Hardwired for Style

Hardwired for Style

Decorative flights of fancy and innovative soft-closing mechanisms power the decorative and functional hardware markets.

By Daina Manning

It's long been said that cabinet hardware is the jewelry of the kitchen the perfect way to dress up a beautiful design and give it a bit of extra flair. And just as fashionistas nationwide are scurrying to dig up 1940s and '50s brooches to pin on their suits, cabinet hardware is also driven by up-to-the-minute trends. Some may be gone in a few years, but who cares because how hard is it to buy a new set of knobs? The ease of changing out decorative hardware is part of what makes it so much fun and such a favorite decorative upgrade among today's fashion-conscious consumers.

Functional hardware, on the other hand, tends to be a bigger investment, and a much more central part of making the kitchen accessible and convenient to use. There, major lifestyle trends such as a new generation of hip baby boomers who insist on an active, independent and stylish lifestyle well into old age prompt important innovations, according to the manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Going to Extremes
What's the trend of the moment? "I see a very utilitarian look getting stronger," declares Adrienne Morea, president and designer at Atlas Homewares, in Glendale, CA. "Square Euro-modern hardware [is] making a strong statement. It's loft but one step further than loft. [It's more like] file cabinet meets gymnasium locker. Square recessed bin pulls, lots of top drawer mount minimalism, the smallest little lip that you can pull a cabinet out with. It's all very reminiscent of Bauhaus design, where you mix art and technology," she notes.

Today's stylish hardware is also likely to be an extreme size "Either 'mega' or 'mini'," Morea believes. The XXL pick is likely to be a plain horizontal bar that works best with minimalist contemporary designs and a plain slab door, she elaborates. The European-inspired, highly lacquered door in bright colors, with metal legs, is a particularly striking version. Its accompanying hardware is usually brushed nickel, polished chrome or dull satin chrome.

Marcia Schaub, hardware specialist at Schaub & Co., in Grand Rapids, MI, points out that the emergence of large bar pulls has a functional component as well for today's bigger and more elaborate kitchens, with the trend towards drawers instead of base cabinets. "You can't have a small pull on a big drawer [or a] tall door," she notes.

Schaub adds that transitional looks, especially Arts & Crafts, are still a popular pick for those who want a warm but clean-lined look. Schaub's new line includes several knobs that evoke Mission design's geometric shapes, including "a unique pyramid knob with a flattened top, and one that looks similar [in shape] to a Tiffany-style lamp," she notes.

Similarly, Bill Payne, sales manager for Avante Hardware, in Chico, CA, cites his company's new iron line, which sports a handmade Craftsman look. "We have some proprietary designs with some rivets along with some banding," he adds. "We've seen that trend for a couple of years, the old school handmade design."

In the more mainstream market, rustic Tuscany looks, which take a more rugged and earthy, less grandiose take on Old World looks, are still going strong, and favor oil-rubbed bronze hardware.

Morea emphasizes that the urban industrial look she refers to is the next wave for people who are doing new installations, not updates. "People aren't going to throw away their kitchen cabinets," she says. "In most of the country, people are still into Shaker cabinets, and Shabby Chic is completely in style. There's always going to be that. It [conveys] such a warm feeling."

But, she notes a trend towards cleaner, less fussy and cluttered design even in traditional looks. "Instead of cabinets having an almost weather-worn finish, now they're upgraded a little bit to a satin sheen, not completely distressed," she notes.

As for finishes, matte black iron seems to be this year's big statement. The versatile finish works perfectly with antique looks, manufacturers agree, where it takes on the ornate look of weathered wrought iron, or with cutting-edge urban industrial designs, where it might evoke the ceiling pipes of an industrial plant.

Oil-rubbed bronze remains popular and is moving into the contemporary market as well. Patsy Nickum, owner of Rocky Mountain Hardware, in Bailey, ID, notes that contemporary architecture often uses raw bronze finishes that are meant to patina as they are exposed to weather for the rugged industrial look of a vintage factory building. And that look translates well to kitchen hardware as well. "We're making a lot of simpler lines, not a lot of detail," she notes. "Bronze has that organic texture to it. It's the perfect medium for [that look]."

Pewter, antique pewter and rusty wrought iron are other options for this look, Payne adds. Distressed pewter makes a particularly striking contrast to lighter wood cabinets.

Those surveyed also agree that, unlike bathroom design, a kitchen has more flexibility in mixing and matching finishes. Rather than the old approach of mixing, say, shiny brass and shiny chrome for a two-toned approach, however, the new mix stays in the same color tones, but mixes shades and textures. For example, a designer may choose to mix polished nickel with brushed stainless steel, or copper paired with oil-rubbed bronze.

Those desiring a more uniform look frequently pair stainless steel appliances with real steel hardware, notes Bill Fuhrer, national sales manager for Elite Bath, in Portland, OR.

Nickum emphasizes that trendiness doesn't equal disposability adding that, for the upscale market, quality is as important in a knob as in anything else. She cites her company's time-honored sandcasting methods for producing bronze hardware in a broad range of architectural styles, from rustic Mediterranean to contemporary urban loft. Unlike the faucet market, which seems to be embracing PVD coatings instead of real living finish oil-rubbed bronze, Nickum insists that hardware with a natural patina that mellows with age continues to be a popular, classic look.

For the whimsical end of the marketplace, Morea sees knobs that take their cues from spirited, slightly goofy Mid-Century Modern designs such as George Nelson's classic starburst clocks, or Jonathan Adler vases. Consumers with a sense of humor might also appreciate knobs such as Elite's moose-head pulls.

Function First
In these performance-driven times, a cabinet's innards are becoming as important as its overall outward appearance. "The first trend was the look. Everyone loved the beautiful wood cabinets that look like furniture. They're gorgeous, and nobody was thinking about the actual function," recalls Dennis Poteat, marketing services for Blum Inc., in Stanley, NC. "Now, we've got looks, quality of motion, and soft closing."

The aim of more complex and sophisticated hardware is to provide "functionality that will allow [consumers] to make better use of their kitchens," says Phillip Martin, director of marketing for Hafele America Co., in Archdale, NC. "People are staying home more these days. They want more of these exciting features that are being developed in the marketplace." And, for closing mechanisms, soft closure is the big buzzword.

These systems work with either air pistons or hydraulics, similar to a car brake, Martin explains. In Hafele's version, "before it hits the cabinet, an air piston takes over the mechanism [and] brings it slowly into the cabinet for a soft close, automatically, gently and virtually soundlessly," he elaborates. The mechanism can be installed on any pull-out, from pantry to blind corner.

"Everything is soft closing," confirms Matthias Bulla, product manager for Mepla-Alfit Inc., in Lexington, NC. His company has just introduced an undermount slide, which has an integrated soft close. "When you close the door hard, you slam it. The last two inches, this little shock absorber takes the shock of the door [and closes it] softly. We're using basically a hydraulic cylinder, same as a shock absorber in a car."

Blum's soft closing system for drawers fits Tandem concealed runners, reports Poteat. "[Instead of] being just a cushion, like many systems, it actually takes control of the drawer two inches before it closes, and pulls it closed slowly and holds it in place [with a hydraulic mechanism]," he explains.

"It's all in an effort to go for a better quality of motion less noise, less friction," Poteat adds. Another advantage of the soft close is "little fingers not getting caught in the drawers," he adds. "And the fact that they're concealed, it shows off the nice wood sides of the drawers."
For cabinets, Blum's system presents a plunger that's filled with non-toxic fluid together with a series of valves (as opposed to an air-resistant piston) that offer resistance based on the force applied. "Basically, the harder you slam the door, the more resistance it gives. That also allows it to adjust automatically for different size [and weight] doors," Poteat explains. This allows the system to be useable for glass, aluminum or other specialty doors.

For cabinet doors, Mepla-Alfit also features a system that allows one to use a standard hinge and clip on a soft close device. Additionally, a new base plate for hinges allows for three dimensional adjustment.

As with decorative hardware, quality has improved for functional hardware. Martin cites his company's new pull-outs, which add a melamine bottom to a chrome structure. "They give you a solid bottom, where you [can] store small items and they won't fall through," he notes. A patented non-slip surface for the melamine stops pots, pans and groceries from sliding during a rapid pull-out.

Quality has also enabled the move toward large base drawers instead of base cabinets. "Technology has improved, and the drawers can be wider. They come with rack and pinion-type functionality, so that when one end of the drawer is pulled, the other end automatically comes with it [without sticking]," Martin explains. "Homeown-ers see the advantage of keeping stored items like plates and dishes [in convenient drawers] instead of reaching [for] them over their heads and bringing them down."

All of these niceties boil down to one thing the perfectly functioning kitchen that's uniquely tailored for the taste and needs of the individual consumer. Individuality is, after all, the most pervasive current trend of all. "People are looking to find something a little bit different," concludes Schaub. "They don't want what everyone else has." KBDN