Thursday, October 07, 2021

Kitchen History

In today's Guardian: a fascinating history of modern kitchen design and ideology. Yes, ideology is really part of kitchens, because it's inextricable from the role of women in modern society. The title of the article, by Meg Conley:

Invisible fridges and cooling cubbies: how kitchens have been designed for the rich

The starting-off point in the article is the current trend of very high-end kitchens to have cabinet-fronted refrigerators so you can't see a recognizable appliance. (I've been seeing these custom-panel-covered fridges in design articles for a while, but they strike this writer as a novelty.) On the whole, the article seems to me a bit weak on the pre-20th-century history of kitchens, stating that back then: "kitchens were just random bits of furniture and a stove shoved in attics, basements and poorly ventilated back rooms. Architects didn’t care about kitchens because their high-end clients’ kitchens were filled with servants." This is far from complete or accurate, but never mind. Conley's focus on post World War I kitchens is interesting enough in itself.

Quite a lot of detail is included about Grete Schüette-Lihotzky (1897-2000), the first female architect in Austria. She designed a modern kitchen called the Frankfurt kitchen in the 1920s with "an orderly layout of storage, appliance and work surface." After her success in Frankfurt, Lihotzky went on to work on domestic architecture in Communist countries, for example: "Lihotzky helped design Magnitogorsk, an industrial city built around steel production. Magnitogorsk served as a shining example of the supremacy of the Soviet Union." During World War II, Lihotzky was in the resistance to the Nazis, and went on to work in various Communist countries. Kitchens throughout her life were a way for her to contribute to women's role in society: "Lihotzky believed the work of the home was real work. She thought it should be treated with professional dignity."

From another version of the article: A Frankfurt Kitchen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
I'm pretty sure I have seen this installation, as well as one in the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna.

The MAK installation of a Frankfurt kitchen (Wikipedia)

Another kitchen theorist was the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). Conley explains how Gilman's approach to domestic labor was interesting -- but incredibly racist.  Gilman proposed a hideous and shocking source of labor for domestic and other purposes: Black people. As the solution to what she saw as a problem: "Gilman wrote that the mere fact of Black people in America caused 'social injury.' Her 'suggestion' for that 'problem?'A forced labor corp, complete with uniforms and bases. She argued that Black people 'should be taken hold of by the state' and 'enlisted' into forced labor." I knew of Gilman only as a leader of early-20th-century American feminism, so I found this section of the kitchen design article very educational.

After a discussion of various issues of American consumerism, Conley concludes her interesting history lesson thus: "White communists, white socialists, white feminists, white capitalists and white supremacists were all hoping to engineer whole societies by designing the kitchen. Each saw kitchens as permanently fitted with women – they just disagreed over what that meant. All kept the footprint of patriarchal understanding and most anchored deep into racist foundations. None of their blueprints made room for the meaning of the work in the kitchen. Forget the meaning, they could hardly be bothered with the function."

There's also a longer version of Conley's article -- with really good illustrations -- at the blog Home Culture here. If you are at all interested in the subject of kitchen design, it's worth reading one of these versions, though I think they are quite incomplete and driven by ideology.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.


Divers and Sundry said...

omg, and I've always thought of Charlotte Perkins Gilman as forward thinking. But then I only knew her as a feminist. This is horrifying. I should research my authors more thoroughly before I judge them based on the few works I've read. Yikes!

I'm following your Home Culture link, thank you. Kitchen design is interesting. I wondered when we re-did ours why options I thought would make more sense weren't available at all.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Personally I don't like fridges that are concealed as you are limited in choice. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

Iris Flavia said...

Seeing this our tiny kitchen ain´t that bad after all.
We saw once apartment (we could not afford) with a dream kitchen.
Back then I joked, if we could have this, I would learn to cook and bake. Well this Frankfurt kitchen-style is OK after all.

kwarkito said...

answering your question on my blog : Most translations of Hamlet do not translate this expression literally. The translators take some liberties. There are "I distinguish a hawk from a heron" or "I distinguish a swan from a raven". There is a nonsense side to the original that is difficult to render. The closest French equivalent of this expression would be "je sais faire la difference entre une vessie et une lanterne" (I know how to distinguish between a bladder and a lantern), inspired by the French expression "prendre des vessies pour des lanternes" (to take bladders for lanterns), which means to delude oneself.
I hope my attempt at explanation is clear

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

The problem with built in refrigerators is if (and when) they have to be replaced, there is seldom a replacement that will fit properly. I had a dishwasher like that in my last home. Now I have dishpan hands.

I've never heard of Gilman, but if I had, I would have been horribly offended by her attitude.

I remember seeing the Frankfurt Kitchen at MoMA in Manhattan. I also remember learning about Lihotzky in an industrial engineering class I took in grad school. She was one of the first females to conduct time and motion studies.

Beth F said...

Yes, Gilman's less savory attitudes are often swept under the carpet.

Tina said...

We just looked at a house with a built in fridge and I didn't like it. Even though we have remodeled we considered moving father out so, took a look at another home. Replacement of the built-in, which would eventually happen, would be a problem.

Marg said...

We have a concealed dishwasher which I actually like. We just designed a new kitchen for our next house and we won't have that, let alone a concealed fridge. We are going to need to get a new fridge which I am looking forward to!

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

That was quite an insightful article. Who would think that "designing kitchens" could be so intwined with ,"White communists, white socialists, white feminists, white capitalists and white supremacists"philosophies. Great post and I certainly learned some fascinating information.

Debra Eliotseats said...

I swear I've seen that bottom photo in a design mag.