Property: Hold on, these could be famous

Rosalind Russell
Friday 17 October 1997 23:02

We decorate here, we decorate there. Yet there is one spot in our homes that frequently escapes our attention. Rosalind Russell grasps the issue - the doorknob.

When fashion designers hit on the idea of selling brand-name perfume to people who couldn't afford one of their frocks, they struck gold. For every sale of an pounds 800 jacket, there are thousands more of a pounds 25 bottle of scent carrying the same label. It has taken other designers a surprisingly long time, but they are catching up. Now, if you cannot afford to employ Norman Foster (designer of The Armadillo in Glasgow and the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank) as your architect, at least you can name-drop by buying a set of his door handles.

They have become one of the most popular lines sold by Franchi International, better known as a locksmiths and now recently expanded into the designer door-furniture market. Marco Franchi, son of the owner, took a showroom in Chelsea Harbour's prestigious Design Centre 12 months ago. Among the cognoscenti, a pair of Norman Fosters could be as familiar as a pair of Doc Martens. They are a must-buy among interior designers and magazine style editors, who come down to coo over the latest in home decor. The range includes leather and rubber handles and - at around pounds 140 a pair - is not the kind of fixture you will want to leave behind when you move house.

There are cheaper ways to stamp your own personality on a property that comes with standard brass or nickel door fittings. Franchi sells knobs covered in hand-painted blue Italian glass at pounds 8.46, ideal for giving a quick facelift to a boring run of kitchen cupboards. Crofts and Assinder in Birmingham has just launched a Tuscany range of kitchen cupboard drop cast-iron style handles, but its most popular style recently is the chrome- plated spring handle (pounds 5.37), similar to the ones fitted to Aga cooker lids. That way you can assume the Joanna Trollope style without having to find pounds 3000-plus for the cooker.

Haute Deco's French-designed resin handles and knobs come in almost any colour your can think of. They are shaped like crocodiles, ladybirds, fish, ducks and bears - from pounds 13, all good for children's rooms - and more sophisticated pebbles, escargots, roses, stars and a striking frosted flame at pounds 49. The new collection, available by mail order, or from the King's Road showroom, is geometric and minimalist.

Designing door handles was not the career path Steve Roberts had in mind when he started out as a sculptor.

"I was having a house in London gutted and redesigned," he says. "It had horrible old Bakelite door handles but there was nothing interesting on the market to replace them with. I sculpted some and had them cast and then some friends commissioned me to make more."

A move from Shepherd's Bush to Devon nudged forward the idea which eventually became Turnstyle Designs, based near Barnstaple. First working out of a converted barn beside his farmhouse, he has now moved the business into what was a village shop. Inspiration for the designs have come largely from his natural surroundings on the north Devon coast.

"Spending every weekend on the beach makes you realise that everything that comes out of the ocean has to be streamlined. And primarily, a door handle has to be comfortable to hold." That has resulted in handles, hooks, cord pulls and shelving brackets shaped into fish, pelicans, ammonites, spiral shells and frogs. Composite marble, pewter, maple wood and bronze are among materials used. Handles start at about pounds 40 a pair, knobs pounds 6 and a cord pull pounds 8.

"Most of the my designs are drawn on the back of an envelope while sitting on a train up to Paddington," Roberts says.

Among his favourites are one which looks like a hand imprint in the sand (his young son's impression) and - the only non original design - a hand clutching a bar; a version of a Victorian safe handle. Attention to detail, like the tiny shell-shaped escutcheon dangling beneath a fish, or a feather beneath a pelican, makes them stand out from the crowd.

The problem with quirky, hand cast and original designs is that they tend to get copied by industry big boys who can turn out machine-made ones cheaper. "There are about six of my designs currently making a lot of money for someone else," says Roberts, a member of Anti Copying In Design. "The trouble is it's difficult to copyright a design like a dolphin, or an ammonite."

One of his latest ideas should add fizz to the esoteric world of designer door handles: it is shaped like a champagne cork.

Franchi International 0171 351 4554; Crofts & Assinder 0121 622 1074; Haute Deco 0171 736 7171; Turnstyle Designs 01271 325325.

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