Is the End of the Kitchen Nigh?

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credit: 1961 Hotpoint kitchen

A new report suggests that soon we will order everything in and we won't need a kitchen at all.

When Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed what became known as the Frankfurt Kitchen 90 years ago, it had a strong 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."

Frigidaire kitchen of the future

Frigidaire kitchen of the future/Promo imageNow, a new study from Swiss investment bank UBS’s Evidence Lab asks “Is the Kitchen Dead?” According to Business Insider, the Lab team writes:

"There could be a scenario where by 2030 most meals currently cooked at home are instead ordered online and delivered from either restaurants or central kitchens. The ramifications for the food retail, food producer and restaurant industries could be material, as well as the impact on property markets, home appliances and robotics."

credit: RCA/ Whirlpool

© RCA/ Whirlpool

Not to mention the home and apartment design market, where everything is confused right now. In bigger homes, people are designing “messy kitchens”, separate rooms, because the fancy open kitchen is for show or “event cooking” while most food is prepared in the little room with the modern tools -- the Keurig, the microwave and the toaster for the Eggos, or more likely today, where the Deliveroo or Uber Food order is removed from its single-use plastic packaging. In smaller apartments, the kitchen is almost vestigial; Arwa Mahdawi of the Guardian cleverly puts it: “While the kitchen used to be the heart of the home, it’s becoming more like an appendix.”

One factor driving the gradual extinction of the kitchen is the explosion of food delivery apps. According to UBS, food delivery apps are now, on average, in the top 40 most downloaded apps in major markets. They’re particularly beloved by millennials, who are three times more likely to order takeaway than their parents. “As this generation matures, home cooking could fade away,” the report suggests.

Like almost anything else, food is cheaper when it is mass-produced. “The total cost of production of a professionally cooked and delivered meal could approach the cost of home-cooked food, or beat it when time is factored in,” notes UBS. It is certainly more convenient. The killer paragraph from UBS:

For skeptics, consider the analogy of sewing and clothes production. A century ago, many families in now-developed markets produced their own clothes. It was in some ways another household chore. The cost of purchasing pre-made clothes from merchants was prohibitively expensive for most, and the skills to produce clothing existed at home. Industrialisation increased production capacity, and costs fell. Supply chains were established and mass consumption followed. Some of the same characteristics are at play here: we could be at the first stage of industrialising meal production and delivery.
credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

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

The whole point of the Frankfurt Kitchen was to minimize women’s work and free up their time for more useful and enjoyable things. Arwa Mahdawi talks to an architect who thinks getting rid of kitchens carries this a step further; like buying clothes instead of making them, ordering in our meals “pushes us to “[outsource] domestic work, with jobs where people receive compensation”.

There are many who will push back and say that cooking is fun, gathering around the kitchen island is how you keep in touch with your family. The TreeHugger party line is that we should be buying local and seasonal food and eliminating the single-use packaging that all this delivered food comes in. Industrialized food often has too much salt and fat and the portions are often too large. Also, as Rose Eveleth wrote in her wonderful article Why the 'Kitchen of the Future' Always Fails Us, these futurists are mostly men who think "Why don't you microwave some Soylent?"

Many of the engineers and designers behind future-looking projects see their roles as one of creating hardware and software. They aren't trained to think about technology in a cultural context, and they're not designing kitchens while thinking about the social baggage and gender politics that come along with them.

But that traditional family is disappearing, and let’s get real; half of North America can’t even be bothered to make a cup of coffee, preferring to outsource it to their Keurig. The home delivery industry is booming. According to UBS, most of our food will be prepared in large robotic kitchens and delivered by drones and droids. So why would anyone need a kitchen at home, any more than they need a sewing machine?