‘Push to Open’

There is a lack of attention to the door handle in the midst of everyday life.  The door handle as a piece of hardware is crucial to one’s emotional understanding of the transition from one environment to another. Seemingly mundane objects, such as the door handle, are undeniably involved in the inept understanding of ourselves and our perceived environments. The simple function of the hardware is to grant access, but the door handle provides someone with a tangible element for a significant transitional moment. The foundation of this emotional understanding is borne through the object’s passively designed affordances and feedback whether those be visual, textural, or auditory cues. “The door pull is the handshake of a building, which can be inviting and courteous, or forbidding and aggressive.”

Particularly within a city, an individual passes through an enormous number of environments using the familiar interaction of a door handle. For instance, at 66 Fifth Avenue, The New School University Center acts as an example of highly designed architecture with the intent to provide the university community with a home, learning environment, and dining space. Each of these spaces are very different from one another, yet have indifferent details such as their door handles. Indoors to outdoors, private to public, formal to casual, or loud to quiet - these transitional moments between two contrasting spaces should signify to a person what is to be expected in their future so as to caution and acquaint that person to the new space as opposed to surprising them.

The weight of the University Center’s entry doors are a common complaint among regulars, students and faculty alike. To a newcomer, however, the weight these door handles hold is a symbol of substance. A strong presence is given to the space in the form of physical weight. It becomes something substantial. This trait spreads across a variety of spaces that desire this sort of strong emotional entrance and exit such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, and Carnegie Hall. The brass door handles at the university’s entrance run the length of the door (vertical) from the outside and width of the door (horizontal) from the inside.  These common affordances clearly define to their audience how the doors should be used - that you should pull the large vertical brass bar from the outside and push the waist-height one from the inside. These qualities and properties have been taught to us through the language of design found in the objects of our everyday lives.

After entering the University Center, a student or teacher might make their way to class. Classroom door handles are also brass and much smaller than the main entrance handles. Slightly larger than the hand, a small stem protrudes from the door with a horizontal handgrip directing a turning motion. The horizontal grip informs the entrant to turn the hardware in order for it to function. This feature adds a sense of privacy and permanence. Doors with push handles allow for such easy access, that they are better suited for public use or easily accessible temporary areas such as a restaurant kitchen. The smaller size of these classroom handles allows for effortless entry and exit to the room so that people can pass without disturbance yet still providing a feeling of formality and permanence. When opening or closing, the door handle mechanism delivers a firm click to provide their entrant with an auditory and tactile confirmation of reserved privacy and formality fit for conducting a class. Cues like these are a part of seemingly mundane subtleties that are integral to someone’s emotional state during the two-second transition from a corridor to the learning environment. The consistent utilization of brass handles not only ties the University Center’s design language together, but also speaks a history. The remarkable weathering of a thousand hands gently polishes these door handles every year, producing a soft orange luster just where perfectly placed fingers gently push and pull.


Similar to that of the University Center entrance, particular private study rooms found in its library also have large vertical and horizontal brass door handles. However, these handles are nearly half the size and are not designed for power. Instead, they act as a second layer of tangibly solid privacy to their entrant. Unfortunately, these door handles operate the exact opposite way of the main entry’s. As opposed to pulling the large vertical bar and pushing the horizontal, their roles are switched in which the vertical functions as a push and the horizontal a pull. This design produces confusion and proves the door handle dysfunctional, considering the previous design  language used in the University Center main entrance’s door handles. Over time, a set of relationships between forms and their corresponding actions develops into a language between the designer and their audience. When a designed object is inconsistent with its previous modes of operation, people will misuse the object and it will fail to convey its intended function.

Most are aware of what are known as ’Norman Doors’, mentioned by Donald A. Norman in his book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’. He states that, “A door poses only two essential questions: In which direction does it move? On which side should one work it?” Norman Doors fail in both areas. Modern day prize-winning design comes from a popular emphasis on aesthetics rather than seamless functionality. Doorways become an afterthought to thoughtfully programmed architecture.

The recent Foster + Partners-designed Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California is furnished with numerous glass walls and doors that injured seven employees on the first day of its opening who misperceived these glamorously glazed spaces and walked directly into doors and walls. Transparent glass in place of a barrier is clearly misleading. A person is given nearly all information of what’s behind and ahead of them which is understandably convincing that both spaces are one. In terms of safety, the transition between spaces is critical. This failure has forced employees to introduce post-it notes, stickers, and separate signage similar to those of the classic Norman Doors which read, ‘Push to Open’. This example of inconsiderate design forces the people who use these doors everyday to come up with their own signage which becomes a blemish on the architecture, in turn distracting from and hiding the originally intended design. The doorknob is the vehicle through which we have the understanding of how to move from space to space. If a properly designed door handle had been placed onto the doors, people would become aware and understand the transition within their surrounding environment. Why should this extra signage be necessary for a functional item that we use everyday? Why don’t we design door handles that subconsciously cue the correct way to use the functional object? The door handle should require no signage. It is the signage.

The door handle is crucial to one’s emotional understanding of the transition from one  environment to another because it speaks more than allowance. By affording a person with cues to understand their desired future space, they become safe, adapted, and comfortable with their surroundings. This is true in consideration of the consistently occurring injuries at Apple Park and The New School University Center’s variety of door handles. With a more considerate design, door handles could speak to their environments and give us the cues necessary to enhance our spatial understanding within everyday life. Programmatic design of space, functionality, and materiality are closely related to the door handle in that they can help whisper to us the subtle feedback that seamlessly contributes to our dynamic lives. By emphasizing the door handle as a designed object and functional element of everyday life, perhaps we can focus our attention towards the many other seemingly mundane designed objects and celebrate them as the gracefully intimate pieces they are.



A brief discussion on the door handle; the most tangible piece of architecture; the handshake of a building.