I am a homemaker who owns and works in approximately 21 kitchens of varying ages, built in various decades of the 20th century. Why so many kitchens? Because the preparation of food and the study of contemporary living have always been central to me. So when I was invited by The Observer to visit, and to critique, the just-opened Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” I headed over to the museum with alacrity, getting a preview before the show opened to the public, and as curators Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor were unpacking the art and objects.
“Counter Space,” featuring paintings, film and historical objects, focuses on the transformation of the kitchen as a result and a reflection of the 20th century’s sweeping social, economic, technological and political changes. The exhibition also showcases one of MoMA’s newer and rarer acquisitions. An icon of modern design, a complete and compact “Frankfurt Kitchen” is a highlight of the show. Designed in 1926-1927 by a woman named Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky (who, curiously, lived to regret it), it is considered the first modern kitchen. Exactly what distinguished the kitchen’s architecture, technology and design–and why kitchens matter at all–is at the heart of what this thought-provoking and informative exhibit is about.
I was eager to see the Frankfurt Kitchen. It is a tiny, efficient, space, with organized storage, a sink under the window, a small stove with an oven, no refrigerator and very little counter space. There, simple, basic meals could be created, and a woman could cook with little extra expended energy, few footsteps and little bending over or standing on step stools.
A design icon, perhaps, but I found it to be a severe one. It reminded me so much of one of the few kitchens I have owned that was of no interest to me whatsoever–the Gordon Bunshaft kitchen in his own house on Georgica Pond in East Hampton. That was an even “meaner” kitchen–a galley space with no windows designed by a great architect who had no interest in the act or art of cooking. Nor could I “feel” when standing in that kitchen space any compassion or love for the woman who was going to use the space.
But it is important to history. About 10,000 Frankfurt kitchens were manufactured for public-housing developments erected around Frankfurt am Main as part of a five-year plan to modernize the city. With apartment living on the rise in Europe in the 1920s, and amid a post-World War I international focus on industrialization, several talented architects and engineers were commissioned to design and solve something of a puzzle: How would and could ordinary working people live in smaller spaces, in factory villages, in crowded cities? Much attention was thus centered on the kitchen and the new technologies–natural gas, electricity, modern plumbing, refrigeration. New materials–aluminum, heat-resistant glass, and modern plastics and fibers–enabled these designs to be vastly different from the wood- or coal-burning, dark, poorly ventilated spaces that were heretofore the food preparation and storage centers for most families.
The exhibit’s curators position the kitchen and its contents as a metaphor for modern society, with work by such artists as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Claes Oldenburg and Laurie Simmons, all drawn from MoMA’s permanent collection. Videos like Martha Rosler’s 1975 Semiotics of the Kitchen and film stills illustrating how Hollywood helped to celebrate and promote the modern kitchen and its labor-saving device further round out the exhibition.
Indeed, for the homemakers of the post-World War II kitchen, prosperity brought about new innovations in kitchen design. Swedish, Italian and American designers introduced more space, more efficiencies and more “beauty” into the more generous square footage that was being allocated to the homemaker for the cooking of family meals. During this period, the über-efficient ethos with its emphasis on making the most use of every square centimeter of available space thankfully gave way. It evolved into a design philosophy that establishes the modern kitchen as the hearth of the home, the gathering center, the dining room and family room and the food-prep room all in one.
But what I liked most about this exhibit were the several hundred culinary objects on display. Telling a history of their own, these included Pyrex by Corning, the “Presto Cheese Slicer,” the Wear-Ever Tea Kettle. The show includes Coors porcelain laboratory containers adapted for kitchen storage, stainless-steel mixing bowls and several Braun pieces. That many of these items are still used by cooks and homemakers proves that good design, practically conceived, can be timeless and useful. A selection of books on view at the exhibit, including Georgie Boynton Child’s The Efficient Kitchen and Christine Frederick’s The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management, both published in 1914, underscore the notion that homemakers have long valued good organization, efficacy and efficiency.
Eventually in kitchen design, standardization, industrialization and simplified planning has given way to more personalization and a more beautiful aesthetic and greater practicality.
As for the woman who, arguably, started it all, “Frankfurt Kitchen” inventor Ms. Schutte-Lihotzky ended up feeling trapped in, or by, the kitchen that made her famous. She was quoted at the end of her career: “If I had known that everyone would keep talking about nothing else, I would never have designed that damn kitchen!”
Ms. Stewart’s television program, The Martha Stewart Show, is broadcast daily at 10 a.m. EST on the Hallmark Channel. She now has her own line of kitchens available for purchase at Home Depot.