European and American Hardware Styles

Decorative hardware has often been called the workhorse of architectural design. Hardware, meaning the locks, latches, push-panels, handles, knobs and hinges that make a room function, is essential to a building's design, but because hardware is everywhere and so commonplace, we have a tendency to overlook it. Nonetheless, looking at the history of decorative hardware in America and Europe can give us some helpful insight into the essential differences in the aesthetic concerns of the two regions.

American Decorative Hardware - Pre-Industrial

Before the industrial revolution, American hardware could scarcely be called decorative. It was functional and usually made of plain iron. The functionality of the doorknobs and pulls in American homes was on par with the puritanical ethic of early settlers. What style there was came from England and it was reserved for the wealthy. Neo-classical designs were especially popular.

Post-Industrial Style

The first decorative hardware style that became popular in America after the Industrial Revolution (popular in the populist sense of the word; meaning it was accessible and supported by a burgeoning industrial middle class) was the Eastlake style. It was mass produced and often overly elaborate. Charles Eastlake, the English architect after whom the style was named criticized it heavily because of this.

This rift between English and American designers over the Eastlake style could serve as a good example of the intrinsic differences between the aesthetic concerns of the two groups. While Americans were, by and large, enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by mass production and industrialization, Europeans were more weary. These split concerns make sense, in several ways. America was a new country, trying to establish itself, having no real "past" of its own, by diving into the future. England, and Europe in general, had hundreds of years of cultural and artistic traditions.

The excess of mass production, however, continued both in England and in America with the advent of Victorian architecture and design. Victorian hardware was lavish, mass produced and accessible to a growing middle class. In Europe, this would lead to a reactionary style of decorative hardware design that became known as the Arts and Crafts style. It emphasized handmade decorative door hardware that mimicked the design styles of the past.

Arts and Crafts style hardware became popular in America as well, though it was accompanied, more or less simultaneously by what was called the "Revival" styles. These were, again, mass produced hardware pieces that were only made to look as if they were handmade. This continued into the 20th century, as the American suburb came to dominate the landscape and families were eager to have their own haven in their particular preferred style.