Written and produced by Doris Athineos
Photographs by Matthew Benson
The key reason I purchased a prewar apartment in Manhattan was the solid feel of the brass doorknob when I first opened a weighty closet door. That was 10 years ago, but I well remember turning the knob, because hardware offers a rare opportunity to make contact-to actually touch your house. I fell in love with the fittings-the substantial barrel hinges and lustrous doorknobs that have only grown rosier with age. Once ensconced, I stripped layers of old paint from switch plates and keyhole covers. Now the gently polished metal seems to flirt indiscriminately, winking at every guest who walks through the door.
The glow hasn’t worn off my handsome hardware, but I have no illusions. What I own is off-the-rack, standard-issue brass. Old, but not art. True artisanal hardware requires the kind of handwork that defines the 154-year-old P.E. Guerin firm, where a team of skilled artisans labors the old-fashioned way-by hand-to create some of the world’s most Kelegant, decorative hardware.
"It’s really jewelry for the house," says New York designer Michael Simon. "I tell my clients that P.E. Guerin hardware is to a house what a good set of pearls is to a simple black dress." And like real pearls, Guerin hardware has resale value. Design devotees scope out vintage Guerin online, where a surreal-looking floor lamp in the shape of a skinny bird’s leg with an outstretched claw is currently offered for $3,800 at 1stdibs. The late-19th-century Daliesque lamp was exhibited in 2007 at the Bard Graduate Center show, "Brass Menagerie: Metalwork of the Aesthetic Movement."
Whatever the piece, dedication to beauty and craftsmanship is Guerin’s trademark. For example, to chase a single beaded brass doorknob, metalsmith Lora Sroka pounds the metal with a hammer and sharp punching tool at least 100 times to emphasize the three-dimensional roundness of each bead.
From fanciful baroque faucets shaped like swans, turtles, or dolphins to angular Art Deco cremone bolts (for French doors), or sleek, modernist doorknobs, Guerin can create whatever architects and designers like Michael Smith, Tony Ingrao, and Emma Jane Pilkington dream up. Much of the custom work is created by sampling and rearranging some of the thousands of archival patterns that date back to the firm’s founding in Paris by Pierre Emmanuel Guerin in 1857.
"We can make things here that no one else has a pattern for," explains amiable and witty manager Martin Grubman, a keen antique umbrella and cane collector who clearly relishes working in Manhattan’s only active foundry alongside the founder’s great-grandnephew, owner Andrew Ward.
Since 1892, hard-core hardware fans have trekked to Guerin’s workshop, tucked away in a four-story building on a leafy street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Inside, the cluttered showroom feels like a curiosity shop where nothing has changed since the firm moved in. Lining the walls are massive glass-door mahogany showcases displaying a menagerie of metal-dragonfly drawer knobs, lion’s-head door knockers, acanthus-leaf towel racks, and ribbon-bedecked basin sets. There are trays of tiebacks and keyhole escutcheons in row after row of historic stock styles (but heavy on the French). Less Marie Antoinette and more Shaft is a 1960s Brutalist "nugget" tub spout-whoa! Stray cloven-footed table legs and faucets shaped like elephants lie strewn about. The cluttered arrangement suits charming shop cats Marie Antoinette, Pierre, and Claude, who take turns napping on Grubman’s desk.
The big shows take place on the top floor, where workers hoist red-hot crucibles of molten brass and pour the 2,000-degree lava-like metal into a mold. "I’ve worked here for 24 years, and it’s a thrill every time we pour," enthuses Grubman, who leads visitors on tours of the workshop. After sand casting, pieces must be wire brushed, cut, filed, chased and/or embossed, polished, plated (choose from brass, bronze, silver, nickel, iron, verdigris, pewter, or gold), and patinated-highly polished or matte, and every look in between. The two most popular finishes are antique gold (a mellower version of shiny gold) and pewter. "Neither of them ever goes out of style," Grubman assures.
When Christie’s or Sotheby’s auction houses need to replace lost ormolu or commode hardware, they turn to P.E. Guerin. Ditto for major museums. This is not a surprise, Grubman notes. "In the 19th century, master cabinetmakers were clients, too."
With such a storied past, it’s easy to forget that Guerin can also replace a lost cabinet knob or a prosaic period doorknob (like my own). "I always joke when someone calls and asks us if we have a minimum order," says Grubman. "I tell them, ’You have to get at least one,’ " he says with a laugh. What he doesn’t say is that decorative hardware is habit-forming and should come with its own warning label: Beware-highly addictive substance. Touch at your own risk.
Inside the showroom are hundreds of models to pick from, "but anything can be made up," offers manager and cat lover Martin Grubman. Cases are stuffed with surprises, such as knobs shaped like insects and other creatures.
The delicate art of cleaning out the crevices with a file in the hand of artisan Jacqueline Edwards.
Artisan Lora Sroka chases beads on an egg-shaped doorknob. The technique requires about three hammer taps per bead.
"People associate bronze with higher quality, and it may sound sexier, but that’s nonsense," explains manager Martin Grubman. "Technically, it’s usually brass." P.E. Guerin works almost exclusively in brass but offers a range of patinas from dusky black iron to highly polished gold. "The principal element in both is copper, and the difference is the amount of zinc. Bronze has less zinc."
Hardware hounds ask P.E. Guerin to autograph the hinges the firm makes.
The dance of hoisting an apricot-orange crucible of molten brass and pouring the 2,000-degree lava-like liquid into a sand mold.
Designers and architects are hardware junkies, and Guerin is their drug of choice. Sleek Art Deco lever handles in old gold designed by craft-lover William Sofield add warmth to Tom Ford’s Madison Avenue boutique. New York designer Brian McCarthy reaches for old gold hardware from the three Louis (XIV, XV, XVI), but he designed irregular egg-shaped silver doorknobs with a hand-hammered finish for himself. Tony Ingrao prefers his Louis XIV lever handles and hinges in mixed metals (pewter and antique gold). White House decorator Michael Smith is partial to nickel, but from a range of periods, including Adam, Regency, and Empire. On one point designers are firm: Plan your hardware early in the process, because it’s obvious if it’s an afterthought.
Furniture mounts, capitals, and bases are part of the mix shelved in the firm’s pattern room, where labels detail each drawer’s contents.
A chased fox head faucet handle and chasing tools.
A foundry worker’s tools include makeup brushes to clean the small gullies, called runners and gates, through which the molten metal is poured.
Colored ground pigment used to create patina.
A grotesque mask pattern may have accompanied P.E. from France, where he originally founded the company in 1857. Finished in mixed metals (pewter and old gold), this mask spouting water can be found in the home of the company’s current owner, P.E.’s great-grandnephew, Andrew Ward.