Knobs for the Snobs

The private-equity trader had to have the pumpkin-shaped doorknob in every room. He’d just bought an 1856 townhouse in the West Village, and he and his architect came upon a distinctive period knob in the apartment of one of the rent-regulated tenants that came with the building. They wanted to replica te it—not just in brass, but in bronze. “Call Erich!” said the head of the architecture firm, meaning Erich Theophile, the debonair doorknob king of New York.

Before designer Nicola Baker of Fernando Santalengo met Mr. Theophile in the lobby of their building, the 1930’s Art Deco Christadora, a former settlement house converted into the East Village’s first luxury condominiums, she had rope tying the French doors of her penthouse. “I really need your help,” she told him. Mr. Theophile created knurled, or finely diamond-patterned, levers for Ms. Baker—“I love the knurling,” she said—and now he is making door fittings for her clients. “I had a client call me and say, ‘We have Baldwin here at the house,’” said Ms. Baker, referring to the company that makes the standard-issue luxury doorknob. “I said, ‘Oh, a Baldwin.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re a knob snob. It’s only the very few who have really, really custom hardware.’”

“There are 80-doorknob apartments, and there are 20,” Mr. Theophile said the other day, standing in his Chelsea studio, holding a robust silver Georgian knob that sparkled in the sunlight. These days, he has found himself as a consultant to the 80-knob set. Walking about, Mr. Theophile, 47, pointed out the archival knobs, the minimalist knobs, the stacks of trays of knobs waiting for their doors, where they will be brought to life, turning this way and that to allow for rooms to be filled with laughter or tears, depending. (Then, of course, the entry of the doctor with the X-ray results, or the rapist, the murderer, the serial killer—the possibilities are endless.) Anyway, an 80-doorknob apartment, with perhaps two silver knobs to a door, could average $80,000 total, though that also involves hinges, locks, dust boxes, mounting brackets and “strike plates.” But that $80,000 is peanuts, considering that the kitchen will cost at least a quarter-million or a half-million dollars.

Many of the luxurious new high-end condominium developments may well have mass-produced $25 knobs, Mr. Theophile said. Today’s truly great hardware is Belgian, or French, he believes. His doorknobs are hand-manufactured in Michigan and New York and often finished in Nepal (more on that later). He showed samples—very special—of whirled-bone, corian-and-horn doorknobs for an 8,000-square-foot apartment in one of Fifth Avenue’s best buildings; turquoise-embedded gilt doorknobs for an apartment in the Dakota; monogrammed doorknobs for a couple’s dressing rooms, and the jeweled thumb turns for two daughters (each one gets her birthstone and thus can lock away the world with a click of topaz or amethyst).

Banker Hernando Perez, whose Fifth Avenue apartment was designed by Benjamin Noriega Ortiz (white-feathered ostrich lamps for Lenny Kravitz), cannot say enough about the cabinet pulls designed by Mr. Theophile, who was recommended to him by a friend. “Our kitchen spans 25, 30 feet between the family and the living rooms, a long, straight shot of cupboards,” Mr. Perez said on the phone. “The hardware in most of the house is Belgium. I didn’t feel like doing more of the same in the kitchen.” The pulls are also on the freezer door of the Sub-Zero refrigerator. “Definitely Third World beauty,” Mr. Perez said. “They actually look like animal horns. Nobody’s got anything like that. Benjamin was a little put off by Erich entering in at the last minute, mucking with Benjamin’s beauty.” But, he concluded, “it worked out.”

After one sees enough of these high-level doorknobs, the sort of Williamsburg-Greenpoint landlord hardware-store knobs are as sad as the colored paper on a lampshade, worn cambric next to a potato pot. Like a lover or a President who says he will always be there, strong and protecting, they mean well, but in the end they are too hollow, too weak—and in the case of the doorknobs, may even come off in one’s hand.

“Come on—doorknobs are very low on most architects’ considerations,” said Maria Elena Fanna of PorterFanna Architects in Dumbo. “Well, except Frank Lloyd Wright.” (It was Mr. Wright, and before him members of the Arts and Crafts movement, who deeply believed in realizing the perfection of a building’s design through lavish attention to every minute detail.) “Architects usually have a company they’ve worked with forever,” Ms. Fanna added; her high-end mass-produced favorites are Sugatsune (Japanese), Hafele (Swiss) and Fusital (Italian). “The lever, to me, that’s the only doorknob you should use,” she said. “Because there are no knobs where I grew up in Northern Italy—only levers. Whenever I have a knob rather than a lever, I would slam the door. You’re supposed to accompany a door as it closes. Whenever I have a lever, I accompany it.”

The National Association of Home Builders reports that “as the baby-boom generation ages, more home buyers will prefer the easier-to-use levers.” Good for moving faster in motorized chairs. And mothers holding babies can lean with their elbow as they crash through to get to yoga class, mommy class, the noodle bar and wherever else people go these days.

Back to Mr. Theophile, who was rummaging in a duffel bag: He had just come back with antique knobs (“for new ideas”) from a trip to England and Italy, and also a visit to Kathmandu, where he first traveled in 1987, after graduating from Harvard and the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and restoring historic Boston houses with their dreary zoning laws. In Nepal, he lived in a five-story apartment with yellow silk pillows in a house in the courtyard across from the 17th-century royal Patan Palace, where, in the evening, the sun sets hot-red against icy-white Himalayas, paying $100 a month, he said, and working at preserving the forever-crumbling stone, wood and metal carvings of dragons, lotus leaves, elephants and Buddhas. Until the crown prince of the country massacred 10 members of the royal family in 2001 and then killed himself. “All of a sudden, everything closed down in Nepal,” Mr. Theophile said. “All tourism ended; the Maoist insurrections were growing. I had to find a new strategy.” Thus: doorknobs.

It wasn’t exactly like an exiled surgeon becoming a street-sweeper. Mr. Theophile just happened to have come from a family that has made doorknobs for the well-to-do since 1882, in a medieval-looking Jugendstil building on a cobblestone square outside of Hamburg. Though his grandfather retired in the 1960’s, closing the business, Mr. Theophile, with his father in Michigan, has revived H. Theophile. The Kathmandu years of working with premier metal smiths trained in a 1,000-year-old tradition of creating for India’s maharajas and Tibetan high llamas were good training for the choosy New York elite.

By contrast, Mr. Theophile explained the medievalism of Nepal, where his restoration work goes on, and its locks. “They have very sophisticated exteriors, but very primitive interiors—just corridors of rooms,” he said. “Their door fixtures and locks are basically medieval appliqué pieces, like an old barn will have a hasp and a padlock. Everything is surface; earliest hardware was all surface-mounted. By the time of the Renaissance, people were thinking of integration, getting locks in the surface of a door. All the doors I worked on in Buddhist temples and monasteries—the opening is a minor feature. The framing of the door is more important than the lock. All the doorways are low, forcing you to humble yourself.”

Knobs for the Snobs