Unless you're a designer -- or just obsessed with all the product aesthetics -- you probably don't think much about hardware. On furniture, doors, appliances, it's functional. Its job as a pull, handle or hinge is to open and close things.
Hardware can, of course, be so much more. In design furniture history it is distinguished, and it's often been a focal point of pieces. The iconic Chinese wedding chest, for example, often finished in red lacquer, bears a recognizable central brass medallion held in place with a pin to keep its doors closed. That round shape sometimes is repeated in hinges that quite deliberately are visible on the door panels.
Hiding hinges and hardware became a thing in recent years in modern design, particularly in the kitchen, as well as bedroom and bath and entertainment pieces, where the touch latch became a clever disguise and allowed clean profiles. But those designing kitchen cabinetry with wood panels -- especially cladding large appliances like refrigerators -- needed substantial pulls to work. Curiously, that need evolved into larger scale, which translated into longer hardware.
Then it got interesting. Though sturdy, some designs got skinny, enormously appealing for modernists, not only in stainless steel but in a new favorite: matte black. Other warm burnished finishes also found popularity. And manufacturers of decorative hardware took the design challenges to heart. Game on.
So here's what we've noticed at furniture shows internationally and at the Kitchen and Bath show recently held in Las Vegas: Designers are paying more attention to hardware as punctuation.
In appliance design, some manufacturers are offering a "wardrobe" of choices in pulls, including copper. No longer an afterthought, the choices warrant careful consideration, especially when color is involved. True Refrigeration paired its bold emerald collection, which includes refrigerators and wine coolers, with brass pulls.
For cabinetry, matte black hardware has been wildly popular, unadorned or dressed up with burnished gold, which elevates it to elegant.
With some of the latest furniture introductions, it's obvious that designers are carefully considering their hardware options and integrating them into an overall plan, not just applying generic pulls.
With the advent of touch-latch (concealed hardware), some opt to celebrate a cabinet front without the interruption of hardware, especially when there's a strong pattern like wood graining or graphic markings in stone. Then there's the very minimal design when there's a barely there pull tucked into the top or sides of a door panel.
Luxury brands like Fendi often utilize their logos as part of fabric design or hardware. The fashion brand Etro riffed from their signature paisley pattern, pulling one comma-like shape and casting it into brass hardware.
Cast metal tassels, sometimes combined with enameling for a pop of color, may have taken inspiration from real textile tassels attached to keys on vintage cupboards.
Hardware also is being designed in a camouflage -- squares, circles or rectangles faced with the same veneer or surface material, so that aside from the defined shape, they disappear into the piece.
Clean, modern styles currently are most appealing today. The range in materials includes metals, wood, glass, crystal, concrete, resin, leather, mother of pearl, agate, even fabric.
Belwith-Keeler, a trendsetter in hardware design, provides custom pieces for many furniture manufacturers. More than 600 knob and pull designs are produced at its Grandville, Michigan, workshop, which dates to 1893.
"Design, inspiration and style are blurring the lines that used to define them," says the company's trend manager, Knikki Grantham. She looks to fashion runways for inspiration for interior design and home decor trends.
"As visual creatures there is a trigger that can be stimulated by the visual connection to a design," she says. "No longer do people want to be placed into style buckets; they want to define their own style."
The company actually refers to its designs as "cabinet jewelry."
"Hardware is much more than just an afterthought," says Grantham. "Just as jewelry completes an outfit or 'look,' hardware sets the tone and style for a piece or that of a room. That is why we work directly with furniture manufacturers and interior designers to create pieces that meet trends today as well as remain classic for years to come."
In fact, a number of high-end furniture manufacturers, such as Chaddock, have turned to boutique companies or artisans to create hardware that has a distinctive, hand-crafted look.
Anthropologie has been a popular go-to for hardware for the design-savvy, even before the latest attention. Color, pattern, materials choices and combinations excel -- ranging currently from metal with patterned fabric to agate rimmed in gold. Many resemble jewelry. The Corinne handle, a bar framed by circles in gold, is reminiscent of a brooch. Another bar style inlaid with mosaic stone looks like a hair clip. Others are like cufflinks or buttons. Some are playful, including the all-ears knobs -- small white glass spheres topped with gold bunny ears, which seems like a natural choice for furniture in a child's room.
Some spotlight craftsmanship, like the forager's handle, which features cast brass leaves. One of the most striking knobs is Isoke, a simple burnished brass slender crescent shape with a bar that cuts across a flat oxidized metal circle and extends to two ball finials.
Changing knobs or pulls is an excellent way to breathe life into outdated cabinets or salvage finds. Take a look at furniture with a little verve for cues -- also for clues as to what materials make good mates, and how size and proportion matter. At Anthropologie, for example, a low-slung tambour front rosewood buffet, strong in its natural hue and nearly 6-foot length, is appointed with white marble pulls with brass caps that match the dimension of the tambour. For a buffet patterned with diamonds, repeating the shape is the perfect choice, as is its striking mix of materials -- agate and brass.
With the hardware choices available today, you can strike whatever mood you wish -- from playful to bold and graphic, colorful to subdued, minimal to ebullient -- and give a piece of furniture or cabinets something to show off.
-- Anthropologie, 800-309-2500, www.anthropologie.com
-- Belwith-Keeler, 800-775-5589, www.belwith-keeler.com
-- Berenson, 800-333-0578, www.berensonhardware.com
-- Richelieu, 800-619-5446, www.richelieu.com