Where Our Kitchens Came From and Where They Are Going

Two people standing in a large retro kitchen
credit: 1961 Hotpoint kitchen

This is a series where I take my lectures presented as adjunct professor teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto, and distill them down to a sort of Pecha Kucha slide show of 20 slides that take about 20 seconds each to read.

How did kitchens get to be how they are, and where are kitchens going? Certain things go in and out of fashion (like bright yellow appliances) but other things seem to never change. While part of our class project this year to determine how to design a healthy house, here is a look at how to do a green, sustainable and healthy kitchen.

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Serious Work

credit: Upper Canada Village kitchen via Ancestral Roofs

Before indoor plumbing, gas and the development of kitchen appliances, cooking was serious, and dangerous work, often on open fires. Women wore dresses with lots of fabric and often were burned to death by the open flames. It was hot; that's why there were often summer kitchens with another fireplace in the back garden. It was not particularly organized or efficient either; just a table as a work surface.

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credit: The American Woman's Home/ Christine Beecher

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin; her sister Catherine Beecher is not quite as well known, but the two of them wrote The American Woman's Home in 1869. They were looking at ways to minimize the use of servants in the kitchen, recognizing that a society without slaves would be very different. Siegfried Gideon quotes the book in Mechanization Takes Command:

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.

Noting that "the cooks galley in a steamship has every article and utensil used in cooking for 200 people in a space so arranges so that with one or two steps the cook can reach all he uses," Beecher laid out a kitchen with a logical order. The stove is in a separate area because they were uninsulated and very hot, so it could be closed off with sliding doors.

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Household Engineering

credit: Christine Frederick/ Ladies Home Journal

In 1919, Christine Frederick applied the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor on time and motion to the kitchen in her book book Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home. Rain Noe of Core77 writes in his series on the history of kitchens: Frederick was interested in Taylorism not because she wanted to help people shovel coal faster; she had the radical idea of applying scientific management to domestic situations. According to Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller in The Bathroom and Kitchen and the Aesthetics of Waste, "her most influential recommendations dealt with the layout of storage units and work surfaces, which she modeled on the assembly line of the modern factory."

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credit: Hoosier kitchen

But built-in cabinetry was expensive, so many people made do with "kitchen dressers." Lupton and Miller explain that the Hoosier kitchen (named after the most famous manufacturer) "reflected contemporary theories of home economy by concentrating preparation and storage functions into a single unit. The cabinets were designed to hold both food and utensils; the more elaborate models were equipped with flour dispensers and revolving racks for jars of condiments.

They had some interesting features, such as pullout counters to extend the work surface and have leg room to sit down, and the ad for this particular model notes that standard heights don't work for everyone. "This was all right for some women, but for many the table top was either too high or too low." Now you can get a HOOSIER that is exactly as high or as low as you need it. No matter how tall or how short you may be, your NEW HOOSIER exactly fits you." Now that is a good idea whose time has come.

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credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

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."

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.

No more drudgery! Get in and get out. This was radical, and became pretty much the standard for apartment kitchens.

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Metal Kitchens

credit: Modern Steel Equipment Co

According to Mike Jackson, writing in The Rise of the Modern Kitchen

The major breakthrough leading to the kitchen of today occurred in the 1930s with the introduction of modular kitchen cabinets and continuous countertops. That era also corresponded to design changes and innovations within the Modern movement in materials, appliances, and plumbing fixtures. The period was a truly remarkable decade of residential transformation and the kitchen was the place where many Americans got their first chance to express their Modern design sensibilities.

This all-metal kitchen from the mid-thirties would not look out of place today- standard height counters and cupboards, window over the sink, electric fridge and there is even a mixmaster on the counter.

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credit: Xray-delta

From that point on until now, the improvements were incremental; plastic laminate counters replaced linoleum and tile, appliances got better. In the seventies we got an explosion of choice in kitchen countertops. Kitchens got bigger, fridges got way bigger. In the fifties any thoughts like those of Christine Fredericks or Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, where women would be freed from kitchen responsibilities were pretty much extinguished by the baby boom, as the woman's job once again became cooking for dad and feeding the kids.

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Dreaming Design

credit: Frigidaire kitchen of the future

But judging from all the automated kitchens of the future that were being proposed in the fifties, it is apparent that people wanted to get out from kitchen drudgery. They wanted labor saving devices, even totally robotic kitchens. Watch Design For Dreaming at 3:22 for the kitchen of the future in 1956. It is all automated, but the food is still all made from scratch.

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Women in the Kitchen

credit: RCA/ Whirlpool

When computers started becoming common in the late fifties and early sixties, they were seen as the answer to the problem of the kitchen. But as Rose Eveleth notes in her article Why the "Kitchen of the Future" always fails us, It is all still about women in the kitchen.

Around the corner, in the kitchen, our lovely future wife is making dinner. She always seems to be making dinner. Because no matter how far in the future we imagine, in the kitchen, it is always the 1950's, it is always dinnertime, and it is always the wife's job to make it. Today's homes of the future are full of incredible ideas and gizmos, but while designers seems happy to extrapolate far beyond what we can do today when it comes to battery life or touch screens, they can't seem to wrap their minds around any changes happening culturally. In a future kitchen full of incredible technology, why can we still not imagine anything more interesting than a woman making dinner alone?

And another great video:

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Kitchen Evolution

credit: New American Home

That is how we got to where we are, with kitchens as big as apartments, where kitchen islands have become archipelagos and continents, all mostly for show since people don't cook the way they used to. Because when you look at all those kitchens of the future that were imagined in the past, people are looking for ways to cook faster or easier from scratch. When what has happened in the last fifty years is that we have outsourced our cooking; first to frozen and prepared foods, then to fresh prepared foods that you buy in the supermarket, and now trending to online ordering. The kitchen has evolved from a place where you cook to a place where most people just do the warming.

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Messy Kitchen

credit: NEXTadventure

A hundred years ago, kitchens in bigger houses had butler's pantries, which acted as a buffer between the kitchen and dining room. Today, developers are actually proposing a separate "messy kitchen", another room that's designed for all the stuff you actually use: the toaster, the coffee machine, the messy stuff you use every day. The big expensive kitchen is a charade; you do the real work in the back room. I wrote in Treehugger:

This is insane. There is a six-burner range and a double oven in the kitchen and another big range and exhaust hood in the outdoor kitchen — but they know full well that everyone is hiding in the messy kitchen, nuking their dinner, pumping their Keurig and toasting their Eggos. But this is what the data say: people want the big open kitchen, even though the data also say this is not how people actually live.
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Fitted Kitchen

credit: Warendorf By Starck

Sometimes, we seem to be going even further backwards, away from the fitted kitchen to the "loose fit" kitchen with separate pieces, so that you can party like it's 1899. It is again a recognition that people do not really cook, a kitchen where you can jackhammer big pieces of glass while in your evening gown and open a bottle of champagne, that is about it.

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Safe Kitchen

credit: Wolf

So what are the things that we should do to design a safe kitchen? I love showing this photo of an ad for Wolfe appliances. Everything about it is wrong; it has a big gas range on an island, a completely ineffective hood above it that is too small and too far away, it is open to a living space with a grand piano so that everybody is breathing products of combustion, everything is covered with a layer of grease. It is a good thing that it is all for show anyway. So what are the things that we should do to design a safe, useful and healthy kitchen today?

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Keep it small

credit: Bowfin Galley

This might be a bit small, from the Bowfin, a WWII submarine, but the cook could turn out fine meals for 70 people in this very efficient galley kitchen. There is a place for everything, he barely has to move, it is a model of efficiency. You don't need a lot of stuff, either; Mark Bittman, who knows a bit about cooking, has a New York apartment kitchen that is six feet by seven feet. He tells the New York Times:

A young journalist called and asked what, after all, I considered essential in a modern kitchen? "A stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons," I answered. "All else is optional."

Realistically, most people are not using the kitchen to do big from-scratch meals much of the time, and when they have to or want to, a small kitchen will do just fine.

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Keep it separate

credit: Wright House

Here I am recommending against all convention, but Dr. Brian Wansink has studied people and kitchens for years and says that a big kitchen that you can sit in is likely to make you eat more. in our post, Is your modern open eat-in kitchen making you fat? Ellen Himelfarb wrote about it:

Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, argues that our eating habits are much more influenced by our surroundings than our appetite, and some modern kitchen comforts are the biggest culprits. Families with comfortable seating and TVs in the kitchen tend to snack more...“The first thing I suggest if you’re giving your kitchen a makeover – make it less loungeable,” he says. “Recent research shows that one of the biggest determinants of low BMI in children is sitting at a table with the TV off.”

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater, the kitchen was tiny. Rich people had cooks so the kitchen was utilitarian, but like that submarine kitchen, could turn out just about anything. So keep it small and separate, and build a dining room instead, and use it. Again this goes against all conventional wisdom these days, but you just have to look around to see the obesity crisis we are in, and big kitchens are a contributor.

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Live Better Electrically

credit: 1966 Gold Medallion Home

Gas stoves put out a lot of products of combustion, and most exhaust hoods are useless; I have called them the most screwed up, badly designed, inappropriately used appliance in your home. Dr. Brett Singer tells the New York Times:

Frying, grilling or toasting foods with gas and electric appliances creates particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds....Emissions of nitrogen dioxide in homes with gas stoves exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of clean air in an estimated 55 percent to 70 percent of those homes, according to one model; a quarter of them have air quality worse than the worst recorded smog (nitrogen dioxide) event in London.

A lot of people love to cook with gas, claiming that it is fast and can be controlled really accurately. In fact, studies have shown that

and even

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Forget about granite

credit: Slices of granite in showroom.

It really is a terrible counter, yet so popular. It stains, it is very hard, it is porous, it might even be radioactive. There are better choices, from Quartz and IceStone to good old Formica.

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Small fridges make good cities

credit: Donald Chong

In Europe, people have very small fridges, and they shop every day for fresh food. It's a combination of things; smaller apartments, fewer big SUVs to carry lots of food in, very expensive electricity. Architect Donald Chong designed this stunning kitchen around the concept of "small fridges make good cities"- people who have them are out in their community every day buy what is seasonal and fresh, buy as much as they need, responding to the marketplace, the baker, vegetable store and neighbourhood vendor. There was even a study that showed that people who shop like this live longer:

It's possible that shopping itself could improve health by ensuring a good supply of food for a healthy diet, ensuring exercise by walking around, and providing social interaction and companionship in the form of shopping buddies, the study said.
Dr. Brian Wansink wrote in his book Slim by Design:
In general, the larger the refrigerator, the more we tend to keep in it. And the more food options there are, the more likely something is to catch your eye as being tasty.
Dan Nosowitz wrote in Gawker:
If your freezer is large enough to house the family SUV and is full of ice cream because you bought it in bulk on a deal, you're going to eat more of that ice cream than if you'd just bought a single carton for your sensibly-sized freezer.

Jonathan Rees wrote in the Atlantic:

The size of our refrigerators, like the food we keep inside them, tells us something about our culture, our lifestyle and our values.

In summary: Kitchens have evolved into a strange hybrid of living and entertaining space, and as they get bigger, so do we. The advice here goes against all the conventional design wisdom, but we shouldn't have food in our face all the time, it should be conscious. Most people don't cook like they used to, so it needn't take up so much space. Air quality is important, so it should be separate. And what we eat should be fresh and healthy, so we shouldn't be burying it in a big fridge. Bon appetit!