Corbels – Modern Uses And What To Look For
Corbels, as an architectural element, have been around for hundreds of years. Their popularity has not diminished but has, in fact, increased over time. The word “corbel” comes from the French word for raven presumably because of its “beak” like projection. Originally corbels were used as a structural component bearing a load. They were typically made of stone (though old timber corbels abound) and are still in many places supporting balconies, parapets and arches. Some of the finest examples of corbels can be seen in old Europe. The wooden variety of corbels exists in many timber frame structures especially in England. Often ornately carved, corbels were used to embellish window sills and to support oriel windows – a form of bay window that does not reach the ground. Corbel “tables” can also be viewed on older buildings. A corbel table, mostly ornamental, is a row of corbels supporting a protruding wall or a masonry strip. Another type of Corbel is an “Ancone”. Greek for “elbow” or “hollow”, the Ancone is a scroll shape that provided the same function as the corbel.
Presently, the use of corbels has become more of a decorative embellishment in today’s modern home. Though there may be some structural purpose, their function for the most part is aesthetical. The stone corbels of yesteryear have been supplanted by their wooden counterparts. Historically, the ornamentation in corbels was patterned after Greek columns and capitals or in some cases animals or other whimsical creatures. Many examples of modern corbels follow this same historical ornamentation. The craftsman era, though, produced a plainer variety sometimes called a bracket.
Modern uses of the corbel include kitchen counter overhangs, range hoods, fireplace mantel surrounds and mantel shelves as well as spicing up cabinetry in the kitchen or elsewhere. The contemporary popularity of the corbel is certainly due to the added embellishment to otherwise plain cabinetry and millwork. That’s not to say that the effect cannot be overdone. Just like any other design feature, corbels can ruin a room as well as “make” a room. The quality of the corbels can have the same effect. Poorly crafted pieces are as evident as well executed corbels.
The manufacturing process, like anything else, has an impact on the look and feel of the piece. Carving machines and CNC technology, though efficient and fast, create a piece that look massed produced. The routers used in these two methods cannot replicate the beauty and “signature” of a well executed hand-carved corbel. Even a casual observer should be able to tell the difference. The hand caved corbel will not be perfect, to be sure, but that is part of “romance” that makes this method superior to mass production. A hand-carved corbel will likely cost more but for most the price is not out of reach because most hand carved work is coming from overseas where wages are still lower than in the US. As designers, builders and architects we still have access to affordable, genuinely hand-carved corbels and as such can adorn our living spaces with them.