Closed or open kitchen? Charlotte Perriand's design is the best of both worlds

Perriand kitchen at the Centre Pompidou
CC BY 2.0 Perriand kitchen at the Centre Pompidou/ Jean-Pierre Dalbera on Flickr

Lessons from the kitchens at Le Corbusier's Unité d’Habitation in Marseille.

There has been much debate on this site about the virtues of open vs. closed and separate kitchens, with this TreeHugger coming down firmly on the side of the closed kitchen, with the Frankfurt Kitchen designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky being the prototype, the "clean machine" for cooking.

Dominique Gerardin with Tim BentonOwner Dominique Gerardin with Historian Tim Benton/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
However, while touring Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation, I visited the apartment of Dominique Gerardin, owner of the Hotel Le Corbusier, on the third floor. The kitchen is not totally original, but is mostly the one designed by Charlotte Perriand. According to Wendy Kaplan of LACMA, which owns one of the kitchens,

Le Corbusier asked her to take charge of designing the kitchens and apartment furnishings for L’Unité d’Habitation. Le Corbusier had declared, “The kitchen in Marseille should become the center of French family life,” and Perriand ensured that it also heralded a new, liberated role for women.

Kitchen PlanOuvre Complet/ Le Corbusier/via

Unlike the Frankfurt kitchen, which was totally separated, the Perriand design had a low wall of cabinets, accessible from either side, which gave some visual privacy but didn't cut the kitchen off completely.

Model of Frankfurt KitchenModel of Frankfurt Kitchen, London Design Museum/CC BY 2.0

The Frankfurt Kitchen was designed to be a machine. Paul Overy described it: "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." Perriand's kitchen is different, as Kaplan explains:

Perriand also designed a “kitchen-bar,” providing integration with the living areas. As she wrote, this open counter with its sliding doors for dishes below “allowed the mistress of the house to be with her family and friends while she was cooking. Gone were the days when a woman was isolated like a slave at the northern end of a corridor.”

Dominique explaining kitchenDominique explaining kitchen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Here you can see Dominique, describing how the kitchen works, yet separated from the hordes of architects by the dividing kitchen-bar.

Pot storage covers exhaust hoodPot storage covers exhaust hood/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Note the sloping section where the pots are stored; that covers the kitchen exhaust, which is quite large, sized to really clear the air over the electric stove. Kaplan explains:

Based on ideas for a modern, labor-saving kitchen—developed by household reformers since the late 19th century—Perriand’s design took them further. The kitchen was modular, with built-in cabinets and advanced features for the time: an electric stove with an oven and fume hood, and a sink with an integrated waste disposal unit. Because L’Unité was designed for a middle-class clientele, an electric refrigerator would have been too expensive. However, the icebox was strategically installed to be supplied with ice delivered daily through the “interior street.” Work surfaces and walls were covered with aluminum sheeting to facilitate cleaning.

Interior StreetInterior Street with green iceboxes/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There was also a grocery store on the third floor, so you could have that icebox on the interior street stocked with food for dinner. They don't do that anymore, so now Dominique has a refrigerator under the stairs across from the kitchen.

view of complete kitchenLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are many lessons to be learned from this kitchen. It is small but efficient; separated but not enclosed; all-electric (very unusual at the time) with good ventilation; lots of carefully thought-out storage with a place for everything.

But what was most convincing was how Dominique could hold court, could talk to us, yet still claim the space as hers, in a kitchen that is not open but not quite closed. There was stuff all over her counters, but those on the outside can't see it because of the divider. It could be a messy kitchen, but nobody knows. It is perhaps the best of both worlds.

Closed or open kitchen? Charlotte Perriand's design is the best of both worlds
Lessons from the kitchens at Le Corbusier's Unité d’Habitation in Marseille.

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