For a long time, knobs and pulls have been the Rodney Dangerfield of cabinets. Sure, they were there after all, you need to grab on to something to pull out the drawer or open the door. Yet with a few (usually small) exceptions, a handle is a handle and a knob is a knob, right?

Wrong, at least according to consumers of the 21st century.

"Ten years ago we could slap a piece of brass hardware on a cabinet and call it a kitchen," says Gary Uffner, president of Advanced Affiliates, Inc. "Those days are long gone."

Terry Babij, vice president, sales and marketing for Berenson Corp., echoes Uffner's sentiments. "There was a time when people were satisfied with putting on a simple knob or pull. Now people are really looking to set off their investment. Some people like to call it cabinet jewelry, and it probably is the most economical way to take a nice piece and dress it up."

Cabinets as furniture

"I think people are much more involved now with decorating and adding to the perceived value of their home," Uffner observes. "I like to call it the Ritz Carlton' style of decorating. Carpets have deeper piles, furniture pieces are larger, colors are plusher and there are more ornate carvings in kitchens. All these things point toward a greater emphasis on the luxury and poshness of the environment."

According to Babij, many consumers are looking at their cabinets differently than in the past. Berenson introduced glazed finishes four years ago and is adding another full collection of glazed finishes this year. Babij believes the hardware allows the homeowner to make their cabinets more furniture-focused. "The product looks like it belongs on a six-drawer dresser or a beautiful highboy. If you take that and put it on a nice set of cabinetry, they're not just kitchen cabinets anymore now you've transformed them into kitchen furniture."

Greg Sheets, product manager for decorative products, Hafele America Co., says "The trend we're seeing is that kitchen cabinets are becoming more similar to furniture pieces."

Nickel, stainless popular

According to Elke Weiss, product manager, Prodecor line, Hettich America, there is a wide range of styles and choices available now, and finishes are tending toward stainless steel and matte nickel. There has also been a nod to a retro look from the 1950s and 60s with gloss chrome."In kitchens, stainless steel is still the dominating style, particularly in handles," Weiss says.

"In a sense, consumers want hardware that has been around, but they want it to look different, a sort of theme and variation" says Joey Shimm, marketing director for Outwater Plastics Industries Inc. "There has been a great resurgence in popularity in stainless types of finishes, stainless steel, pewter finishes. It's not that other finishes aren't popular, but it seems as though there's a desire to aesthetically change the item just enough so the perception is that it is new."

Jack Ayalon, president of Atlantic Hardware, says that steel finishes are a big draw for his company. "Brushed nickel is our biggest share of the business in both kitchens and baths. We still have a call for polished chrome, but it is a distant second. Overall, stainless steel colors are still very popular."

Neil Bruckner, president of Selby Furniture Co. Inc. notes that finishes are definitely going to a dull or matte finish. "In general, the finishes that are in demand are more sedate. They're calming and warm," he says. "Brass and chrome are very stark, and I think we've evolved from that."

"I think brushed nickel is probably the brass of today. And brass ran for an awfully long time," Uffner notes.

Darker finishes show promise

"Brushed nickel is great because it goes with stainless steel appliances, stainless steel sinks and a lot of the plumbing fixtures," Babij says. "However, we're seeing more and more dark wrought iron. We just introduced two new bronze finishes. We have an oil-rubbed bronze finish and a Venetian bronze finish in our new catalog that we just introduced at the kitchen and bath show. One finish goes with the high-end designer faucets and one complements mid-range consumer plumbing," Babij says.

According to Sheets, interest in the oil-rubbed bronzes is not confined to just higher-end markets. "Oil-rubbed bronze has become very popular and it is starting to move into the mid-range market. Clearly the interest is there."

"Definitely the strongest trend is moving to darker finishes. Oil-rubbed bronze is perhaps the most sought-after finish right now," Uffner says. "Going forward, expect to see more of the finishes that go closer to copper and away from brass. Look at the colors being offered for kitchen appliances and other types of kitchen equipment."

Contemporary vs. traditional

Weiss notes that region appears to play a part in hardware style choice. "In urban areas, styles seem to be a bit more minimalist and contemporary, while outside of metropolitan areas styles move more to the traditional," she says. In urban areas Weiss has also noticed bigger geometric forms such as squares and round plates, which she believes are a reflection of the style of kitchen appliances stoves, microwaves and ovens that have big, bulky handles. "I think people want to match their cabinets to these, though in a smaller dimension."

Babij also sees the style and region difference. "Contemporary styling is very strong in the metropolis. It's very strong in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, parts of Chicago. But it's not going to be popular in smaller cities or even in the suburbs of the bigger cities, because the tendency there is to go more traditional, a little more decorative," he says.

Price no object

"Our first two knobs were a frog and a butterfly," says Melissa Nathan, partner, MNG designer hardware. "Now we offer over 300 styles in 11 different finishes." Since 1998, MNG has expanded its offerings beyond animal figures to a large array of ornamental pieces that were originally conceived as pieces of jewelry. The company's first pieces were only available in high-end designer showrooms. Now the company offers two lines a Designer Hardware line for showrooms and a Core Program line which can be purchased for $15 or less at retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's.

"When we started, owners of designer showrooms said it's too expensive.' Now nobody bats an eye when we tell them our Caviar Knob is $28. People are spending so much more on their kitchens these days that it's no big deal for them to pay $1,000 for their cabinet hardware."

Lindsey Fink, president of SX Industries, notes that willingness to spend money on hardware is one of the biggest trends he is seeing. "People are definitely going more high-end. They're not buying the cheap stuff, they're willing to spend more money for their hardware," Fink says.

Innovative hardware

Decorative hardware is also moving noticeably beyond just knobs and pulls. Based on customer requests, Outwater is introducing more patterns and finishes to its collection of woven wire grills, Shim says. In addition, Outwater is bringing out complementary hardware that interfaces aesthetically and functionally with the grills.

Rev-A-Shelf recently introduced the Vineyard Series in its Artisan Collection, which features decorative molding inlays, galley rail fencing, lazy susan fencing and custom pullout shelf fencing for cabinets. The series is available in both bronze and pewter finishes.

"Previously, hardware was just a small part of the look of the cabinet," Uffner observes. "Now the hardware is becoming every bit as important as the style of the door or the finish of the wood. Hardware is now a part of the design of the kitchen." s

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