Perhaps by the nature of its diminutive size, hardware has been secondary to other design components. Knobs and pulls by themselves have rarely been the defining agent in a kitchen. This tail has hardly ever wagged the dog. So it’s no surprise that hardware has often been relegated almost to an afterthought.

Hayworth bar pull from Hardware Resources.

That’s changing.

Cabinet hardware is now being considered at a much earlier stage in the design process, especially when it’s hidden. That sounds counterintuitive: if it’s less obvious, then why would it be more important?

Well, kitchen designers usually describe hardware as being either functional or decorative, even when (to the rest of us) it’s obviously both. The “functional” elements include drawer slides, organizers and other items that are usually hidden at first glance and revealed as needed. Take, for example, the new base cabinet pullout from Rev-A-Shelf (rev-a-shelf.com) that the company calls its Food Storage Container Organizer. Riding on Blumotion soft-close slides (blum.com), this unit is about as functional as anything can be in a kitchen: it makes full use of a base cabinet, allows the cook complete and very easy access to all the contents without having to get down on his/her knees and, because it’s fully contained behind the door it’s less obvious, so therefore it’s described as functional.

“Decorative” hardware, on the other hand, is more blatant and includes pulls, knobs, accents and hinges — all the things that we immediately see when we walk into a room.

There has been an increasing emphasis in the last few years to using every cubic inch of cabinet storage space. That trend ranges from ingenious corner treatments to multi-tier drawers and, lately, to full height casework that replaces soffits. Those have always been available, but now are becoming much more mainstream. This shift might have been influenced by an anthropological factor: the average North American adult male is now about 5-foot-9, while a typical female is a little over 5-foot-4. That represents an increase in height, on average, of more than a full inch since custom cabinets gained a foothold after World War II. And we’re still growing. So reaching high isn’t quite the challenge it used to be. Soffits are also being eliminated as a means to stretch the visual impact of a room, making the space seem lighter, taller and more airy. That means cabinet doors are getting taller and people are finding that it’s more convenient to have them pop open by just touching the bottom rail, rather than having to reach up and grab a handle.

We’re also growing in other directions and many hardware manufacturers are finally beginning to understand that our fatter fingers no longer fit in many of the mainstream pulls that are still offered by the big-box stores. Designer pulls are getting deeper and woodworkers are beginning to source these and use them as a selling point. More men are also discovering the joys of cooking, and this, too, is playing a role in the evolution of larger hardware to fit their hands.

As a result of the desire to use space more efficiently, functional hardware has come a long way in a short time. Even when buyers give up wall cabinets to increase the amount of windows and daylight in a kitchen, or eliminate entire walls to achieve a more “open plan,” they still want the remaining cabinets to be as functional, efficient and usable as possible.

With Salice’s Wind door lift system, the hinges and lift are attached to the inside top of the box.

On the decorative side, some global influences also weigh in. Designers around the world have moved to a cleaner and more streamlined look and, as surfaces are becoming less cluttered, the hardware on cabinetry has followed suit. Customers are demanding more open spaces, greater traffic flow, more intelligently designed storage and a crisp visual aspect that blends into the rest of the home’s public spaces. Countertops are moving from granite and marble toward engineered, non-porous and maintenance-free materials and hardware is following this trend.

But there is still some room for organics. Butcher-block is experiencing a minor renaissance and painted cabinets are back in vogue, largely because they blend both form and function. They are clean, yet more inviting and hospitable than foil.

All of these elements play a role in how customers want their cabinet hardware to look. The sterility of Euro-centric, monotone, minimalist casework requires that there are no visible pulls and knobs, while the warmth of wood and the texture of paint are both offset well by basic and less decorative hardware.

Are trends relative?

Woodshop estimators have seen interior design take the concept of clean to a new level of late with a huge increase in the volume of invisible (touch) hardware. On the other hand, they’re also becoming used to designers who have discovered that overly emphasized, larger-than-life pulls can offset grand expanses of solid color casework. In some cases, these pulls are so immense that they replicate the traditional handles on oven and refrigerator doors.

Add to this a design aesthetic that is moving away from stainless-steel appliances, while simultaneously increasing the amount of bare or clear-coated metal — especially stainless steel — in decorative hardware. Other popular metal finishes include copper, pewter and even gold leaf (or a good simulation thereof). So while we are seeing less metal on appliances, we’re seeing more on cabinets. That’s a macro trend. The physical shapes and colors of this metal hardware can be looked at as a series of micro trends.

Trend is a tedious word. Merriam-Webster defines it as both following a general course and also veering in a new direction. Well, it can’t be both, at least not simultaneously. Perhaps a more apt definition for woodshops is the one found in the Oxford dictionary: “A general direction in which something is developing or changing.”

Consumers no longer rely as much as they used to on interior design magazines, trade shows or home shows to identify trends in cabinet hardware. That is, in part, because the presentation cycle in those venues is so long. For example, from the time a magazine editor assigns a story to the day it appears on a newsstand can be many months. And trade shows often take years to plan.

Instead, consumers are increasingly browsing online sites such as Pinterest, Facebook and other adaptive social media to see what’s new and popular. One byproduct of the ability to track by the minute is that trends can now live their entire life cycle very quickly. Another is that the preponderance of similar sites can actually generate a trend or stifle one. Depending on the keywords used in a search, the results can be far more provincial than catholic. For example, one might end up looking at the latest looks in “country” kitchens rather than “rustic” ones.

Hardware is a relatively serious investment for most kitchen owners or builders, so being trendy is often tempting, but not always deemed essential. Woodshop customers who are going to physically live with a design for several years must, of course, feel comfortable with it. But owners of investment real estate such as spec houses and high-end rentals, on the other hand, might need to live more in the moment and pay a lot more attention to trends.

Unfortunately, trending can be misleading. The intoxication with shiplap has come and gone many times through the decades and features using this material can look dated very quickly, especially in the absence of fresh paint. It might be hot today, but can drag down the entire kitchen over time. Other trends, such as the currently celebrated “tuxedo kitchen” have actually been around for a long time in one form or another and have always been trendy in specific markets.

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So while we should definitely pay attention when something grabs our eye, it is incumbent upon us to remember that such a reaction is impulsive and requires further research. Real estate professionals understand that a house sells faster when the kitchen style matches, at least to some degree, the architecture of the home’s exterior. Even though a homeowner might impulsively favor a certain look, putting ultra-modern, sleek casework and stainless-steel pulls in a traditional Tudor or a provincial farmhouse might not be the best idea if the home will go on the market soon. Buyers, it seems, don’t like those kinds of surprises. We must temper trendiness with common sense.

Universal access

One of the catchwords for kitchens during the last couple of years has been “universal design.” It’s an inclusive concept — and really more than a trend — that considers all shapes and sizes of people. So it doesn’t just stop at designing for the average-sized adult. The idea is to make spaces safer, easier and more convenient for everyone and this has special relevance for baby boomers who want to “age in place” — that is, be able to stay in their own homes as they age. Cabinet hardware is no exception: just as passage and entry doors have long been designed with levers instead of round knobs, cabinet hardware is increasingly being built to accommodate users with arthritis, restricted finger strength and other age-related considerations.

One longstanding concept here is the full-extension slide that obviates the need to bend down and search through the back of a drawer’s contents. With exactly this in mind, Häfele America Co. recently added Accuride’s 3634EC to its catalog. This is a slide that was intentionally designed for deep base cabinet drawers. It has soft closing and can support up to 150 lbs., but its special appeal to universal designers is that it has an inch of over-travel, which allows complete access without having to contort one’s body to see what’s in the back of the drawer. Allowing older people and folks of all ages with disabilities better access to the contents of their kitchen and bathroom cabinetry is becoming more and more popular as the population ages.

The high capacity of the Accuride slides is also something that’s trending lately: drawers are getting bigger. The company also recently introduced another slide, the Eclipse 3135EC undermount, which is an easy-close slide that is capable of handling drawers up to 30” wide. Bigger drawers close to the ground allow kitchen users access to more items with less effort. Cooks no longer need to store the big roasting pan for turkeys in that deep cabinet above the fridge, where getting it down before the holidays is a major effort. Now it can be popped into a large base drawer.

And opening those drawers (at least the ones without touch technology) is also getting easier for more people. Pulls are trending larger, too. When it comes to being able to grip a pull with ease, a good example of bar pulls with more clearance is the new Hayworth line from Hardware Resources (hardwareresources.com). These are zinc die-cast pulls with a solid nickel finish. They have a straight bar and two slightly longer than average stubs that allow swollen or painful fingers to gain access and a good grip. Available in a number of different lengths, the Hayworth line also includes a 2” long T-shaped knob in the same profile and finish and this is much easier for people with physical challenges to grip than a standard round, oval or spherical small knob. The company also offers two similar lines, the Key West and Naples, which feature slightly different looks but retail that clean, crisp appearance. Most cabinet hardware manufacturers are recognizing this need and offering non-traditional knobs with more surface area and better geometry for dysfunctional fingers. However, the trend does seem to be to keep the profiles relatively simple and the lines clean and almost industrial.

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That trend toward sleeker lines is inherited from European cabinet design and isn’t confined to pulls and knobs. Hettich (hettich.com) has taken the idea to the next level with its complete drawer system called AvanTech. Here, the cabinet hardware is completely invisible, offering silent push-to-open technology that is totally out of sight. The undermount slides are hidden behind the drawer sides, so the customer only see the box — there’s no metal showing anywhere.

Another way to reduce the amount of visible cabinet hardware is to create door systems that lift up rather than swing open to the side. Long a mainstay of European kitchens, horizontal cabinet doors supported by a lift are becoming more common in American kitchens and offices. In that vein, Salice (saliceamerica.com) recently introduced the new “Wind” door lift system that adds a new element to the concept. In addition to being placed in a location that uses as little as possible of the desirable space in a cabinet (the hinges and lift are attached to the inside top of the box), Wind is also adjustable. It can be moved left and right to align the door properly, but can also be adjusted for speed. That is, the strength of the decelerating effect can be changed to match the size and the weight of the door.

Real wood

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All the straight lines and metal accents can be a bit overwhelming for woodshop customers who would rather wax nostalgic and want the look and feel of real wood in their homes. For those among us who find the trends toward minimalism a bit unnerving, there is some hope. Some kitchen designers are bucking the trend and rediscovering age-old concepts such as open shelves and butcher-block countertops. A few are also going with an unusual material for cabinet hardware: wood.

Leading that charge is Smith Woodworks and design of Califon, N.J., which can be found online at the intentionally naughty URL niceknobs.com. The company offers everything from pulls and knobs to fridge and appliance handles in a dozen different species, all made in North America.

Architects and woodworkers are also espousing this throwback to real wood hardware. Take, for example, the exquisitely simple pulls designed by Workstead for its 47 Plaza project. The company (workstead.com) is an architectural, furniture and interior design firm located in the old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, N.Y. The richness of the natural wood tones in these pulls provides a truly dramatic counterpart to the monotone of the cabinets.

Wood has always been used in a variety of ways as a cabinet hardware material, from slides and hinges to a wide variety of solid wood shelf supports. Today, that latter tradition continues with the Sawtooth Shelf System (sawtoothshelfsystem.com), which has roots in Scandinavian and German designs from the late Middle Ages. Popular culture swings on a pendulum, so at some stage natural wood finishes will return as a major component in kitchen design. Until then, expect to see a small resurgence in solid-wood handles and other hardware as people try to retain a slight grip on organics in a world that is increasingly made of plastic and metal.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.

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