Door handles are a funny thing these days. They are one of if not our most common point of contact with the built environment, and yet in the best of times they go largely unnoticed. And in today’s world they have flipped to become a source of anxiety. Do I really need to touch this door handle or can I maybe use my foot or elbow? Some have responded by wearing gloves. But sometimes door handles offer up clues — such as a worn finish — as to where they are most commonly touched. But then one is faced with yet another difficult dilemma: do you handle the pristine part or remain committed to the worn out part since everybody else is probably thinking what you’re thinking and searching for the unadulterated section of the handle? Who knew that opening a simple door could elicit such complexity.
But we shouldn’t be too critical of the mighty door handle. Edwin Heathcote recently published this short history of door handles and it’s a good reminder of the design intent that has gone into them over the years and how they also came to embody our broader views about architecture. One of my favorites, of course, is the original Bauhaus door handle designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer c. 1922. (Pictured above, it’s currently housed on the fifth floor of the MoMA in New York.) Its lever starts out square and machine-like, but then transforms into a cylinder, exactly where you’re supposed to grip it with your hand. It is ultra minimal, but it tells you exactly what to do. It also helps us with our dilemma. Worn or not worn, the cylinder is obviously where it should be handled.