This Plan Proves the Open Kitchen Should Die

How one family from the study spends its afternoons: In the kitchen and in front of the TV.
How one family from the study spends its afternoons: In the kitchen and in front of the TV.

J. Arnold

You've probably seen this image before; it has been doing the rounds on the internet, usually presented as proof that big, open kitchens are wonderful and dining rooms are vestigial and useless.

Most recently, it showed up on Marketwatch under the catchy title Here's all the space we waste in our big American homes, in one chart. The author links back to his source, Steve Adcock, a guy who lives in an Airstream trailer and wrote Think you need a 2000 sqft house to be comfortable? Think again! Adcock links back to a Wall Street Journal article, which reviewed a 2012 book "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century" edited by Jeanne Arnold and issued by The Center on Everyday Lives of Families (or CELF) at the University of California, Los Angeles. However, except for the original WSJ review, I'm not certain anyone actually read the book, because its main finding is that everyone is overwhelmed with stuff and needs more space, not less.

book cover
When you look inside the book, you find it's not what you think it is. (Photo: 'Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century')

Half a dozen people have sent me the drawing since it popped up again, using it to prove me wrong because I complain about open kitchens so much. "You see!" they write. "Everybody wants to live in the kitchen!" or "Open kitchens all the way. The kitchen should be the heart of the house, not tucked away out of sight and mind."

When it was suggested that I write about this, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I bought the book, which was a revelation. It's not about opinions or about what designers think, but about serious ethnographic research.

Our team of UCLA scientists began a 4-year-long field project to document the rich fabric of daily life at home among busy dual-income middle-class parents and their children. We located 32 families in the greater Los Angeles area who shared our vision of the importance of this enterprise.

They documented how people actually lived with unretouched photographs and other technologies; the famous map was made by tracking one family’s position every 10 minutes over the course of two weekday afternoons and evenings. And indeed, people are spending a lot of time in the kitchen; one mother says "this is where I spend a lot of my evenings. Besides my full-time job as a parent, this is my other full-time job — in the kitchen."

Why do we do it? The study authors write:

The hearth, the campfire, the bread oven — all have been for millennia the places where people exchange information, spin stories, transmit histories, and socialize children regarding how to interact with foods and how to be a member of the culture. Indeed, an orientation to the hearth as a place of provisioning, warmth, safety, learning, and social interaction may be deeply ingrained in the human psyche, accounting in part for why people in modern industrial nations still gravitate to the kitchen.
what happens in the kitchen
What's happening in the kitchen? not a lot of cooking. (Photo: Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century)

What's happening in the kitchen? Not a lot of cooking, apparently. (Graphic from Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century)

Yes, but for millennia, this is what women did with their lives: raise kids and cook food in the kitchen room. But look at how they're using the kitchen now: only 21.1 percent of their time is spend preparing food. The rest of the time, they're apparently doing stuff while they watch their kids do homework.

Meanwhile, it’s a cluttered mess. If you look at the many photographs, every surface is covered with phones charging, mail and papers, there is barely room to cook. Kitchens are supposed to be sanitary, but it's almost impossible in this environment. There are a lot of photos of kitchen sinks:

Parents’ comments on these spaces reflect a tension between culturally situated notions of the tidy home and the demands of daily life. The photographs reflect sinks at various points of the typical weekday, but for most families, the tasks of washing, drying, and putting away dishes are never done. ... Empty sinks are rare, as are spotless and immaculately organized kitchens. All of this, of course, is a source of anxiety. Images of the tidy home are intricately linked to notions of middle-class success as well as family happiness, and unwashed dishes in and around the sink are not congruent with these images.

And it's not as if they are all gathered around that kitchen table to eat together; "just one in six families consistently eat dinner together ... nearly one-quarter of the families did not dine together at all during the study. Even when all family members are at home, they gather to consume the evening meal together just 60 percent of the time." They don't spend much time at it, either: "The duration of typical American Dinner pales by comparison to primary meals in many parts of Europe, where people still savor the quality of foods and relish the social interactions enjoyed during a good meal." Only one quarter of meals are prepared from scratch.

The limited minutes families spend eating are often entangled with other facets of life. Unrelated activities happen during one third of dinners in our sample, usually centered on homework, television, or phone calls. As well, kitchen tabletops and even formal dining room tables in some homes are left fully laden with piles of bills, bulky toys, and the ephemera of daily living while diners are eating.

Enough already, this is wrong.

A hundred years ago, when germ theory had been figured out, it was thought that kitchens were not places where you should pile up crap and ephemera of daily life. One architect wrote:

The kitchen should be the cleanest place in the home, cleaner than the living room, cleaner than the bedroom, cleaner than the bathroom. The light should be absolute, nothing must be left in shadow, there can be no dark corners, no space left under the kitchen furniture, no space left under the kitchen cupboard.
frankfurt kitchen
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's little Frankfurt Kitchen, 1926. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, two brilliant women, Christine Frederick in the USA and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in Germany, were actively trying to get women out from under that pile of dishes. Schütte-Lihotzky designed the small Frankfurt kitchen 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." I wrote earlier:

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."
big kitchen for kids
Kohler kitchen, now in Harvest Gold!. (Photo: Kohler via James Vaughan on Flickr)

After World War II, when women had to leave the factories and offices, kitchens suddenly got big again so that women could get back to what was described earlier by a woman in the study: "my full-time job as a parent, this is my other full-time job — in the kitchen." Women were not to be given a place for her own social or leisure pursuits. Their place was in the kitchen.

After reading the book, and studying that map in the light of what I learned, I’m more convinced than ever that the open kitchen is fundamentally wrong; it traps women, it's not sanitary, and with all the other activity going on in there like kids doing homework, it's chaotic.

It's not the 1950s anymore; it's time to recognize how we live and eat, and what the role of women is in society. And it's not in a big open kitchen.