You know when you go over to someone’s house and immediately compliment their sensational doorknobs?
Yeah I didn’t think so.
When it comes to modern design, doorknobs are completely overlooked. The current application of this particular home fixture is focused entirely on functionality rather than style, which renders it visually as dry as your Wonder Bread toast.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Homes built between the mid-18th and early-20th century often boasted ornate Victorian-style designs in beautiful bronze or cut-glass. The Art Deco era of the 1930’s brought about more swell, modern doorknob designs crafted from new materials such as Bakelite and lucite.
And by the late 1950’s, these fixtures were midcentury door candy. It was considered a status symbol to have a decorative doorknob and escutcheon medallion adorning your front door. Available in brass, bronze or aluminum, and sometimes with colorful backplates, these were marketed as the jewelry for your home. And everyone who was anyone had them. (also see: Joneses; keeping up with)
But by the late 1960’s, the focus of doorknob design began to center around the sophistication of the locking mechanism. They became standardized in boring brass or sleepy stainless. No ornate adornments, no design details, just mass-manufactured products that were standard issue with any new home, like samples of Cheer and Palmolive.
Doorknob design was forever destined to live solemnly in the shadow of its glory days. Or so it seemed.
To Every Season, Turn, Turn, Turn…
In the mid-50’s emerged a golden ray of midcentury design hope in the form of a Floridian woman named Ruth Richmond.
Ruth was an interior designer by trade, but was also the first woman to get her “Grade A” general contractor’s license. This was a biiiiiiig deal in an era when most women weren’t expected to have careers or make decisions, and certainly did not work in the construction industry. So unladylike! Deciding on whether to serve pot-roast or meatloaf was the main concern for most of this era’s gender.
This clearly was not enough for Ruth. Her company, Richmond Homes, built more than 12,000 homes in Sarasota. She began to transform the residential market by creating unique, luxury interior decor additions and offering them at premium prices. Yep, Ruth definitely knew her stuff. Even Jackie Kennedy invited her to the White House for some tips on redecorating.
All That Glitters
The most iconic interior design element, by far, were Ruth’s doorknobs. Crafted out of clear acrylic with gold-nugget centers, and manufactured exclusively by Weiser, these were the pinnacle of exclusive midcentury home design. Equal parts gaudy and classy, they sparkled and shined like Liberace himself had manifested them in a midcentury dream.
And I knew the Retro Ranch had to have them from the moment I laid eyes on them.
Hey, Nice Knobs
I scoured eBay and other retro auction sites for months, hoping someone would have at least one or two sets I could purchase. But nothing emerged. I went to architectural salvage warehouses and historic hardware stores in several cities, digging through bins until my hands were green (and not with envy). Still nothing.
I had almost given up hope of finding these when we were casually strolling an antique market in Seattle and came across a display case that contained FIVE of these amazing beauties—all in near-perfect condition. The seller proceeded to tell me that she bought them out of an estate sale in Palm Springs and had been hoarding them for over 10 years, hoping to find a use for them in her own house. She had just given up on that dream and decided to offer them up for sale that morning.
I snapped them up immediately, repressing the urge to skip out of the store, singing “I’ve Got A Golden Doorknob” like I was Charlie in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
Ok, well maybe I didn’t repress the urge entirely.
There’s Gold In Them Halls!
When we returned home with our 5 little golden prizes, we realized that our hallway contained 6 doors (Damn you, tiny linen closet!). Since I was certain it was going to take several more years to find that final matching knob set, we began installing them. And boy did they look swell.
Fast-forward 6 months to a random late-night eBay browse, and there it was: A single Ruth Richmond gold-nugget doorknob set in mint-condition. I pounced on that like Elvis concert tickets. It arrived a week later, and was installed within minutes. We finally had the complete set adorning our home! So elegant! So luxurious! So very midcentury. It was like a dream come true.
And even the doggies were excited.