Restoration with knobs on

Ceramic, brass, satin chrome, minimalist, lions' heads or fish; there's no end to the variety of door furniture - or to what it says about you
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When you move into a period home, ideally you'd like to find a full set of authentic door furniture. What you're more likely to discover is that at least some of the original knobs, finger-plates and escutcheons have disappeared over the years. And if you're unlucky, the replacements will be cheap and wobbly plastic doorknobs. Antique door furniture is not the easiest feature to source; but as well as genuine period pieces, there are some excellent reproductions around, plus new designs that will fit into the most modern interiors. And as well as the look, there's the undeniable practical advantage that a good solid doorknob lets you in and out with ease. That old comedy standard of the knob that comes off in your hand and leaves you trapped isn't so funny in real life.

When you move into a period home, ideally you'd like to find a full set of authentic door furniture. What you're more likely to discover is that at least some of the original knobs, finger-plates and escutcheons have disappeared over the years. And if you're unlucky, the replacements will be cheap and wobbly plastic doorknobs. Antique door furniture is not the easiest feature to source; but as well as genuine period pieces, there are some excellent reproductions around, plus new designs that will fit into the most modern interiors. And as well as the look, there's the undeniable practical advantage that a good solid doorknob lets you in and out with ease. That old comedy standard of the knob that comes off in your hand and leaves you trapped isn't so funny in real life.

If your home dates from before 1850, its original door furniture was likely to have been cast iron. After 1850, brass became popular – polished, not lacquered (modern, easy-care, no-clean brass would have delighted the servants) and the Gothic movement favoured wrought iron.

Tracking down furniture from a particular period is easier than trying to find an exact duplicate of existing pieces. Antique door furniture is particularly hard to find in sets, says Tony Swayne of Drummonds Architectural Antiques Ltd. "People try to match what they already have, but there simply aren't the numbers about." There is also, he says, a huge diversity of design, which makes finding an exact match for existing door furniture even harder. "When towns all over the country were manufacturing, each one used different patterns, and you could order whatever you wanted."

Georgian designs, says Swayne, are characterised by little ornamentation, but intricate edging and fluting; while the Victorians produced plain black-and-white ceramics until the 1880s, when florals became popular. Design was dependent on how many servants you had. Elaborate knobs went out because they trapped dirt and dust; the Victorians preferred plain knobs that needed less cleaning. And oval knobs are likely to be found on doors the servants handled frequently; if they had greasy hands from touching food, an oval knob was less likely to slide from their grasp.

Plainer antique knobs can cost as little as £30 a pair; but a pair of original Victorian floral ceramic handles with matching fingerplates will be more expensive. Drummonds' average price is around £110 for period pieces. Drummonds also produce their own high-quality reproduction doorknobs, escutcheons and fingerplates, as well as knockers, latches and bell-pulls, all hand-made by the traditional lost-wax method. This involves making a wax model, which is coated to make a mould. The wax is then melted and discarded, and hot metal poured into the cast. "When we see something we know is classic, we will reproduce it," says Swayne. "There are a great many poor reproductions around, but we use only solid metals and we have our own factory in Eastern Europe, where they still have the skills that we need to achieve the quality we want." Prices for a pair of Drummonds' own door knobs start at under £60 and go up to over £1,000.

The retro look, however, is not for everyone. And if you want the best of modern design, you may well end up looking to the Continent, says Tim Kniveton, managing director of Handles Direct. "The rest of Europe pays much more attention to door furniture than we do; they are prepared to invest in quality and the pleasure of good manufacture. In this country, suppliers of modern, stylish door furniture are few and far between."

Handles Direct is a web-based company that offers the domestic buyer the high-spec knobs and other fittings available to professional architects and designers; Kniveton is himself an architect by training. This outlet has no truck with Victoriana; all their lines are chic and modern. "Nearly all our ranges are Italian," says Kniveton. "Italy has a massive reputation throughout the world for good quality door furniture. Spain and Portugal do some good stuff too, but Italy is head and shoulders above the rest."

Chrome has been the most popular finish for some time, says Kniveton, and now satin-textured chrome and stainless steel are coming to the fore. "People with more minimalist interiors are particularly keen," he says. "One of our consistent bestsellers is the Frascio Modulo L style, a straight, dramatic bar of steel." Another popular line is the H4707 from Valli & Valli, another bar, but this time curved, with rounded ends for a softer finish.

For a really individual, quirkily detailed look, Handles Direct also supplies knobs in the shape of ammonites, shells, fish, birds and animals by Turnstyle, an English manufacturer. Kniveton is particularly keen on the Fusital range. "They are predominantly designed by world-famous designers such as Norman Foster. I'm a fan of brave and bold designers and one of my personal favourites is the Fusital Fujiyama design, a very unusual streak of metal which is almost like a folded sliver of paper." He also recommends Olivari, which he calls "the Mercedes of Italian hardware".

These are not cheap brands. "You can easily pay £200 a pair for this kind of quality, but you are buying a unique piece of sculpture for your door," says Kniveton. At the other end of the scale, a simple pair of satin chrome door handles from Handles Direct can cost as little as £15. According to Kniveton, our knobs and knockers deserve to be taken more seriously. They say more about us than we might think. "The door handle is the first part of any building that is touched," he says. "A wonky handle says you don't care. But a sleek, smart handle says you've taken the trouble to think, and you care about quality."

Drummonds Architectural Antiques Ltd (020-7376 4499 or 01428 609444, or got to www.drummonds-arch.co.uk); Handles Direct Ltd ( www.handlesdirect.co.uk).

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