Why Do Kitchens Look the Way They Do?

credit: 1961 Hotpoint kitchen

Hint: It's all about putting women in their place.

Over on Apartment Therapy, Nancy Mitchell is doing a wonderful series on the history of the kitchen, and in her latest episode looks at the introduction of the "fitted kitchen" in the 1930s. She notes the work of Christine Frederick:

Christine Frederick, whose book, 'Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home,' was published in 1919, was an early proponent of efficiency in the home. Her suggestions for kitchen design were focused not on improving the kitchen's look, but its function — for example, placing dish cupboards right next to the sink to save steps while putting things away. A few years later, Lillian Gilbreth, an engineer and psychologist who had worked on motion studies aimed at increasing the efficiency of industrial processes, turned her attention to the kitchen. She developed the idea of the 'work triangle' (composed of sink, refrigerator, and stove), which still guides kitchen design today.

She then describes the work of German designers, including Margarete Schutte Lihotzky, designer of the Frankfurt Kitchen.

The Frankfurt kitchen, though quite small, was full of thoughtful touches designed to ease the burden of homekeeping, including a fold-out ironing board, a wall-mounted dish drainer, and aluminum bins for dry goods, which had handles and spouts for pouring. The Frankfurt Kitchen was hugely influential on subsequent kitchen design: like the Bauhaus example, it seems preternaturally modern, although with a bit more warmth (and even color). Interestingly enough, the Frankfurt kitchen did not come with a refrigerator, thought to be an extravagance in a place where people still shopped every day.

What I believe she misses in all of this is the question of what drove these smart women, from Catharine Beecher to Christine Frederick to Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, to redesign the kitchen? In fact, it is all about politics, about the role of women in our homes and in society. It's a really important part of the kitchen story because it shows how design really can change lives, and in this case the lives of women.

credit: The American Woman's Home/ Christine Beecher

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

In 1869, Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, thought about redesigning the kitchen for the era after slavery, which is as political as you can get. She wrote:

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

In 1919, Christine Frederick applied the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor on time and motion to the kitchen in her book, 'Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home.' She wanted to make life easier and more efficient for women to run the kitchen, the way Taylor made it easier for men to shovel coal.

credit: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926

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

I wrote about this 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."

The whole idea of all of these designs was to get women OUT of the kitchen, to make it smaller, more efficient, to let women have other opportunities. Paul Overy wrote:

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.
credit: Xray-delta

Xray-delta/CC BY 2.0

Of course in the fifties, it was back to putting the woman in the kitchen baking cakes and roasts to please the man coming home from work. I wrote:

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.
credit: Wolf

© Wolf

Now, of course, the dream is the big open kitchen with commercial grade appliances sitting on vast archipelagos of kitchen Islands, most of which never gets used because it smokes up the house and it's too hard to clean so why don't we just order in. The kitchen becomes an exhibit demonstrating how much money the working man and woman have, a place to put on a show on weekends, often by the man who likes the showy stuff. They even now have separate "messy kitchens" for the messy coffee machine and toaster.

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.
credit: Warendorf By Starck

© Warendorf By Starck

Nancy Mitchell tells a great story about the evolution of kitchen design, but I think she doesn't stress enough the social implications of these changes. 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. Thanks to Foodera and Amazon and Whole Foods, women of a certain income have been able to say goodbye to the kitchen altogether unless they decide to use it for fun.

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. You can't look at kitchen design without looking at sexual politics.