The Case for the Closed Kitchen

An open kitchen
A sixties open kitchen.

 James on Flickr

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell makes a case for rooms; We concentrate on one of them.

Kate Wagner is best known for her @mcmansionhell sideline, at its best this week with her dissection of Betsy DeVos’s summer house. Now, writing at CityLab, she makes The Case for Rooms, saying it’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design. She addresses the kitchen in particular, a subject dear to this TreeHugger’s heart, and unlike just about everyone else in the world (including most TreeHugger readers) agrees with me that kitchens should be closed, not open.

One of the reasons I have disliked open kitchens is that they don’t really work the way people live and eat today. There are a few people around for whom cooking is a performance, but for most, it is a matter of different members of the family using small appliances, which are proliferating, and need a place to hide.

That’s why developers are now providing what developer Taylor Morrison called the “messy kitchen” in addition to the big fancy open kitchen; I described it on MNN:

credit: NEXTadventure

© NEXTadventure

This is insane. There is a six-burner range and a double oven in the kitchen and another big range and exhaust hood in the outdoor kitchen — but they know full well that everyone is hiding in the messy kitchen, nuking their dinner, pumping their Kuerig and toasting their Eggos.

Wagner thinks that the messy kitchen "offers hope for a transitional period where open spaces may become closed again." I believe she is right, that the reality of how we live is actually sinking in. She writes that technological changes made the open kitchen possible:

When inventions such as central air conditioning and improved fire suppression became commonplace, the kitchen, no longer a place of shame and no longer reliant upon the ventilation provided by the kitchen door, began to shift to different parts of the home. The attached garage often replaced the backyard as the common point of entry into the kitchen.

Wolf/ There is no way that range hood is going to anything. /Promo image

Wagner also includes many of the reasons I have promoted closed kitchens; it is actually more efficient for cooking because the distances are shorter. Smells are contained. (Kitchen ventilation is, as I have noted, a huge problem, particularly in modern, tightly sealed energy efficient homes.) Being an acoustics expert, of course she notes:

Not separating cooking, living, and dining is also an acoustical nightmare, especially in today’s style of interior design, which avoids carpet, curtains, and other soft goods that absorb sound. This is especially true of homes that do not have separate formal living and dining spaces but one single continuous space. Nothing is more maddening than trying to read or watch television in the tall-ceilinged living room with someone banging pots and pans or using the food processor 10 feet away in the open kitchen.
working class

Scan from Light, Air and Openness/Public Domain

However, I think Wagner is missing some of the key reasons that the open kitchen developed, and why I believe it should die. As Paul Overy wrote in his book Light Air and Openness, kitchens used to be multifunction spaces in working class homes. When the hygiene movement took root after the First World War, it was thought that kitchens should be more like hospital rooms than living spaces. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the Frankfurt Kitchen accordingly; Overy writes:

Rather than the social centre of the house as it had been in the past, this was designed as a functional space where certain actions vital to the health and wellbeing of the household were performed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926/CC BY 2.0

It was consciously designed to be too small to eat in, “therefore eliminating the unpleasant effects produced by smell, vapours and above all the psychological effects of seeing leftovers, plates, bowls, washing-up clothes and other items lying around.”

But it was also designed to free women from the drudgery of the kitchen.

Frederick was a serious women's rights activist and saw efficient design as a way to help women get out of the kitchen, but Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was much more radical in her design of the Frankfurt Kitchen ten years later. She designed the small, efficient kitchen with a social agenda; according to Paul Overy, the kitchen “was to be used quickly and efficiently to prepare meals and wash up, after which the housewife would be free to return to ... her own social, occupational or leisure pursuits."
credit: Xray-delta

Xray-delta/CC BY 2.0

The American kitchen of the fifties was the direct antithesis; after being part of the work force during the Second World War, women had to return to domestic duties so that the men could have their jobs back. I wrote:

In the fifties, any thoughts like those of Christine Fredericks or Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, where women would be freed from kitchen responsibilities were pretty much extinguished by the baby boom, as the woman's job once again became cooking for dad and feeding the kids.
50s kitchen

James Vaughan on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In the fifties and sixties, the kitchen was all about putting women in their place- room to make the food while looking after children. Today, most of the time, the kitchen isn’t even functioning as a kitchen- according to research, less than 60 percent of American meals are actually made at home, only 24 percent of meals are made from scratch, and 42 percent of meals are eaten alone. But the average fridge is opened 40 times per day; the kitchen is just a grazing pasture now. As I have written:

What has happened in the last fifty years is that we have outsourced our cooking; first to frozen and prepared foods, then to fresh prepared foods that you buy in the supermarket, and now trending to online ordering. The kitchen has evolved from a place where you cook to a place where most people just do the warming.
credit: Warendorf By Starck

© Warendorf By Starck

I have also written that “the kitchen becomes an exhibit demonstrating how much money the working man and woman have, a place to put on a show on weekends, often by the man who likes the showy stuff.” I concluded in one post:

Kitchen design, like every other kind of design, is not just about how things look; it is political. It is social. In kitchen design, it is all about the role of women in society. You can't look at kitchen design without looking at sexual politics.

You do not want to read the comments that this generated, where I get called a lot of nasty things. But I stand by my my basic thesis: The open kitchen has always been a bad idea, from a thermal, practical, health and even social point of view, and now as Kate Wagner points out, because of acoustics too. As she concludes: “Sometimes, true freedom means putting up a few barriers.”