What Will The Miracle Kitchen of the Future Look Like After COVID-19?

We could learn a lot from the Miracle Kitchen of 1957.

RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen
RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen.

 Whirlpool

"In this kitchen, you can bake a cake in three minutes. And in this kitchen, the dishes are scraped washed, and dried electronically. They even put themselves away. Even the floor is cleaned electronically. So welcome to this new wonderful world of pushbutton cooking, cleaning, and homemaking." From an RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen promotional film, attached below.

Early in the COVID-19 crisis, I wrote a number of posts about design after the coronavirus. I suggested that we should return to the closed kitchen as envisioned by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1927 – and that a kitchen should be closed, a separate place for cooking and nothing else. I wrote that "Schütte-Lihotzky’s parents died from tuberculosis and she suffered from it too. [Paul] Overy notes that she designed the Frankfurt Kitchen as if it was a nurses’ workstation in a hospital." I wrote later that "Guests don't get to hang out in restaurant kitchens, and they shouldn't get to hang out in home kitchens either."

Miracle Kitchen 1957
RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen.  Bettman Archives/Getty Images

Six months later, we know a lot more about the virus and how it is transmitted and have seen how families have adapted, and I have come to think that the post-COVID kitchen might look a lot more like the RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen of 1957.

One thing I got wrong is that people are actually doing a lot more cooking, and involving more of the family in the process. Where I had projected earlier that cooking might almost disappear into the cloud, the opposite has happened. According to Kim Severson in the New York Times,

"For the first time in a generation, Americans began spending more money at the supermarket than at places where someone else made the food. Grocers saw eight years of projected sales growth packed into one month. Shopping trends that were in their infancy were turbocharged. “People are moving on to more complex cooking, and we don’t see that going away,” said Rodney McMullen, the chairman and chief executive of Kroger, where sales rose 30 percent at the onset of the pandemic."

So you actually do want a bigger kitchen, with more room for the whole family to participate in the cooking.

More Storage and Bigger Fridges

Kelvinator Foodarama
Kelvinator Foodarama.  Kelvinator ad

For years I have been preaching "small fridges make good cities," suggesting that it is better and healthier to shop fresh every day as people do in much of Europe. My colleague Katherine Martinko disagreed, noting that she "can’t imagine life without a large fridge." Meanwhile, now that we have the pandemic, my wife Kelly isn't shopping every day, and our big freezer which used to only chill martini glasses is coming in very handy. As one food consultant noted in the Times, “People now go to the store with purpose. The number of trips went way down, and the size of the basket went way up."

Miracle kitchen
Miracle Kitchen. Bettman Archives/ Getty Images 

All those white cupboards above the guy there are refrigerators and storage that drop down with the wave of a hand. There are banks of automatic drawers below, a place for everything, all at the right temperature and humidity.

He is looking at the electric cart where the dishes are stored; when the woman flicks that switch at the control center, it rolls out and moves to the table, where the dishes and cutlery are removed. After dinner you put the dirty dishes back into the cart, it rolls into its garage, and turns into a dishwasher. There is much less handling and moving around.

The white counter around the control center is actually an induction cooktop; you can bring your bowl to the table, heat it up right there where you sit, with those slots at the back being an exhaust system that somehow whisks the air away.

Everything is Easy to Clean

Miracle Kitchen in Russia
Miracle Kitchen in Russia. Bob Lerner/ Library of Congress 

Every surface in the Miracle Kitchen was chosen for its ease of cleaning, and a sort of proto-Roomba would follow a prearranged path around the kitchen, both vacuuming and washing. All the cupboards had motion detectors and opened with a wave of the hand so that touching was minimized.

Universal Design

One of the designers of the Miracle Kitchen, Joe Maxwell, was a pioneer of universal design, where the kitchen adapts to different needs. Maxwell's son Tom writes that "for the Miracle Kitchen, this meant countertops that could raise and lower and wall cabinets that lowered when opened, conforming to the user rather than building code." Even the sink moved up and down, "from tiny to typical to tall" people. The vegetable bins and bottom drawers all slid out and raised up so that nobody ever had to bend over for anything.

And of course, there is a computer in the middle of the room that can supply all the recipes, keep track of the food, and even cook some basic dishes when people are in a hurry.

A few years ago I predicted the end of the kitchen as we know it.

"For most Americans, it will be a big, double-wide fridge full of frozen food, pretty much as it is now. For the wealthy, it will be artisanal, with Wolf ranges, Global knives and Le Creuset pots, plus a giant monitor on the fridge door to watch the YouTube videos from the cooking shows — and all stuff that is used perhaps once a week, as cooking becomes a hobby instead of a daily habit."

But the pandemic has turned everything upside down, perhaps permanently. According to Has Taaria of the NYU Stern School of Business,

At a scale not seen in over 50 years, America is cooking, a healthy move in the middle of a pandemic...In one recent survey, 54 percent of respondents said they cook more than before the pandemic, 75 percent said they have become more confident in the kitchen and 51 percent said they will continue to cook more after the crisis ends. Interest in online cooking tutorials, recipe websites and food blogs has surged.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky wanted to free women from the kitchen, designing it so that it “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." But post COVID-19, the kitchen has, for many, become a social and leisure pursuit on its own. So the lessons from the RCA Miracle Kitchen that we can learn from might be:

  • Lots of storage, including refrigeration and freezing, so that one doesn't have to shop as often;
  • Enough room for the family to participate;
  • Easy-to-clean surfaces;
  • Induction cooktops with lots of ventilation;
  • Robots! Roombas! Computers! Cakes in three minutes!

And if you liked that video, here is the best kitchen of the future video ever from GM and Frigidaire; watch from the beginning, but the kitchen starts at 3:22.