Retro windows a must-have in New York

Crittall windows are the lastest retro trend to have hit America, and have become this year's must-have for New York's design lovers, says Juan Carretero

It is no news that invaders from foreign lands have long been kidnapping British brands. Iconic marques such as Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Cadbury, Bentley, Mini, Boots, Harrods, even Weetabix, are now under overseas ownership.

But fret not. Around the world, and especially here in New York, the flag is still being flown with pride by companies that can still call Britain home. Burberry, AllSaints, Topshop and Virgin come to mind quickly (exclude BP for a moment for... well... the obvious, and Marmite, too, because nobody likes it outside of the British Isles). But there is one notable English product across the Atlantic that I have been obsessed with as of late. As has, apparently, every other architect as well.

Steel-framed windows, better known as Crittall windows, have been popping up lately in almost every new building in New York City or anywhere else in the country that might deserve the labels hip and cool.

Building a high-end hotel? Think Crittall. If in Britain the trend in the Eighties was to rip out those hard-to-shut steel windows of the post-war years and replace them with vinyl-framed uglies – the country similarly went through a nightmare nylon phase in bed sheet tastes – the opposite trend has taken hold here. Crittall is in.

I had always admired the gravitas that the metal frames give a building's exterior and the sleek beauty of their crossword-grid glass panes shimmering at different angles with the sun. But I had never come as close as the other day while apartment-hunting with clients. It was love – no, envy – at first sight.

One Rutherford Place, as the building is known in the self-regarding neighbourhood of Gramercy Park in Manhattan, was built as a five-storey mansion just a few blocks east of Union Square on 17th Street beside Stuyvesant Square. (Petrus Stuyvesant was the last director-general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland ). At some lucky point in the early 1940s, the building was transformed into a modern version of itself thanks to the introduction of these windows, unusually large for the time. It was the airy feel that the windows provided that, over time, gave the brand its new successful image. The new windows provided designers with an alternative that was strong enough to handle the large sheets of glass while allowing unusually large amounts of light, while at the same time reducing expensive electricity costs.

Of course, metal windows had been made since Tudor times by skilled blacksmiths, but the process and costs pushed them to the margins in the industrial age, even if timber sash windows, which were the norm, were dissatisfying at best, when not made properly; warping, sticking, shrinking and rattling were constant problems.

Wragge's of Manchester may have been the pioneer of factory-produced steel windows, but it is Walter Crittall who gets credited for taking it a step further and manufacturing on a large scale the engineered steel windows that we associate with early 20th-century architecture. Much like the electric lift allowed cities to grow vertically, steel-framed windows are responsible for many architectural movements. The master architect and designer Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus design school in Germany, and Frank Lloyd Wright, were among the first modern architects to bring the outside world in with the use of large steel-framed windows.

The origins of the manufacturer Crittall Windows date back to 1884, when the company began making its first frames with 11 employees. During the First World War, its factories were used to produce less beautiful products, such as munitions, but by 1919, the company was back in the construction business supplying windows for the British government's new, expansive housing scheme. Operations were soon established throughout the Commonwealth countries as well as in Germany, China and the United States.

Much like Kleenex, Biro or Hoover, Crittall has become the generic term for steel-frame windows today. Its products have been used in thousands of buildings across Britain, including the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London. The company's windows were also used in numerous buildings in America and other parts of Europe, and were a feature of the RMS Titanic.

The process of galvanising metal, when steel is dip-coated into a solution that creates a surface that can be painted, hugely improved the lifespan of steel while exposed outdoors. The slender profiles of glazed panes are nearly impossible to replicate in aluminium, timber or plastic because of its strength. Recent performance improvements include double-glazed units and improved weatherproofing. (No more those leaky council house versions that could never keep the draught out.) The windows have claim to some green credentials also. Steel is the most recycled material in the world. Demolish a building and chances are the steel, almost all of it, will be saved.

While it has grumbled about the "notoriously protective" North American market, the company has never stopped targeting it for export. Today, Crittall is second in the steel market sector in the US only to Hope's Windows. Earlier this year, indeed, Crittall won a Queen's Award for International Trade. "We feel proud and honoured to be recognised for our work and success in the US market," says John Pyatt, who bought, restructured and moved the company's facilities from Braintree to its new state-of-the-art premises in Witham, Essex. Crittall is engaged in refurbishing notable early- and mid-century buildings, as well as supplying windows for contemporary buildings designed by today's leading architects.

Following the Soho Hotel example in London, which is considered one of the greenest in the city, the recently opened Crosby Street Hotel by the architects Stonehill & Taylor in New York blends new homey interiors with a vintage warehouse feel, achieved in large part by the extra-large steel-frame windows that also ensure the building speaks to the industrial character of SoHo. The hotel is on track to be the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-rated Gold hotel in the city. Ron Cheles, the project director of the Firmdale Group, which owns the hotel, says: "For the fenestration, we have used double-glazed panes with a special gas inside that helps to retain heat, which was vital bearing in mind the size of the windows and, of course, our desire for the whole building to be green and highly energy-efficient". One of the hotel's other environmentally friendly aspects is its green roof, where it grows its own tomatoes, berries, herbs and flowers. There's even a chicken coop with four cocky hens by the names of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Bronx, and Queens... The SoHo brood is expected to produce the eggs for your brunch.

Also in New York, Crittall supplied the windows for the new visitor centre at the Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The architects Hugh Hardy and Gabriel Hernandez framed the beautiful outdoor landscape of conifers with large sections of the buildings enclosed in glass. Facing Central Park in Manhattan, the El Dorado building, home to figures such as Faye Dunaway and Michael J Fox, has undergone recent window renovations by the British Crittall Window company to match its old fenestration.

Beyond New York, Crittall has been refurbishing windows in registered historic buildings such as Yale University and Princeton, and in Chicago, the renovation of the Allerton Hotel, a landmark that underwent a $60m renovation using original photos and blueprints to bring back the structure to its exact original visage.

While in America steel-framed windows are being coveted not only for their heritage and contemporary aesthetic value, the story in Britain is not always so happy. Great Art Deco and modern buildings have seen their original steel windows recently replaced with new double-glazed aluminium "replicas" that use mock glazing bars instead of true divided lights. This is akin to a bad facelift – no one will be convinced by the surgery, and the damage is pretty much permanent and irreversible.

I once heard someone say there are two kinds of people: the pessimistic, who look at the smudge in the windows, and the optimistic, who look at the landscape outside. To me, if it's a steel-framed Crittall-style window like the ones I had to work with at One Rutherford Place, I am happy to look at the view and the windows that frame it.

Juan Carretero is an architect and designer with a national practice specialising in historic preservation. He lives and works in New York City and in the Hudson Valley.