Ironmongery company Izé asked designers to create a stylish range of bespoke door handles and British architecture's finest have come knocking.
Clunk, clunk. One by one Edwin Heathcote, architect, Financial Times architecture critic and co-director of Izé, an ironmongery company, gingerly pulls out door handles, levers and knobs of bronze and stainless steel from his canvas bag and places them on the table. These pieces have been designed by some of the country's sharpest architects and product designers.

Izé, which means "a thingy" in Hungarian, was set up from a Fulham office three years ago by half-Hungarian Heathcote and Dave Bradshaw, who had previously worked for Dorma specialising in ironmongery. Architects would often complain to them about the shortcomings of existing ironmongery outlets. They realised there was a gap in the market for bespoke-designed architectural hardware.

Heathcote and Bradshaw established their now four-strong co-operative by modelling it on Berlin-based firm SA Loevy, which operated in the twenties and thirties. That firm brought together bespoke pieces by architectural luminaries such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens and Bruno Paul.

"The firm identified a broad consensus in architecture at a moment in German history when modernism was emerging," says Heathcote. "They did this incredible range and we wanted to see if we could get a cross section of architects who are doing good work and, with luck, build up a range which is coherent and contemporary."

In addition to manufacturing bespoke ironmongery pieces by contemporary British designers, Izé also manufactures lighting and furniture, including classic twenties and thirties designs of door handles and knobs. What sets Izé apart from other UK ironmongery companies is that it is happy to make a one-off bespoke door-handle.

Like any well-crafted item, there are a number of critical stages that a piece of ironmongery goes through, from the designer's initial drawing to manufacture of the final product, carried out by a network of subcontractors in the Midlands.

"The metalworkers we use are high-quality craftsmen who have no shop window," says Heathcote. "They are using us as a conduit to get what architects want in their buildings."

Tony Fretton has got what he wants by specifying a classic Lubetkin door handle for his recently completed Camden Arts Centre. The handle was originally designed by a German graphic designer, Max Burchartz, and was introduced to Britain by Lubetkin when he used it for his Highpoint buildings. The original was in nickel silver, but Fretton has specified unlacquered brass, to maintain coherence with the building's Victorian ironmongery.

Collaborating with Fretton is gratifying for Heathcote and Bradshaw as they have wanted to work with him for some time. There are now plans for him to design a handle to add to Izé's range. Fretton has experience here. When working on the Lisson Gallery 12 years ago, he was also labouring on a design for a handle. He had apparently spent months mulling over his design and when he thought he had cracked it, he absentmindedly pulled open his fridge door for some sustenance, and realised the fridge handle was exactly the same as the one he had just designed.

This must be a worry for architects. How can they improve on what already exists?

Tom Emerson co-director of 6a Architects, who has designed a doorknob that has a removable soft rubber underside for use as a door wedge, says that when he was invited by Ize to design a handle, he had mixed emotions.

"At one level I was really excited," he says, "but then I felt overwhelmed at the amount there already is. It's all been done. How could I possibly add another shape?"

David Adaye has also designed a handle for Izé. In his case, a bead-blasted stainless-steel handle, as part of his Anna series, which can also be used as a pull handle.

Designing a door knob is incredibly satisfying and pretty special, you have a real and intimate relationship with it

"I was very aware of the history of ironmongery and I wanted to add to that range," says Adjaye.

"I wasn't so interested in finding a new form or being innovative, it was more an exercise of craftsmanship and learning what had been done before."

What is particularly impressive about Izé is the obvious talent that Heathcote and Bradshaw have in persuading designers like Kenneth Grange, Sergison Bates, Eric Parry and others to design a handle, lever or knob in their own time and without payment. As a sweetener, Heathcote says the design rights do remain with the designer and if they want to remove their product from Izé at any time they can.

Heathcote admits that a number of architects have declined to work with them. "They may think it's too precious or they couldn't improve on the existing works," he says.

One designer who has had his arm successfully twisted is artist Mark Pimlott. "Izé is unique," he says. "They recognise the second generation of designers that want to work at that scale. They are in conversation with people in a very modest way. It's very attractive and the market lacks intelligent and beautiful things. Designing a door knob is incredibly satisfying and pretty special, you have a real and intimate relationship with it."

Pimlott has designed the Chelsea Set for Izé. This luxurious solid bronze oil-rubbed doorknob designed for Fretton's Red House, off Chelsea's Tite Street, remains Heathcote's favourite. Pimlott has also just designed a prototype for a door handle that is reminiscent of a stubby finger.

Industrial designer Kenneth Grange has done a number of ironmongery pieces for Izé. His most recent is a solid, anti-ligature handle which is impossible to loop a cord around. The reason for this unusual detail is that the handle was originally intended for use in mental health units and was so designed to prevent people from hanging themselves.

Meanwhile Sergison Bates is the first practice to design a range of pieces that tackles an area previously overlooked. It has turned its attention to sash handles, sash locks, mirror brackets, trickle vents and window stays and redesigned them in sleek stainless steel.

Other practices that have recently been approached by Izé include Foreign Office Architects, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and DSDHA, while in collaboration with Avanti, Izé has designed pull handles that resemble "bent tubes" for Wells Coates' Lawn Road building. The company has also teamed up with artist Jake Chapman, one of the Chapman brothers, to design a door handle for his house in Hastings.

Occasionally, Heathcote is drawn into designing himself. For a huge PFI hospital project in Coventry, he has created a very simple stainless steel bent bar.

So have they ever rejected a design or practice that approaches them?

Working with the big knobs

Izé’s star collaborators include:
  • Tony Fretton
  • David Adjaye
  • Mark Pimlott
  • Kenneth Grange
  • Sergison Bates
  • Eric Parry
  • Jake Chapman