What Is Really Going on in the Kitchen?

Everyone knows kitchens are for storing and preparing food, but the story of the American kitchen has always been about much more than feeding ourselves. The kitchen is central to our homes partly because food is central to our lives, but also because the kitchen can evoke our emotions, desires, and hopes.

In 2011 I got to The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to see Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen before it ended. Through the museum’s collection of objects, posters, videos, books, magazines, and art of various media, the exhibition looked at kitchens through different lenses: historical, aesthetic, technological, political, and social. It was fantastic to see how kitchens — more than any other room in the house — have been the site for scientific research, marketing campaigns, reformist interventions, and feminist critiques.

In the early decades of the 1900s scientific and academic studies of housework sought to make kitchens (and therefore women) more efficient. The utilitarian room was the target of domestic reformers who applied principles of scientific management. These were also the early years of industrial food processing, which promoted the cleanliness, safety, and new brand identities of mass-produced food and housewares. Women’s patterns of movement were evaluated and their routines timed in an effort to create layouts that would maximize efficiency and streamline housework.

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the model of the “Frankfurt Kitchen” (see two photos below). Designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926, it became an influential example of how rationalizing efforts combined with urbanization trends and social policy promoting affordable housing could create a thoughtful, standardized, hygienic, and egalitarian space.

Over time the principles represented in this compact, space-saving room shifted to accommodate a spirit of growth and abundance in the post-World War II United States. Advertising and consumerism increased with the spread of suburbs, as did emphasis on comfort and labor-saving devices; of course, kitchens reflected these changes. Also, access to appliances powered by electricity and gas expanded as rural electrification projects extended their reach.

The seductive emphasis on kitchens as status symbols and evidence of confident
forward-thinking mirrored America’s role as world leader in consumer goods. When then Vice-President Nixon and Soviet Premier Khrushchev visited a model American kitchen on display in Moscow in 1959, it became the site and topic of dialogue over the merits and achievements of their respective countries.

The MoMA exhibit also looked at discordant voices that challenged the concept of the kitchen as an apolitical, life-enhancing space. In a 1975 video piece titled Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler parodies popular cooking shows. Through a stylistic rendition of the alphabet using kitchen tools, she questions common assumptions about kitchens and women’s roles in them. Rosler’s 6-minute film calls attention to the anger, indignation, and dissatisfaction many felt with the conventional image of the happily self-sacrificing housewife.

So this trip to the museum got me thinking: What’s really going on in kitchens today? What would a future MoMA exhibition say about the early decades of the 21st century?

First, there is a good deal of continuity; many things have stayed with us. The anthropometry of 100 years ago helped conscientious designers improve the ergonomics of kitchens. Also, many of the appliances first seen in the mid-20th century “Dream Kitchens” have become ubiquitous, saving time and labor washing dishes and clothes. Further, the trend to combine kitchen space with living space has continued.

However, when it comes to actually cooking, kitchens today may have more in common with those of 1900 than with kitchens of 50 years ago. People are doing a lot of home cooking today, concerned about consuming less processed “convenience” foods. There is a strong interest in knowing where our food comes from, shown in a resurgence of kitchen gardens, people joining CSAs, and shopping at farmers’ markets. Perhaps these trends will affect kitchen design with a demand for modern root cellars and pantries for food storage. More conscious eating could also make smaller refrigerators more appealing, which would streamline many designs.

While we may be more eager today to look at cooking as a way to be healthier, it seems we also enjoy food preparation differently than in the past. The kitchen and the chores involved there are now less the exclusive province of women and girls; men and boys are often comfortable and capable there. Now the kitchen is more a space for the family to gather at all times of the day, as well as a site for entertainment and socializing with friends. I think kitchens will become even more integrated with living space — more open floor plans, with televisions, computers, and music all effortlessly part of the mix. And as I mentioned in a previous post, orienting the cooking surface so the cook can see the other people in the room will increasingly become a priority.

We’ll have to wait and see what trends are lasting, and how the greater world comes to penetrate the kitchen space. There’s so much more that could be written here; I’d love to hear other thoughts.

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