Hold that thought: the modern door handle that owes its origin to a philosopher

Modern version of the Wittgenstein handle

Metaphysical door handles anyone? Ludwig Wittgenstein is known as an influential philosopher of the 20th century, but is less famous for his modern door handle design. 

The Wittgenstein handle, designed in 1927, is considered the model for every subsequent tubular handle. It’s a simple l-shaped steel lever, but Wittgenstein designed several variations—all of which appear in a single house in Vienna. 

Wittgenstein’s door handle designs stem from the years following the publication of his first and only book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. After teaching primary school, the philosopher receded from society, working as a gardener at a monastery and living in a shed. His sister, eager to bring the philosopher back into the Viennese mainstream, invited him to help design her new house. Wittgenstein—who had no experience with architecture or design—agreed to help. 

The original

He focused on the smallest of details: windows, doors, window locks and radiators. The handles, in particular, were of concern to Wittgenstein. To the point of “driving locksmiths and engineers to tears” with infinitesimal changes, he spent a full year obsessing over the precise definitions of the handles. Their asymmetry reflects both a functional condition of the French windows – in which one lever has a double step in order to accommodate the mullion – and an unusual arrangement which allows the levers to express a hierarchy of spaces.


It took him another year to design the radiators. And each window was covered by a metal screen that weighed 150 kilograms, moved by a pulley: a metal curtain that could be lowered into the floor. He also insisted on other tiny details, like raising the ceiling of a room by 30 mm. However as one critic commented: ‘This is not as marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly, house its distinctive beauty.”

Once the house was completed, Wittgenstein resumed his career of philosophy. Wittgenstein handles can still be sourced today. 

Story for AIJ? Get in touch via email: [email protected]

Latest articles in Features