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Appliances: Handle with Care

Donna Paul

What do Michael Jordan’s home, Ritz-Carlton hotels, the new Reichstag in Berlin, and Milan’s Malpensa airport have in common? Door hardware. Not just any old door handles, but levers and cabinet pulls of high style. This is designer hardware created by architects exclusively for the Italian company Valli & Valli. Which may explain why Jennifer Lopez, while in a shop in Venice, spotted a door handle by architect Ricardo Bofill and was smitten. She ordered 70 for her California home.

Door handles often go unnoticed. If anyone could make such an object sexy, it would be Carlo Valli, the company’s dapper president. His perseverance and vision have invented a new category: hardware as jewelry. Under his guidance, the door handle has become a small sculpture, a refined object of adornment. Sculpture that is meant to be touched. Sculpture with function. Sculpture to interact with every day.

Valli’s initial concept was simple: transform handles into functional expressions of sophisticated design. The family firm began with umbrella handles, designed by Carlo’s father, Pasquale, in 1934. Over the years, the inventory expanded to include door and cabinet hardware. But in the mid-1970s, the notion of approaching renowned architects to design door handles was, in its own way, revolutionary.

The Fusital collection, a term coined by Valli to signify the fusion of styles he hoped to achieve, was launched in 1976. His choice for the first designer was Gae Aulenti, best known for her transformation of the Musée d’Orsay from train station into art museum. Today Fusital’s roster has evolved into a formidable Who’s Who of 20th- and 21st-century architects: Richard Meier, Andrée Putman, Michael Graves, John Pawson, Norman Foster, and Ron Arad among them.

“Designing a door handle is no different from designing a monastery,” says John Pawson, the high priest of minimalism, whose new book, Themes and Projects, was published by Phaidon in October. “The same principles and questions must be identified.” Pawson’s handle, a sleek lever style, is available in satin brass and polished chrome that is meant to fit anywhere. “It is an amazing invention,” the British architect says of the lever. On a practical note, it requires very little pressure to open a door with a lever; and, unlike a doorknob, it doesn’t matter if your hands are wet. The aesthetics also please him. “The horizontal line of it is like a punctuation mark,” he adds.

Richard Meier agrees: “The lever relates to a door better than a knob. A door is directional; a knob is not—it is ambiguous.” The architect has been using levers in his projects since 1960. His own design, part of the Novantotto series, is “elegant, utilitarian, and feels good,” he says.

Valli, an avid art collector, has a significant sculpture collection on the factory grounds and throughout the offices. However, he does not think about art when working through the design issues involved with door hardware. “Design is mathematical,” he says. “Art is emotional.”

Valli hopes that one day Fusital handles will be thought of as essential objects for the home, “like furniture or a lamp,” he says. For now, though, he remains focused on its purpose: “It is an object with a function—to open a door.”

Valli & Valli, 212.326.8811, www.vallievalli.com

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