It’s quite possible to visit the Prince Street showroom of E.R. Butler & Co., in New York’s NoLIta neighborhood, and have no real grasp of the company’s essential business. Four enormous vitrines containing a rotating collection of tableaux vivants occupy the building’s front windows, and would seem to indicate some eccentric admixture of gallery, boutique, and high-end jeweler.
After ringing the bell, one is greeted by an employee and ushered into an obsessively restored landmark building, which in the 19th century functioned as the silver manufacturing headquarters of Tiffany & Co. On elegant display is the work of decorative artists and artisans curated by the company’s 48-year-old owner and founder, Rhett Butler. (Though his first name is Edward, his parents called him Rhett. “I’m sure there was a sense of humor involved,” he says today.) Butler’s current inventory includes hand-turned candlesticks by Ted Muehling; gold, iron, and steel bracelets, earrings, and pendants from Philip Crangi; and one-of-a-kind pieces by the German-born jeweler John Iversen.
Hidden in plain sight in a series of bronze-and-glass display cabinets, however, are the objects of Butler’s true vocation: scores and scores of knobs and pulls made variously of steel, silver, brass, bronze, dendritic agate, coral, ebony, amethyst, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, jade, amber, and mercury glass. Butler is the proprietor of the world’s largest collection of fine architectural hardware—countless doorknobs and knockers and cabinet pulls, along with gilded hinges, hand-chased bronze finials, thumb latches, strap hinges, and their every conceivable variant. And if such a thing simply doesn’t exist in his more than 30,000 catalogs, designs, blueprints, molds, and finished objects dating from the 1600s, he’ll make it for you. If you desire, say, a bespoke hand-patinated solid bronze ladder for your library ($800,000) or a historically accurate renovation of a $400 million Virginia horse farm—in short, if you’ve graduated from Restoration Hardware to the big leagues—Butler’s your man, though he’ll also happily refit a simple, smallish apartment. Butler’s friend Sofia Coppola has leaned on the hardware maestro for inspiration and assistance on several films. (The flurry of faxes about a home renovation sent to Bill Murray by his wife in Lost in Translation were on E.R. Butler letterhead, and included Butler’s renderings.) More recently, he’s consulted on Roman Polanski’s next film, God of Carnage, currently filming in Paris.
A few minutes later, Butler emerges from his offices in the back of the building. I ask him about a collection of decorative bronze rectangles arrayed atop a display case. Are they paperweights? A puzzle? Raw ingredients for a modular, ornamental trivet? “All of those things,” Butler says before filling me in on their intended use as a box chain for a chandelier that conceals the hanging cord inside itself. He designed it after noting that most chandelier chains are “inferior to what they could or should be,” as he puts it. “There’s such a dearth in the market of anything other than a series of oval links that I just started playing around.” Although Butler has the history of an industry on his shoulders, play seems to be his modus operandi.