A doorknob or door handle doesn’t exactly take up a lot of space within a residence, but it plays a critical role in a home’s security. The door handle controls entry into a house. It can be locked or unlocked, left open or pulled tightly shut. 

Over the centuries, the design and construction of entry door handles have evolved. Although a modern door handle might share some elements with an ancient handle, there are critical differences between the two. Even door handles that date back a few decades look and function in a way that’s notably different from the function and appearance of door handles created today.

Let’s look at how the door handle has changed over the years and examine the elements and features that make an entry door handle modern.

A Brief History of Entry Doors and Handles

It’s not a chicken or egg story with doors and handles. If you ask which came first, the answer is clear — doors. But the doors people used thousands of years ago didn’t look much like the doors in use today. A modern person might see an ancient door and think it looks more like a curtain. 

In ancient times, materials such as animal skins and fabrics were used to create a barrier in front of an entryway. Compared to the doors we use today, those animal hides and fabric coverings weren’t exactly secure. They also didn’t have handles or knobs, meaning anyone could come and go.

As people’s homes began to become more solid and permanent, doors also took on a new form. The Temple of Solomon had a door made from olive wood. The tombs of ancient Egyptians often featured “false doors” made from limestone that were believed to allow the souls of the deceased to pass back and forth between the afterlife and the land of the living. The door to the Baptistery of San Giovanni consists of bronze covered with gold. 

Even as more durable materials began to be used for constructing doors, most historical doors lacked a key feature — a handle or knob. If an early door had a latch at all, it was usually in the form of a lock, and the door would have a keyhole. To open the door and shut it securely, a person needed to put a key into the keyhole and turn it. 

Typically, only the wealthiest people could afford to have both a door and a lock in their home. Many people simply did without, allowing their doors to close but not latch securely. If they were concerned about safety, they could place a barricade in front of the door to block entry. Some fashioned a makeshift lock called a latchstring. A latchstring usually consisted of a piece of wood that a person could raise to open the door and lower to secure it.

Modern design is actually an older concept.

When did knobs and handles come about, then? It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, which started in the mid-18th century, that door handles and knobs became widespread. The advances in technology that developed during the Industrial Revolution made it possible to develop, build and mass-produce door handles. The U.S. Patent Office issued one of the earliest patents for an “improvement in door-holding devices” in 1878 to an inventor named Osbourn Dorsey. In the U.K., Jeremiah Chubb developed a lever tumbler lock in the early 19th century.

Throughout the centuries, the construction and design of doorknobs and handles have changed. Early knobs were made of wood, then metal. Some knobs, designed to be decorative, were made from glass or ceramic. As time went on, door handles have remained intuitive and easy to operate, but the locks connected to them have become more secure. People became able to live more comfortably in their homes without the fear of theft or break-ins due to increasingly advanced lock designs.

The look of door handles and knobs has also changed over the years, evolving from a rustic and traditional style to a modern appearance.

When Did Modern Design Become Modern Design?

The phrase “modern design” confuses many people, and understandably so. When people hear the word “modern,” they likely assume the time period in question is their own. After all, people refer to modern ways of doing things when talking about the present day. They also describe something as “modern” when it’s new and exciting.

But Modern design means something different. When people talk about Modern design — note the capital “M” — they are referring to a specific period. Ironically, that period happens to be in the past. The Modern design era stretched from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century. Many of the details and aesthetics people associate with Modern design come from Germany and Scandinavia. As a design style, Modernism is found in many different places, including works of art, architecture and interior design. 

Since it is a historical style, Modernism has several fixed elements and features that make it easy to identify once you know what to look for. Some of the defining features of Modern design include:

  • Clean lines: Compared to earlier styles, which tended to be more ornate and dramatic, Modernism is all about clean, clear lines and simple details. After the heavy ornamentation of the Victorian era, Modernism must have felt like a breath of fresh air for consumers and designers alike.
  • A focus on functionality: Modernism sought to blend form and function. The utility of certain items was key, but so was the aesthetics of those items. Although the design style preferred for items to work as intended, it didn’t necessarily place function over form in every case.
  • Earthy, neutral tones: Although there might be a pop of color here and there in a Modernist palette, the focus is on neutrals. Whites and beiges are the primary colors used in Modernism. A bold color or metallic tone might appear every so often to add some visual interest, but bright and shiny would never be the main attraction.
  • Natural materials: Modernism also favors natural materials, such as wood and leather. Stone is also a popular material used in Modern design. Wood furniture saw an increase in popularity during the rise of this design era due to its simplicity and versatility.
  • Minimalist elements: Another “M” word, minimalism, is closely tied to Modernism. Similar to the style’s rejection of the ornate details of early design periods, Modernism also rejects excess. Thanks to its focus on function, Modern design prefers only to use elements and furnishings that had a purpose. Less is definitely more with this style.

Although Modernism as an era is over, Modern design lives on. The style continues to be popular among homeowners today. One example of the ongoing popularity of Modernism is the continued interest in and devotion to homes and furnishings that fit into the Midcentury Modern (MCM) design category. Homes built in an MCM style often feature open-plan layouts, large windows that let in ample natural light and furnishings made from natural materials. 

Modern vs. Contemporary

If Modernism refers to a distinct design period, the elements of which are still loved and used today, what does Contemporary design refer to? The term is actually a bit more fluid. Contemporary design can be more difficult to define and describe than Modern design because it is constantly changing. The word “contemporary” means “belonging in the present.” The term comes from the Latin “con,” which means “with,” and “tempus,” which means “time.”

If it sounds wishy-washy, it is. The thing to understand about “Contemporary” design is that it’s “contemporary” at the present moment. In 10, 20 or 30 years, what we call contemporary now won’t likely be the current fashion.

Aside from differences in time period, there are some distinct style differences between Modernism and Contemporary design. Those distinctions include:

  • Materials used: While Modernism prefers natural materials, like wood and stone, Contemporary design doesn’t shy away from the industrial or synthetic. Metals are big in Contemporary layouts, such as shiny chrome and steel. Plastics and plaster are also popular materials for this aesthetic.
  • Colors preferred: Modern design leans toward a neutral palette with some colorful accents. In contrast, “stark” is a good word to describe the Contemporary color palette. It favors white, gray and black — a color scheme that excludes the occasional brighter hues of Modern design.
  • Function of furnishings: Modernism values form but favors function. Contemporary design tends to take an aesthetics-first approach. You might find pieces in a contemporary home that serve no purpose other than looking good. 
  • Shape of furnishings: Contemporary furniture tends to share the same clean lines of Modern furniture, but those lines are also often much softer. You’d be more likely to want to sink down into and relax on an over-stuffed Contemporary couch than you would on a firmer MCM sofa.
  • Concept: Since Contemporary design is still evolving, what gets categorized as a Contemporary concept is ever-changing. Modernism is more set in stone conceptually. Certain elements are either Modern or not — there’s little room for debate about what fits into the category.

While there are many differences between Modernism and Contemporary design, there are also many notable similarities between the two. This is partly because Contemporary design borrows many characteristics from Modernism. Some elements the two design styles share include:

  • A focus on minimalism.
  • A desire for clean lines.
  • The use of metal as an accent.
  • A preference for natural materials, although Contemporary design does allow for synthetics.
  • A preference for open floor plans.

What Is Modern When It Comes to Entry Door Handles?

Although it’s now well over 100 years old, Modern design remains an in-demand and popular style. Interior designers, architects and decorators continue to incorporate elements of Modernism into new homes or existing properties. Those working on giving a home a modern style or refreshing a property with existing Modernist touches will want entry door handles that match the style. 

What makes a door handle modern, and how would you recognize a modern doorknob if you saw one? The most popular and trendy door handles have several features in common.

Door knobs is most often where changes in the concept of modern can be seen.

Elements of Modern Door Handle Style

Much like other furnishings and components in a Modern home, Modern door handles usually have the following elements:

  • Sleek: If you only remember one thing about Modernism, remember that it’s all about clean lines. To that end, Modern door handles are sleek and simple. They usually have a straightforward, non-decorative design and are available in sleek finishes. When selecting Modern handles, look for straight shapes rather than rounded ones. The handles should blend in with the rest of the decor, not stand out against it.
  • Metal: Modern door handles usually consist of metal. A satin or brushed finish, such as brushed nickel, is ideal.
  • Functional: All door handles should be functional in that they should allow a door to open and close and help secure it in place. But functionality is particularly important for Modern-style door handles. They won’t have any extra bells and whistles or ornamentation. The focus is purely on doing their intended job and doing it well. An attractive Modern entryway needs to be one that can serve its purpose and uphold its signature aesthetic without comprising either component.

Lever vs. Knob

With door handles, there are generally two types to choose from — doorknobs and door levers. Lately, levers have been trendy among homeowners, as these door handle models are easier to manipulate. People with limited hand strength can grasp a lever more easily than a knob, for example. This feature adds a layer of accessibility to the door handle’s function, making it both eye-catching and easy to navigate for any individual.

Door levers also work better with Modern design elements than doorknobs. A lever’s shape is generally sleeker and more minimal than a doorknob, meaning it won’t draw attention away from other elements of a home’s design scheme. Doorknobs are often associated with more traditional design styles and might not fit in when installed on an entry door in a Modern house.

Whether building from scratch or updating an existing home, people often look for door hardware that matches the property’s overall design. Modern design was and remains one of the most popular styles in interior design. When manufacturing entry doors, you should produce styles and designs that match current trends and appeal to the largest possible group of buyers. That also means fitting your doors with hardware that complements today’s styles and enhances the doors’ overall quality and functionality.

As a leading innovator in developing architectural hardware, Rockwell Security manufactures residential and commercial door hardware. We can produce attractive and functional Modern door handles that appeal to designers, decorators and homeowners alike. Contact us today to view our product catalog and price book and find out more about our Modern door hardware.

The concept of modernity is actually older than you think!