architecture / design / history

A Handshake

“To know the door handle is to know mankind” – Noam Chomsky

“The door handle is the handshake to the building” – Juhani Pallasmaa

Door handle is a device attached to a door – separating two spaces – to provide security as well as accessibility. Prior to its invention, people used to live, eat, sleep, bathe and dispose in one big room. Later on, woven hangings or rudimentary hand forged latches were used as dividing mechanism. The 19th Industrial Revolution brought about many great inventions & innovations; among which were door handles. For a period of time, door handle was the most expensive part of the house and usually taken with you when moving houses. In 1878, door handle was offcially patented to Osbourn Dorsey – an American inventor. To talk about the evolution of door handle design is to also look closely at the development of architectural movements such as Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernist, Post Modernist etc. It possesses such significance as a design element that Leonhardt, Berlin-based collector, considers to be a clear reflection of societal and political state. For example, Renaissance and Baroque animal motifs such as lion, panther were widely used during political turmoil time to represent power, strength, courage, aggressiveness; while clams, flowers, and plants were adopted during more peaceful time. In subsequent decades, design craftsmanship was strongly embraced and celebrated as part of the architectural movements like the Art Nouveau, Art & Craft etc. And little could surpass the intricately detailed and beautifully made door handles of this period. Motifs were generally drawn from nature, with lost of curves, ornaments and uses of plants, bird etc. Examples include designs from architects like Antonio Gaudi, Heinrich Vogeler, Henry Clemens Van de Velve etc.

Figure 1-2: Heinrich Vogeler door handle, City Hall Bremen 1905; Henry Van de Velde, Weimar 1902

G Casa Batllo Interior Maneta portaG Casa Batllo Interior Maneta finestra
Figure 3-4: Antonio Gaudi door handles, Casa Batllo 1905

In contrast, 20th Modernist architects and designers favoured simple and clean geometries for standardization and mass production, which inevitably translated into the design of door handles. Some of the iconic designs include the door hardware by Walter Gropius in 1923 for the Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany, or Le Corbusier’s for Villa Savoye in 1928. Another by the famous German industrial designer Dieter Rams, although much later into the 1980s, bears similar principles in his plastic and aluminium door handle. In some instances, one can see the developing concept of not only creating a beautiful piece of design, but also giving it narrative. For example, Peter Eisenman’s door plate for the Wexner Center shaped like a square tubes which mimicked the building’s parti. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his Marin County Civic Center building, adopted the circular motif in plans, windows, arches, handrails and also in the door handles. Other examples includes Fay Jones in his Thorncrown Chapel & Marty Leonard Chapel, Eliel Saarinen in his First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana and Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery in Font, etc. Another breakthrough was the development of ergonomic design during the 1950s, with Johannes Potente’s Model 1020 handle becoming  one of the most successful door handles of the 20th century.

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Figure 5-6: Peter Eisenmann’s Wexner Center and its door handle – “my objects are part of a continuous evolving scale, which starts at the door handle and ends at the building” – said the architect. 

Figure 7-9: Modernist handles by Walter Gropius used on all doors throughout the entire Dessau Bauhaus; and Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier; Johannes Potente’s Model 1020 ergonomic handle

The later half the the 20th century witness another the resurge of materiality focus in door handle design by designers and architects. Finnish master Alva Aalto’s door detailing at Saynatsalo Town Hall, or Villa Mairea, or Maison Louis Carre, are not only a functional objects but also a celebration of traditional crafts, a way of “humanizing” the building as compared to the machinery look of their Modernist cousins. Other subscribers include Steven Holl , Peter Zumthor

Figure 9-10: Alva Aalto’s Maison Louis Carre’s door handle combining timber, bronze & cognac-brown leather, 1959

Figure 11-12: Alva Aalto’s Villa Mairea’s door handle; Alva Aalto’s Nordic House’s door handle

Modern technology to some extent is substituting the role of door handle (think motion detected automatic door, revolving door, card-reader-operated door, roller shutter door etc.) Convenience is favored over haptic sensation just as much as we favors our eyes in experiencing architecture, while tying our hands and ears to our devices. “In our automatized world, the door handle is a refuge for the eye and hand and should be flattering for both” said architect Arata Isozaki. Shake hand with your buildings.

1. Koolhaas, R 2014,  Elements, Marsilio.

2. Ford, E R ,  ’55 Door Handles or, What is a Detail’, viewed 20 Feb 2016,



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