The Design Observer Group


Posted 08.27.10


Alexandra Lange

What's Cooking in Kitchen Design?


An example of a modern, open kitchen. Photo: Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

This essay originally appeared in the 
New York Times Opinionator, August 27, 2010.

Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a New York-based architect, is famous for his broad palette of traditional styles that includes neoclassical, gothic and art deco. So it was no surprise to see his condominium tower at 15 Central Park West draw heavily on the classic prewar New York apartment, complete with crown molding and parquet floors. Mr. Stern’s luxury condos don’t hew to prewar standards in every respect, of course; they have all the modern amenities (and then some) that you’d expect for eight figures. Still, it’s striking how far the floor plans veer from tradition in a place that has come to define the modern American home: the kitchen.

Prewar kitchens, no matter how grand the apartment, were for servants and wives. They were small spaces, the only light coming via the air shaft, closed off by double-swing doors. Many of 15 Central Park West’s apartments, in contrast, have open, airy kitchens big enough for tables, islands, sofas and widescreen TVs. And Mr. Stern’s designs aren’t alone — whether in new apartment towers or suburban homes, today’s kitchens are as much about entertaining and relaxing as slicing and boiling.

The contemporary kitchen is a huge leap forwards in making the home more casual and meals more sociable. But it papers over a century of attempts by designers, engineers and home economists to make life easier for the cook. The narrow galley kitchen, the horror of today’s host-cum-chef, is in fact a paragon of efficiency, saving steps by putting ingredients and gadgets within easy reach. And although some architects and their clients look askance at their cramped spaces and out-of-the-way location, they were actually a vast improvement on the kitchens of the Victorian era, which were large, unplanned and inefficient.

Not that efficiency in kitchen design hasn’t trickled down to the present. Many of the elements that define today’s kitchen — integrated counters, cabinets and appliances, modular and wall-mounted — started with a new type of cabinet invented and popularized during the 1910s by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company. The cabinet looked like a china hutch on steroids. Built-in sifters held flour and sugar, with a built-in spice rack on the door of the cabinet above. An enameled counter slid out to create work space and pots, pans and bowls were stored in cupboards below. A food mill could be permanently attached to the side, and basic recipe charts developed by Christine Frederick, a pioneering home economist, were affixed to the cabinet doors. The housewife or servant could stand in one place and make a complete meal, stepping back only to bring filled pans to the stove or dirty bowls to the sink — a many-armed Shiva, measuring, mixing, grinding and pouring.

By 1920, the company had sold over 2 million Hoosier cabinets, which promised that “every staple food, every utensil, every movable adjunct to the preparation of meals — and the cleaning up after them — finds its logical place. Each is easy to get at — without walking, reaching or stooping.” When industrial psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth made her famous motion studies of housework during the 1920s, she focused on the tasks embedded in the Hoosier kitchen. Saving steps meant saving time, saving steps meant saving energy and having one’s tools close to hand was as important at home as it was in the factory (which Gilbreth also helped to reform, along with engineer husband Frank Gilbreth).

But it was a German architect, Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky, who codified and popularized the fitted, modular galley kitchen. Schutte-Lihotsky’s “Frankfurt Kitchen,” which she created under the direction of Ernst May, the architect in charge of Frankfurt’s Municipal Building Department, was the first mass-produced kitchen to combine rational planning and modernist design. It is conceived as two parallel bars, one with a stove and a counter, the other with a sink, a counter and storage. Schutte-Lihotsky included an ingenious system of storage bins, similar to those on the Hoosier cabinet, which came with their own pour spouts. A sliding door allowed a housewife to close herself in, or keep an eye on the kids; later she could close the door on the smells and dirty pots. (In September, as part of the exhibition “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” the Museum of Modern Art will be exhibiting a complete Frankfurt Kitchen, recently acquired and now the earliest work by a female architect in its collection.)

So how did we go from efficiency to entertainment? In Mad Men, Betty Draper has wall ovens and a stove-top island, both desirable today; the differences are the brown plaid wallpaper and cabinets made from dowdy knotted pine. In other words, what felt like a battle in the 1920s was, by the mid-1960s, a victory. The emphasis on time-saving consumer technology, born in the Frankfurt Kitchen and fueled by the postwar domestic revolution in the United States, brought us the microwave, the fridge-freezer combo, the automatic coffee maker and a thousand other gadgets; with those in place, we could relax. The barrier between the workplace of the kitchen and the social space of the living room broke down; we could invite the rest of the family in.

Packaged foods meant children could help themselves. By the 1970s men were doing more cooking. The kitchen island became less a work station than a coffee counter to which anyone could pull up a stool. The kitchen cabinets got tricked out with moldings and white paint to match the furniture. The pass-through, one of few modernist domestic innovations to be adopted at a large scale, got bigger and bigger until the whole wall between kitchen and living room disappeared. With dishwashers, insulated stoves and powerful vents, there was no need for anyone to take the heat or look at a pile of dirty pots. The opening of the kitchen is not just for the suburbs, either; even small-scale New York apartment renovations typically remove the traditional wall. No one wants to be in the back of the house.

In an instance of history coming full circle, the styling of today’s mega-kitchens recall those from the end of the 19th century. Typically centered on a big work table, these were furnished piecemeal, with separate stoves, sinks and hutches standing around the walls, unlinked and unmatched. Consider the coveted spaces in the films of director Nancy Meyers. In It’s Complicated, for example, Meyers manages to resolve the feminist issues surrounding the kitchen by making Jane, her protagonist (played by Meryl Streep), a successful baker. Her cooking is her work and thus it can take up as much time and space as she wants.

And what Jane wants is straight out of 1900. The island is a marble-top table, the stove is free-standing, a linen curtain hides the under-counter shelving and in the corner, she’s simulated the Hoosier cabinet, with jars of flour and sugar and mixing bowls ready to hand. In Meyers’s popular fantasy world, unfitting the kitchen, letting it all hang out and saying goodbye to efficiency is the ultimate luxury.