The word corbel comes from the Latin word curvus, which means “raven.” In French, the word for corbel is corbeau, which means “crow.” A corbel is a bracket built into or projecting out from a wall, supporting the weight of a structure above it. Its shape resembles that of a crow’s beak, inspiring its present-day name.
Most modern corbels are simple in design. However, they have a more elaborate history. Many were carved in the images of animals (real and imaginary), human faces, and foliage. French and Italian corbels were larger in size and were decoratively designed. Medieval buildings very often featured embellished, detailed corbels. Corbel arches were widely used in Babylonian architecture. These arches were made by overlapping corbels so that they met at a peak, creating a strong, supportive structure. Mayans used series of corbel arches (called corbel vaults) that were strong enough to support roofs and even entire stories. These arch and vault designs are prominent in cultures prior to the “discovery” of curving arches.
Materials used for traditionally carving corbels include wood, stone, and metal. More modern materials also include plaster or plastic. In addition to hand-carving, corbels can also be cast or molded. Ornately-carved corbels, such as those seen in Medieval or Renaissance designs, are often made from single pieces of stone. Individual corbels were spaced out like brackets to support structures from underneath. Solid pieces provide continuous support across the entire bottom of a structure. These types of continuous corbels are most often seen under projecting windows, like bay or oriel windows.
Corbels made from traditional materials and designed with historical motifs are still widely available and used in current architecture worldwide. One specific use is for the support of heavy countertops in modern kitchens. Popular materials, such as granite, quartz, marble, butcher block, concrete, Corian, and Silestone are heavy and require strong supports. This is not support that even well-made solid wood cupboards underneath the countertops can provide. The support of corbels is necessary for such heavy countertops.
New trends in design and appearance for kitchens are constantly evolving. Currently, there is a compelling preference for kitchens that use high-quality, solid materials incorporated into stream-lined, efficient, functional spaces. Homeowners want both appearance and practicality for the “heart” of their homes. Creating these family-friendly spaces as well as lavish galleries from traditional materials often presents a challenge for designers and homeowners, causing them to explore and push the structural limits of solid kitchen surfaces.
Standard legs, angle brackets, and traditional carved corbels are succumbing to this current trend as well. In favor of the streamlined appearance preferred by current customers, the hidden corbel has emerged. These strong brackets do all the work done by elaborate wooden or stone-carved corbels, but are nearly invisible. Kitchens that make use of this clever design achieve the spacious, clean look that homeowners desire with the attractive, high-quality materials they love. The practicality of the hidden corbel is also undeniable for family-friendly, high-traffic kitchens. Space under counters is more efficiently used for seating or open shelving. When used for seating, space under the counter is best serviced with the hidden corbel because it is not in the way; whereas a series of large, visible corbels make legs and knees easy targets for injury.
Hidden bracket corbels can be even more seamlessly incorporated into the kitchen design because they can be painted to match. This increases the illusion of floating countertops further, while maintaining the structural support heavy materials must have. Using these in modern kitchen design allows the materials themselves – gorgeous solid countertops – to be in the spotlight while giving the homeowner every advantage of functionality and efficient use of the most popular room in the house.