Fashionable Function

The hottest decorative hardware highlights metal finishes with natural patinas, while multi-functional hardware with options such as the 'soft-close' feature continues to be strong.

Today's decorative hardware comes in a nearly limitless array of shapes, sizes, colors and finishes, dovetailing consumers' growing interest in personalizing their spaces. As "the jewelry of design," it can make an elegant design statement, bring a touch of whimsy or blend quietly and tastefully with the overall look of a room.

But, if decorative hardware is truly the jewelry of design, functional hardware acts as the nuts and bolts that hold a design together, making it work easily and seamlessly.
Functional hardware maximizes storage by allowing full access to drawers, carries more weight to better accommodate the ever-increasing number and types of items being stored away, and provides safety and ease-of-use with soft-closing hinges.

For many years, hardware fashion and function were considered two entirely separate areas, yet today's consumers want all of their hardware to look great, function well and even provide emotional benefits, such as ergonomic features. So say manufacturers and dealers recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Manufacturers agree that multi-functional hardware is becoming the norm, and companies such as the Archdale, NC-based Häfele America Co. are striving to devise the next generation of multi-functional hardware, which will accommodate today's ever-growing storage needs.

"People are demanding better functionality. Probably the biggest change, and the biggest trend, is the one toward soft-closing hardware," says Mike Buechner, product manager of functional hardware for Häfele.

"I think it's the natural evolution of the product. Even pantries have soft-closing hardware on them I see it more and more in all products It's especially important on lift-up hardware on an overhead cabinet door. You don't want it to slam for safety purposes."

"In my opinion, the term 'functional hardware' no longer captures the scope of consumer demand for cabinet hardware. Function is a requirement, of course, but becoming increasingly important are design and emotional aspects larger opening angles, total access to interior of drawers and cabinets, soft-closing systems for a quiet kitchen, differentiation possibilities, etc.," believes Wolfgang Branner, v.p./marketing for Blum, Inc. in Stanley, NC. "Functional hardware should not be seen as an 'accessory' for kitchens, but should be valued for the important role it plays in guaranteeing the kitchen user more comfort, more ergonomic efficiency, more organization and more fun. Quality of space and quality of motion will become driving parameters in the design of kitchens."

Steve Hirasawa, marketing spokesperson for Sugatsune in Carson, CA, also sees a European influence on functional hardware design. For example, "You tend to see newer products with drawer slides built in. Before, there were more dovetail boxes with drawer slides. Now, there are drawer boxes with drawer slides together," he says.

Along those lines, another notable trend is the use of larger drawers, which requires drawer slides that will carry the extra weight. "Drawers are becoming wider and larger, and are carrying more weight, so slides need to be even sturdier," says Buechner. "They are changing along with the increased size and weight capacities of drawers."

Even entertainment centers and home offices are impacting the functional hardware arena. "That's exactly what I'm working on right now," says Buechner. "We're just starting to see the changes with the plasma-screen and wide-screen TVs. They are wider than they are taller 42" is a really popular size and the doors have to be wider instead of taller, making pocketing more difficult. This is testing the limits of the hardware on the market now.

"So we, along with others in the market, are in the process of devising new hardware that accommodates the new TVsWe definitely need more products to accommodate these trends We need to be able to accommodate different size drawers, and doors in the kitchen, and in home entertainment centers," he continues.

No matter what the functional need, manufacturers seem to be in sync with consumer demand, and are responding to their need for hardware that is highly functional and durable, and that is easy to use and install.

Hirasawa has always seen ease of use, ease of installation and accessibility as crucial factors in functional hardware design. "I think that ease of installation is something that's needed across the board, whether you are a do-it-yourselfer or the most experienced [installation pro]," he says. And, especially at the high end, quality is a key factor in functional hardware, given the wear and tear it will take over time. "When people spend quite a bit of money, they expect more from it. They expect it to last," he adds.

"Ease of installation has always been a factor in manufacturing. And durability has to be there," agrees Buechner.

As the demand for function grows, so, too, does the call for a diverse array of stylish decorative hardware choices, manufacturers agree. Indeed, in recent years, more attention has been paid to such details as coordinating hardware finishes with appliances, countertops or faucetry and decorative hardware is a great way to quickly update the look of a kitchen or add a personal touch.

"For the first time, hardware is [being] viewed as art. People do not leave it behind," believes Cari Jaye Sokoloff, president and creative director of Sóko in San Francisco, CA.

"Hardware used to be an afterthought, something functional to open a cabinet. Now, whole rooms are designed around beautiful and artistic handles."

"For several years now, we have seen more and more people using decorative hardware in order to accentuate their kitchens and create that ultimate design statement," says Bill Payne, national sales manager for Avante Hardware in Chico, CA.

As a result, manufacturers have been responding with myriad choices covering a broad spectrum of styles. However, while several divergent trends are evident, all boil down to the fact that consumers are looking to make a personalized statement with their hardware, manufacturers agree.

"We want a unique look, and the same time functional," says John Kennedy, director of business development for Belwith-Keeler in Grandville, MI. "This trend is here to stay I would also say that three styles are dominant: traditional styles, with an antique bronze or dark pewter finish; rustic/casual, worn styles that fit into a Craftsman theme; and contemporary styles with strong linear themes and brushed steel or matte nickel finishes. Contemporary is definitely on the upswing. Kitchens are showing long upper cabinets, some with flipper-style doors that open upward."

"I believe there are two distinct and divergent trends. The first and fastest growing is what I like to call the 'twiggy look' of informally crafted and rustically finished pieces recalling a variety of traditional and rural motifs," says John Baker, v.p./sales and marketing for Valendrawers in Lexington, NC. "The second, and much smaller trend in America, celebrates bold modernism, recalling the classic modern rectilinear forms of the first half of the 20th century, expressed now in over-scaled, yet simple shapes."

"Typically, the design look or theme is either traditional or contemporary, and both are in demand," says Payne. "There really isn't an in-between, and the ultimate choice depends on each customer's individual preferences."

"This is the great debate, but clearly traditional designs still dominate the U.S. market, though individual markets may be heavily skewed one way or the other," says Jack Burdick, senior product manager with the Broadway Collection in Olathe, KS. "While there seems to be a shift back to classic traditional designs with soft finishes, contemporary will continue to own a share of the market. The big winner today is transitional designs. These blend clean, simple contemporary concepts with traditional shapes and elements. These designs blur the line between contemporary and traditional, and represent the fastest growing new design category."

"Regional tastes in cabinet and furniture hardware still dominate despite becoming enormously diluted along with the shifting population. [However], we see a greater demand for contemporary-style hardware," adds Harvey Weinberg, owner of North River Mint in New York, NY.

But, while contemporary and traditional styles duke it out for dominance in the marketplace, other factors, such as appliance, cabinetry and faucet design, have emerged as hardware design influences.

"[Indeed], another trend that is influencing hardware design is integrated appliances. People are experiencing a need for large, yet beautiful handles for their built-in appliances," notes Sokoloff.

"We actually see a larger trend with hardware influences beyond appliances, cabinetry, faucets and that is a 'Whole House' concept, with themes that reverberate throughout the home," notes Kennedy.

"Cabinet design, which includes glazings, has impacted our designs," believes Bob Schaub, owner and president of Schaub & Co. in Ada, MI. "Faucetry, as it has moved to oil-rubbed bronze and Venetian bronze, has positively impacted our solid brass/bronze sales. Finally, I believe consumers are apt to match cabinet hardware to their solid surface or granite countertop, as they are to their faucets or appliances. The major impact of appliances is that we aggressively market appliance pulls that match our cabinet hardware product offerings."

Dovetailing the myriad decorative hardware styles available are a huge and growing number of finish choices, with metal finishes that offer a natural patina remaining dominant in both traditional and contemporary designs, according to manufacturers.

"Stainless steel and brushed and matte nickel are still our strongest sellers," notes Greg Sheets, decorative product manager for Häfele. "This goes along with the trend toward matching stainless kitchen appliances." He also cites pewter and oil-rubbed bronze as hot finishes.

"The sleek looks of satin nickel and stainless steel are being utilized in more modern designed kitchens," says Payne. "Many of these finishes can match appliances, sinks or faucets. In addition, more distressed looks, such as oil-rubbed bronze and antique pewter, are finding their way into kitchens that demand a more Arts-and-Crafts or distressed look to them."

To that end, oil-rubbed bronze, wrought iron and rust are a few of the newest and most popular finishes Avante has recently introduced, notes Payne.

"Trends for color include rust looks and bronze variations," Schaub notes. "Some of our largest increases have been in materials of solid brass and solid bronze, without lacquer, with a 'living finish' with a natural patina." As an example of this, Schaub cites one of his company's hottest finishes, Aspen Bronze, which is a light oil-rubbed bronze, sans lacquer.

"Bright brass is out. Silver-toned finishes are by far in the highest demand. Brushed steel, pearl nickel, satin nickel are all strong movers in all segments: cabinets, bath and architectural door hardware," proclaims Kennedy, who also notes an upswing in living finishes that reveal a natural patina as they are used. He further notes that Belwith-Keeler is "putting its toe in the water" with a polished nickel finish, which offers "a little more upscale, dressy look," in his estimation.

According to Baker, stainless steel "continues to be the most popular touchstone of modern finishes and colors, and stainless steel handles made of stainless and their die-cast equivalents in a matte nickel finish continue as our most popular. What's interesting is that manufacturers are highly attuned toward the stainless steel look." Additionally, he believes that chrome is "gaining in popularity," while "aluminum handles are very popular in Europe, but have yet to generate much interest here."

"Currently, there is a niche for the subtle use of vibrant color reds, blues, yellows and greens. Mainstream finishes like chrome, satin nickel, oil-rubbed bronze, bright nickel and bright brass continue to be strong," asserts Burdick. "A return to the soft, subtle metal finishes is strong. Copper and brass with a natural patina look, like a tarnished penny, are likely to become new rising stars. The use of glass, crystal, porcelain and other materials to complement metals is a growing trend. New manufacturing processes that allow the lamination of graphic images, colors and textures to metal surfaces are beginning to appear."

In addition to finishes, texture is key in decorative hardware design. "Texture is nearly as important as design: It must look attractive and feel good. It must be as comfortable and solid from a tactile perspective," notes Kennedy.

"[Plus], customers are moving away from simple designs and traditional finishes such as brass. This trend is continuing, and people seem to be more interested in ornate designs and unique finishes," believes Payne. He says that the availability of more cabinet finishes, decorative options and design and material selections have all contributed to this trend, which he also believes will continue for years to come as "customers try to differentiate their kitchens and create their own customized and unique spaces."

"[Overall, however], the perennial colors of choice is still antique pewter, silver, nickel or bronze," concludes Weinberg. "And, larger sizes of cabinet knobs and pulls have become more important in conveying a bolder look."

Schaub concurs, noting that his company is selling "more 1-1/2"- and 1-5/8"-diameter knobs and more 4" and 6" c.c. pulls."