The Midcentury Kitchen Is a Riot of Color, From Avocado Green to Harvest Gold (Book Review)

credit: 1961 Hotpoint kitchen

Sarah Archer shows how the kitchen became the colorful nerve center of the modern house.

Midcentury kitchen book

Midcentury Kitchen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I was so excited when I learned about Sarah Archer’s new book, The Midcentury Kitchen. I usually buy e-books these days, but wanted this as a keeper because this was the book I have always wanted to write, the story about how our modern kitchen came to be.

credit: The American Woman's Home/ Christine Beecher

The American Woman's Home/ Christine Beecher/Public Domain

We would have started in the same place, with Catharine Beecher, who with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “The American Woman’s Home.” Archer suggests that it was primarily about technological change: “The sisters knew that industrialization, new appliances and new ways of processing and selling food were going to transform American domestic life.” Archer in fact stresses technological change throughout the book.

I would make the case that all of the dramatic changes in the way kitchens work are adaptations not to technological change, but to massive social change. I have written that “it is all about politics, about the role of women in our homes and in society.” Beecher was designing a kitchen for a world without slavery after the Civil War, writing:

We cannot in this country maintain to any great extent the retinues of servants... Every mistress of a family knows that her cares increase with every additional servant. A moderate style of housekeeping, small, compact and simple domestic establishment must necessarily be the general order of life in America.
credit: Christine Frederick/ Ladies Home Journal

Christine Frederick/ Ladies Home Journal/Public Domain

Christine Frederick’s most important work, "Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home," came out in 1919, after the end of the First World War, a time of radical social disruption, the rise of communism, and the turning upside down of traditional social roles. The maids who previously worked in the kitchens found roles in factories, making more money in less time. Frederick had been writing about this stuff in Lady’s Home Journal since 1912, but it was only post-war that there was a social need for truly efficient kitchens.

credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

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

Then we have the Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Archer describes it and says, “The result was that the home and its nerve centre, the kitchen, was made better, cleaner, and more efficient so that wives and mothers could cook and care for their families with ever greater ease and effectiveness.”

This is the understatement of the entire book. The Frankfurt kitchen was designed in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu that killed millions, and the understanding of germ theory in the time before antibiotics. This was a massive social crisis, rebuilding whole countries to eliminate slums, provide fresh air and light and space, which was responsible for cutting the rate of tuberculosis in half.

Model of Frankfurt Kitchen

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

The kitchen was to be like an operating room; one architect wrote that it “should be the cleanest place in the home, cleaner than the living room, cleaner than the bedroom, cleaner than the bathroom.” You can’t have people hanging around doing homework or reading the paper.

Schütte-Lihotzky was also a woman’s rights activist who want to get women out of the kitchen. In his book Light, Air and Openness, Paul Overy wrote that the Frankfurt 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."

The title of Archer’s recent article in Citylab is The Frankfurt Kitchen Changed How We Cook—and Live. That’s not exactly true. Schütte-Lihotzky didn’t invent fitted cabinets, and would have disapproved of the kitchen that Citylab illustrates their post with, because there is that kitchen table. As one architect described the Frankfurt Kitchen, it was separate from the dining room “to the great benefit of the family’s health” and was designed as “a passage of such narrow width that there is no space for family meals in the housewife’s laboratory.” Overy quotes:

Our apartment kitchens are arranged in a way which completely separates kitchen work from the living area, 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.
credit: Xray-delta

Xray-delta/CC BY 2.0

Which brings us to the postwar kitchen, where Sarah Archer’s book shines, with the glorious march of industry and advertising and marketing. But why is this happening? Because of another massive social disruption. Women had spent the war in factories doing productive work, and now had to make way for all the returning soldiers. Managing the wonderful big new kitchen and raising wonderful children was now the woman’s full time job, and THIS kitchen was the control centre, the nerve centre. We now had antibiotics, so no more worries about TB.

The kitchen is now party central, and Sarah Archer finds just the best collection of images and ads from the time, the most wonderful kitchens. There is an entire section of the kitchens of the future, one of our favourite things.


© Monsanto House of the Future interior

There is the Monsanto House of the Future that inspired me to become an architect, the Miracle Kitchen in Moscow, designed by the architect of happiness Andrew Geller, where Nikita Krushchev told Richard Nixon that “your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism.” He nailed it, as did Betty Friedan, who Archer says “identified the housewife as the chief customer of American business... someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives.”

Today, lots of women work and lots of men cook, and kitchens are changing again. I have written that it might well disappear altogether, noting that “Beecher, Frederick and Schütte-Lihotzky wanted to free women from the kitchen; the architects and the builders of the fifties and sixties wanted to put women back into the kitchen; the architects and designers of this century recognize that most of the time it is no longer even functioning as a kitchen.”

credit: Warendorf By Starck

© Warendorf By Starck

But where I differ with Sarah Archer is that it was never, ever about technology. "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." And that should be, as Schütte-Lihotzky suggested, following "her own social, occupational or leisure pursuits."