doors, windows, hardware

'Jewelry for the Home'

A trip to the P.E. Guerin showroom will “stimulate the creative gene in architects and designers.”

Click here for a list of suppliers of door hardware

By Martha McDonald

This Louis XVI door knob with an old-gold finish was hand-cast and hand-chased by P.E. Guerin for a New York City penthouse designed by architect Jeffery Smith. Photo: Kim Sargent

Jeffery W. Smith of Smith Architectural Group in Palm Beach, FL, is known for ushering in Florida’s new “Gilded Age” with a design philosophy that “embraces the inheritance of the past.” His work stretches up the East Coast to include grand summer homes in the Hamptons and a penthouse in New York City. His Palm Beach designs are featured in Joyce C. Wilson’s Palm Beach Splendor: The Architecture of Jeffery Smith, published in 2005 by Rizzoli.

When working on the details of a home, Smith prefers custom hardware, particularly made-to-order hardware from P.E. Guerin. “I usually use Guerin if I can, if the budget allows,” he says. “It’s like jewelry for the home. It is so timeless and beautiful.”

A Smith-designed residence in Naples, FL, features this custom-made Louis XIV rim lock. It was fabricated by P.E. Guerin with an old-gold finish. Photo: Kim Sargent

Smith says there’s no comparison between stock and custom hardware. “I absolutely prefer custom,” he says, noting that it’s important to specify the hardware during the design phase. “You need to place the hardware order by the time you break ground, so the clients focus on that in the early stages of design.”

Smith usually specifies different styles for each room or each suite of rooms. “There is such a wide selection that it would be a shame to pick just one for the entire home,” he says, noting that he is influenced by turn-of-the-century homes, where different rooms were often done in different styles. Rarely does the architect come to Guerin with a custom drawing for door hardware. “They have so many patterns to choose from that we don’t often need custom drawings,” he explains, although he did recently design custom bathroom hardware for one of his clients.

Smith has made a number of trips to the P.E. Guerin showroom in New York City to select hardware. “I have been purchasing from Guerin since I discovered them over 20 years ago,” he says. “I try to get the owners involved. I love sending clients there. Once they see it, they have to have it.” Smith also highly recommends the trip to other designers as well: “One must experience Guerin’s showroom and workroom. The age-old process of producing hardware is executed with the highest level of artistry and craftsmanship. The period hardware, ormolu and fitting stimulate the creative gene in architects and designers.”

These Louis XV door levers and matching escutcheon plates were made to order by P.E. Guerin for a Palm Beach, FL, residence designed by Smith. Photo: Kim Sargent

Visitors to the showroom are greeted by a small brass “P. E. Guerin” sign on the discreet door of a turn-of-the-century brownstone in Manhattan’s West Village. While the building looks similar to the others in the historic residential neighborhood, what greets the visitor beyond the door is nothing like what one would find in other buildings in the area.

“P.E. Guerin is the oldest decorative hardware firm in the U.S. and the only such foundry still operating in New York City,” says Vice President Martin Grubman, whose desk shares a corner in the showroom with that of owner Andrew F. Ward, great-grandnephew of the founder. Pierre Emmanuel Guerin founded P.E. Guerin in 1857 shortly after he arrived from France. In 1892, the foundry moved to its current quarters on Jane Street, where it occupies three buildings and employs approximately 65 craftsmen.

A showroom on the first floor is jam-packed with samples and models. The moldmaking, pouring, finishing, polishing, plating and patinating are all done in-house. A tour of the premises takes you through a warren of rooms filled with different equipment and craftsmen, all operating much as they did in the 19th century. Grubman explains that many of the craftsmen, such as those who create and pour the molds, are trained at the facility. “You don’t find experienced people for pouring molds,” he says. “We have to train them here.”

When selecting custom hardware, designers are often brought into this pattern room behind the showroom at P.E. Guerin’s headquarters in New York City. Patterns are stored in drawers reaching from floor to ceiling. Although there is no exact count, P.E. Guerin estimates that it has at least 50,000 patterns.

After each piece is poured, filed and machined, an individual does the chasing work, going over each and every line and surface by hand with special chisels and tools to accentuate the design. This process takes approximately three to four hours for a doorknob. Following the chasing work, each individual piece is plated and patinated, other time-consuming processes that are also done by hand.

The process of acquiring custom hardware for a project starts with selecting the appropriate style. “Usually, an architect or a designer will come in and say he or she is designing a house in a particular style,” says Grubman, “and will need hardware to suit that style. We provide guidance on styles and types of fixtures that are needed.”

The molds are created by surrounding the patterns with sand in steel frames that are then baked in an oven room overnight. Here, a number of different door hardware patterns are being laid in place to create molds.

Sometimes the designer comes to P.E. Guerin with a drawing of a specific product. In that case, the firm carves a custom pattern (model) for them and then produces it. Guerin also reproduces antique hardware for clients. “Usually, they come in and select from our existing models,” says Grubman. “We have thousands of patterns they can choose from. Generally, they find something they like.” He estimates that Guerin has more than 50,000 models available. “I don’t think anybody has ever counted them,” he adds. “Clients also send photos, or they may ask us to send samples to them.”

Like Smith, he recommends a trip to the showroom. “Coming into our showroom is like stepping back in time,” says Grubman. “It’s like coming to a museum.” The firm also has associated showrooms in Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Northbrook, IL.

Museum Quality
P.E. Guerin’s furniture hardware has been featured in various museums. It is currently found in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was also featured at the museum in a 1995 exhibit entitled “Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age.” It can also be found in the Frick Collection in New York City, the Chicago Art Institute and other museums, Grubman adds.

Once the molds are prepared (the sand has hardened in the oven), the patterns are removed and the brass is heated to a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit before it is poured into the molds.

More recently, it was part of an exhibit at the Bard Center for Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York City in 2007. “Brass work done by a plethora of manufacturers from the 19th century was represented at Bard,” Grubman explains. “We are the only one that is still in business.”

Although P.E. Guerin originally specialized in furniture hardware, it has branched out over the years to offer a broad line including builders’ hardware, bathroom fittings and accessories, fixtures and furniture. Its builders’ hardware offerings include 20 categories. In door hardware, the firm offers knockers, pocket-door hardware, door levers, doorknobs, thumb turns, key plates, door pulls, hinges, push plates and back plates and cremone bolts and hardware. These are available in many styles, ranging from Adam to Empire to Louis XIV and can be plated with gold, silver, nickel, bronze or copper.

Each piece of custom hardware is hand-chased to delineate the lines of the design and the textures of the surface.

P.E. Guerin also offers a line of stock hardware that is fabricated in Valencia, Spain, and finished at its workshop in New York City, but most of its work is custom. “Ninety-nine percent of our work is made to order,” says Grubman. Although custom costs considerably more than stock hardware [up to quadruple the price], Grubman notes that most of his clients prefer made-to-order hardware because it is higher quality. “You can get what you want and the level of detail is much better,” he says.

As for a timeframe, it can vary as widely as the architect’s needs. Grubman says P.E. Guerin can deliver from its stock line in six to eight weeks, but larger residential projects usually take six months to a year. “Many of our clients, such as Jeff Smith, are building large homes ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 sq.ft. – or larger – and these take up to 1½ years to build,” he says. “They usually order the hardware during the design phase.” This is something he recommends for all designers – that they come to P.E. Guerin during the design phase so there is plenty of time to create the pieces. “The biggest mistake architects and designers make," he cautions, "is coming to us too late, after the doors are made and they are well into construction.”

Plans for the future at P.E. Guerin call for more of the same during its next 150 years. If the large photos of children on Andrew Ward’s wall are any indication, the next generation will be carrying on the business pretty much the same way Pierre Emmanuel Guerin did.

Click here for a list of suppliers of door hardware