Interview: Orion Henderson, The Head + The Heart of Horton Brasses

Orion, you bought the company from your mother.  What were you doing before taking over your family’s hardware manufacturing business?

I joined the company in 2001 and purchased the company at then end of 2006.  Prior to joining the business I was in sales.

If you weren’t running Horton Brasses, what other career path would you have taken?

My professional passion is sales without a doubt.  If I was not involved with Horton Brasses I would be in commercial sales in some capacity.

What’s stayed the same throughout the years, what’s changed under your guard?

There is always a desire to change a company when you take over; to put your stamp on it so to speak.  In our case though I think that is a mistake.  We have a 70+ year legacy of making reproduction early American hardware and that continues to be essential to our business and our identity.  My aim is to keep making traditional hardware and expand into related areas.  Before my time, in the mid to late 90’s, we expanded into kitchen cabinet hardware and hand forged iron.  Our path forward is simple really. We want to do three things.  To expand our selection through production of new items in house and with carefully selected vendors.  To become ever more efficient in our own factory to control cost and to stay ahead of foreign competitors.  And to grow the business by filling hardware needs of existing customers and finding new customers.

How do you keep a period hardware company current?

New finishes are the single best way to stay current.  Until 1998 or so we had three finishes–antique brass, semi-bright brass (matt gold), and polished brass.  Now we have 7 plus an entirely separate line of hand forged iron hardware.  We added satin and polished nickel to kitchen hardware in 1998 and about the same time we added “dark antique” (oil rubbed) to a line of arts and crafts styled hardware.  In 2004 we made dark antique a standard finish choice on every piece of brass hardware we make.  In 2009 we added a light antique to every piece of hardware.  In 2010 we added custom finishes to the line.  They include satin nickel, polished nickel, silver plated, and gold plated finishes.  Towards the original question-one way we keep traditional hardware relevant is to make modern finishes available.  Our traditional Hepplewhite and Chippendale pulls are simply spectacular in satin and polished nickel.

How do you define “period?” I mean, isn’t every style of a certain period? What periods would you say are the focus of Horton Brasses hardware?

In my grandparents day, period meant pre-1900.  Or more generally hardware for furniture that specifically pre dated mass production of furniture.  Essentially, up to the time of the industrial revolution.  Times change. Today period can mean the mid century modern furniture and cabinetry of the 1950’s.  My grandfather rather famously, at least famously with us, told a long time customer once that he would never, ever, make that lousy arts and craft style hardware because it was junk.  My great grandfather thought Victorian era furniture and hardware was just awful.  He thought of Victorian style in much the same way we think of the home furnishings from the 1980’s today.  Now?  We make lots of Victorian hardware, have our own line of arts and crafts hardware, and some of our hardware is even appropriate for that mid century modern aesthetic.  Satin and polished nickel finishes date to the 1920’s-just after the arts and crafts movement but pre-world war II.

Is there really a difference between a satin nickel plated brass knob bought in a pack from Target and a brass knob with nickel plating bought from Horton Brasses?

The difference is in the details.  The big box stores sometimes have solid brass knobs, but not usually.  They are usually either brass plated or hollow brass with a nickel plating.  The finishing work is usually sloppy with lots of drips, lousy threading, and no durability.  The plating needs to have a sufficient thickness to last.  Cheap plating flakes off over time, ours doesn’t.  The texture and luster of our finishes are simply better.

Horton Brasses’ classic kitchen bin pull in satin nickel.

If I were to set 20 different 4” satin nickel bin pulls in front of you, would you be able to pick out the Horton Brasses design?

Yes.  But I don’t think I can explain why beyond the answer from the previous question.

Recently you’ve introduced a suite of high end luxury hardware. Considering the housing market and the U.S. economy in general, from a business point of view, what’s the strategy there?

Good question, and one I have asked myself repeatedly.  There are three aspects to our new lux line.  One-there simply aren’t very many good appliance handles on the market and even fewer suited sets of handles that cover all the sizes needed in a modern, yet period, kitchen.  Most appliance handles are either ultra modern, chintzy, or much too expensive.  There are very nice handles like ours out there that cost 3X what ours do.  Secondly, I feel as though the economy is improving and we had been seeing increased demand for good cabinet hardware.  Lastly, Our existing appliance handles are wonderful handles, but stylistically they are limited.  They simply did not work for a lot of our customers.  If we are going to provide our line of hardware we had to be able to meet the demand for appliance handles.  I visited SBD kitchens about a year ago and spoke with 3 of their designers, including Sarah Blank.  She told me that the first thing she does when looking for hardware for a kitchen is look for the appliance handles.  If the company didn’t have a good handle, she moved on to the next.  Simple as that.

New hardware, straight from England. The newly introduced Queslett has already become a favorite amongst customers and designers, proving that Orion has the eye for style.

I know you visited England to check out the manufacturing facility and review the design of the new hardware before it was launched. That seems really hands on to me. How typical is that in your industry?

Well, I am not sure it is typical at all.  Certainly, no one has ever visited us to see if we are who we say we are.  But I had a longstanding relationship with Armac and this hardware is very different than what we buy from them now.  I needed to see how it was made and meet with the principals to be sure it would be consistently excellent and to cement the relationship regarding a significant expansion of our product line.  Armac has been extremely helpful with the rollout of our new hardware and it has been essential to our early success.  We have never had a new line of hardware sell as quickly as the Bakes and Queslett pulls. 

There are lots of companies that make hardware, want to make hardware, or think they make hardware.  There are very few that actually can actually deliver what they say they can.  We have had some recent bad experiences with different vendors who simply couldn’t do what they said they could.

As you mentioned, Armac is in Birmingham (England) and manufactures the new line of hardware. They have a huge online catalog. How did you end up choosing the pieces you’ve introduced to the Horton Brasses line?

The Bakes and Queslett pulls are both new for Armac and they were presented to me along with the knobs.  I fell in love with the whole line on sight.  It filled a need and is simply spectacular hardware.  I have gotten calls for years from homeowners who wanted hardware in the style of a rather well known English cabinetmaker living in America.  While that person uses custom hardware that is not available elsewhere, this hardware gives you that look.

Although you sell directly to the public, I know most of your business is to cabinetmakers. Some of the most prestigious custom cabinets are outfitted with Horton Brasses, but often the homeowner has no idea that you are the brand behind the gorgeous knobs. Talk about keeping a low profile! Seriously. Don’t you want the credit for your hardware?

Of course we want credit for the hardware!  It is up to the individual furniture maker and cabinet shops whether they wish to share our name with their customers.  Some find it better to keep their vendors private to remain more competitive.  For example-the cabinetmaker mentioned above.

Who thought anyone could be sentimental over a knob! Orion’s favorite is still made with the same tooling designed by his grandfather.

What’s your favorite knob + pull?

My favorite part is not a typical kitchen knob, it is the H-30 1-1/2″.  The H-30 1-1/2″ is, according to family history, the first punch and die that my grandfather Frank made.  That tooling, which we use today, dates to the 1920’s sometime.  In the 1920’s my great grandmother sold antiques and my great grandfather Frank was a diesinker for the silver industry.  He made the tooling to produce the Disney decorative silver spoons at the time.  Anyway, she would have a piece of furniture that needed a matching piece of hardware, typically American Federal period (Hepplewhite and Sheraton style), and she would give Frank the hardware and he would make it.  He would punch out the pattern of the hardware into the punch.  Then he would do the negative onto the die, all by hand, and account for the thickness of the metal that would be punched between the two pieces.  Diesinking is a lost art.  Today, you can do some of what he did with CAD, but really, even CAD won’t give you the detail.  The patterns and originals were all perfectly imperfect.  Computer design really requires symmetry and perfect radii.

As far as business goes, you seem to me a bit of a maverick. You like being small. You eschew the advertorial. What philosophy guides your business style?

Well, I don’t necessarily choose to be small.  Our product is a niche product and likely always will be.  Our customers produce cabinetry and furniture that is the best of the best and is, to be frank, expensive.  With that in mind, we choose quality over price every time.

Advertising is a different story, on the one hand we simply don’t have the budget for glossy magazine hands.  On the other hand, I don’t believe they are productive anyway.  So we choose to create online “content” to give people a chance to see for themselves if our products fit into their lives.

Okay. The Horton Brasses latches have gone through a few revisions. How does one improve hardware. I mean, how complicated does this stuff get?

We have no in house engineers, just my shop foreman and myself.  Neither of us have professional training.  We knew what we wanted it to look and work like, but it took a while to actually get the components just right.  It took us 9 months to develop the current latch.  Sometimes I think Ford could design a new car faster than we can make a pretty simple latch.  But in the end, you can make it right or you can make it fast.  You can guess our choice.

Finally, what trends have you seen reflected in your sales in the past five years and where do you see your business going in the coming five?

The last 3 or 4 years have seen a bit of return to traditional styles.  Maybe in the boom years people bought the newest latest trends, it seemed like they could always just throw it away when it went out of style.  Recent events have changed in that we see people making purchase decisions related to their homes on a longer time frame.  Our hardware is not “trendy”.  We think it is timeless and we know it is durable.  Everything we produce should last, essentially, forever.  Finish choices have evolved, “oil rubbed” and polished nickel finished hardware continues to become more popular.  The next trend, which we are seeing more and more interest in, is “unlaquered brass”.  The concept varies from person to person but generally is some variation of polished or lightly antiqued brass left without a lacquer coating to develop a natural patina over time.  This is a rather nice trend from our point of view; we don’t lacquer any of our brass hardware and we never have.  We offer lacquering as a custom finish option only.

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4 thoughts on “Interview: Orion Henderson, The Head + The Heart of Horton Brasses

  1. Becky says:

    So proud, to call myself family, to a man that has stood up and kept things going as our Great Grandparents intended things to be…I Love You O… 🙂

    Like

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