For a brief moment in the late 19th century, the Aesthetic movement emerged, blossomed like an exotic lotus flower, and faded, leaving a stunning legacy of beauty and delicacy. Nowhere is this passion for Japanism more delightfully, if unexpectedly, preserved than in the art brass fittings and hardware that American manufacturers rushed to produce for builders in the 1880s.
The Aesthetic movement arose as a reaction to industrialization, with its grim prospect of life surrounded by ugly mass-produced goods. Reformers threw themselves into the elevation of everyday objects, advocating elegance and artistic expression in the humblest fittings. English passion for the Japanese taste quickly caught on, and renditions of geishas and birds began to turn up on brass and bronze doorknobs, surrounded by motifs worthy of Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament.
Vintage knobs, hinges, and key plates have become highly collectible, as evidenced by the selection in “A Brass Menagerie: Metalwork of the Aesthetic Movement,” an exhibition (closing Oct. 14) at Manhattan's Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture.
The curator of the Bard exhibit, Anna Tobin D'Ambrosio of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y., views brass knobs and escutcheons not only as beautiful objects, but also as symbols of an essential phenomenon she calls “the American compromise”—that is, the mass-market pursuit of beauty at a low price. The makers of art brass hardware were nothing less than “the forerunners of Target,” she says.
Noted manufacturers included Russell & Erwin, Bradley & Hubbard, P&F Corbin, and the Nashua Lock Co. Patents preserve names, but no details about designers such as Henry E. Russell, Rodolphe Christesen, and Hermann Jaworski. The best of them produced escutcheons inspired by the roof lines of pagodas and hinges with Mikado-inspired characters meeting on a perfectly articulated balcony under a motif of clouds that continues seamlessly over the hinge pin.
By the 1890s, the Aesthetic movement gave way to Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Colonial Revival. In the early 21st century, the knob itself is giving way to ergonomic levers. By the end of the century, electronic sensors may activate doors upon approach. After all, in the modern world, D'Ambrosio says with a laugh, “Nobody wants to touch doorknobs.”
The price of art brass: On eBay, bidding opened recently at $9 for a vintage Eastlake brass doorknob back plate with decorative tassels and acanthus leaves. Geishas are harder to come by.