Form Inside Function

Form Inside Function

Today's consumers are looking for cabinet hardware that offers accessibility, ease of installation and the opportunity to express themselves with personalized designs and striking finishes.

By John Filippelli

While other products in the kitchen tend to receive the windfall of recognition, in recent years, cabinet hardware has emerged as a key element to creating a personalized kitchen environment. And, manufacturers are responding with a slew of new products that offer both aesthetic and functional appeal. 

In the decorative market, there's a strong trend toward smaller, sleeker pieces in a wide variety of eye-catching designs, though larger, heavier, customized pieces are also finding an audience. In functional hardware, added features and easier installation are hot trends.

Citing a large influence from European styling and a growing interest in personalization, many manufacturers see consumers searching for creative knobs and pulls to add a note of whimsy. 

But, despite a growing interest in contemporary designs, consumers have not completely abandoned traditional styling either, according to manufacturers interviewed by K&BDN. The bottom line, they agree, is that what consumers want above all else is combination of function and eye-catching aesthetics and this holds true whether it's classic or contemporary in style. 

Decorative design
While individual preference seems to determine consumers' choice between traditional and contemporary styling, some see the balance of power shifting. According to Bob Shaw, national sales manager for the Hailey, ID-based Rocky Mountain Hardware, "We have noticed that the market for more traditional cabinet hardware, such as drop pulls and the use of cabinet roses, has diminished slightly over the past few years, while the demand for more specialized pieces has increased." 

This trend may be reflective of the European influence on decorative hardware, according to Claude Girardi, managing owner of Sterling Heights, MI-based IMOS Line, LLC. He explains, "The current trend we see is an increase into the Euro-Modern look, with styles and features focused on the commercial look." He continues, "Many customers are starting to utilize modern hardware with traditional cabinetry in order to achieve a 'transitional,' or more modern, look."

For Shaw, the reason for this is simple: "Hardware has become an expression of personal style."

"Knobs and pulls are no longer merely functional," agrees Cari Jaye Sokoloff, owner/designer for San Francisco, CA-based SoKo, adding, "knobs and pulls are now functional art." Sokoloff also cites the current trend in decorative hardware toward a more unique, distinctive decorative style that makes an artistic statement. This has changed significantly from past years, she notes.

Perhaps the greatest indication of this is consumers' desire for more made-to-order pieces, according to Shaw. "We are seeing a lot of requests for more customized pieces, and the use of customized hardware is a result of the desire for a new medium through which to express [their] personal style." 

Adds Sokoloff, "Decorative hardware that is well designed is [not] restricted to one sensibility, but can be interpreted and used [with] myriad design eras and styles."

Shapes and colors

Smaller round and oblique knobs and simple wire pulls are quite popular, according to Shaw. But, he serves notice as well, stating: "Function remains the number one factor in determining hardware choice. While we see demand for custom colors and shapes, function will continue to drive the form."

He adds that natural hues have become more popular due to their ability to change over time against a bronze medium. 

Girardi adds, "Trends in color fall on pearl nickel and brushed satin, with sizes still pointed toward the small/medium, rather than medium/large." 

Bill Payne, sales manager for Chico, CA-based Avante Hardware, has noticed a few growing trends with regard to finishes, with modern styling being very popular. "We have noticed that brass finishes are on the way out, making way for newer and more modern finishes such as satin nickel, brushed nickel, stainless steel, matte nickel and matte black." He continues, "Many of these finishes match up to finishes of more contemporary kitchen appliances, such as stainless steel hoods, stoves and refrigerators." Payne also notes that designs seem to portray smooth, gentle and rounded surfaces with a contemporary feel.

Shaw concurs, stating: "We have seen a trend toward a more personalized style, such as faux finishing, which is reflected in the demand for cabinet hardware that accents that type of cabinet."

Payne interjects, "We are also seeing an increase in demand for more rustic or distressed finishes such as antique pewter and copper."

Girardi demurs, noting that geography may play a part in consumers' decision-making. "The demand is still toward traditional [styling], but contemporary design, especially in the Pacific Coast areas, is showing a steady increase."

Sokoloff notes that there has been high demand for more subtle colors, such as SoKo's new mink finish. She also adds that trends in materials and finishes are leaning toward age-old art materials such as hand-cast bronze and hand-cast stainless steel.

David Schratz, director of purchasing for Wood-Ridge, NJ-based Outwater Plastics Industries, Inc., points out that any new shapes or colors offered should not impact the hardware's functioning, saying: "Although colors and finishes for hardware are being introduced to incite interest in already existing products, the products themselves have been honed and refined to the point that any changes are, for the most part, purely aesthetic."

Sokoloff states, "The trend would seem to lend itself to more whimsical, creative styles, those that make people feel good and put a smile on their face."

Functional Hardware

Functional hardware, too, has seen some changes in recent years. Notes Chris Vagts, product manager for Alpharetta, GA-based Hettich America, "Hardware has changed to meet the demand of consumers, with features such as clip-on hinges, more adjustability, ease of installation and lifetime guarantees [becoming] the standard in the industry."

Matthias Bulla, product manager for Mepla-Alfit in Lexington, NC, agrees: "Functional hardware must incorporate smart design, tool-less mounting capabilities and more adjustment capability."

One of the hottest trends today at the functional end, according to Marte Yerkins, marketing communications manager for Stanley, NC-based Julius Blum, is full-extension concealed runners for wood drawers. He also notes depth-adjustment capabilities for concealed face-frame hinges as becoming very popular. 

Specifically, customers are looking for concealed slides to fit into current construction with as little modification as possible, with drawer slides installed on a drawer and into the cabinet without major construction changes to either the drawer construction or the cabinet construction.

Tom Reinbold, director of marketing for Kernersville, NC-based Grass America, Inc., explains, "Wood drawers with standard bottom-mount slides [are popular], but the best option is an upgraded drawer with a full-access, concealed undermount slide."

As Larry Greenwood, product unit manager for High Point, NC-based Hafele America, Co., states, "[It seems that] higher-quality functional hardware, such as concealed drawer slides, is being included in the cabinets for additional profit and customer value."

But, Reinbold notes, ease of installation continues to be a buzzword among hardware manufacturers. "Functional hardware may be a small cost percentage of the overall cost of a finished product, but using the proper functional hardware may become a large labor/cost savings in the manufacturing process." 

Bulla agrees: "Ease of installation saves time and money that would otherwise be spent on machines and tools."

Consumers are also looking for quiet operation, and Yerkins believes that the next hot trend will be an option to drawer runners that creates a soft, self-closing action. "This is achieved with either a pneumatic or hydraulic mechanism and makes it almost impossible to slam a drawer," he explains.

Clever utilization of space is also important for heavier loads, such as large-screen TVs and entertainment centers, Yerkins notes. 

Reinbold agrees, citing the advent of office space being integrated into furniture, as well as traditional cabinets carrying more weight than before. "Both hinges and slides need to be designed and tested to carry the heavier loads," Reinbold states.

Manufacturers also cite a large European influence on functional hardware trends, such as fully adjustable European and face-frame hinges with full function, according to Vagts. He states, "American furniture and cabinet manufacturers are changing to utilize more innovative European-type hardware, and suppliers are adapting to fit the requirements of customers."

Bulla concurs, "European trends are affecting cabinet design, which affects the functional hardware market," he remarks. Some of the products Bulla notes are wider drawers, organizing systems, and flaps instead of doors and aluminum frames. He also believes, "European hardware is more compatible than ever with face-frame cabinetry."

More than anything, Vagts adds, the impact of European trends may be due to the fact that customers want products that will make them stand out from the competition.

To that end, Bulla notes that As "[Aside from offering ease of installation and convenience], functional hardware must also be aesthetically pleasing."

One major concern in the functional hardware market right now is the impact of tower-priced imports from both Europe and the Far East, which manufacturers see as potentially dangerous to the market as a whole. 

For Bulla, this is a critical point, as it can have a huge impact on quality. He warns, "Customers who demand quality should [always] be suspicious of products that are [considerably] less expensive than the competitors' product considering the low-quality that [tends to] come with lower-priced imports."

Universal design, too, many manufacturers agree, is a factor in hardware design, especially since function is so important in this area. As Shaw states, "Function must remain the primary factor in determining [the] hardware style [chosen], but if the cabinet hardware can be used universally without [any] aesthetic compromise, [that makes it] all the better." KBDN