If you find yourself in New York before May 2 and have an interest in kitchen design, then you should swing by the Museum of Modern Art for a small but interesting exhibit. “Counter Space: Design + The Modern Kitchen” looks at the evolution of the modern home kitchen over the course of the past century with objects drawn from MoMA’s permanent collection and archival film footage. In the words of its introductory text, this explores “the twentieth-century transformation of the kitchen as a barometer of changing technologies, aesthetics, and ideologies.”
I’m not sure this modest show, with its mixture of art and artifact, is comprehensive enough to sustain its big-picture theme. Most lacking is any serious discussion of the transformation of the American kitchen during the late 20th century into a social space.
But what it does brilliantly is show how modernist ideals completely remade the home kitchen during the years between the two world wars. Social scientists, designers and architects throughout the industrialized world worked together to standardize the private kitchen, rendering it more efficient and hygienic and less burdensome to homemakers.
The piece de resistance in the exhibit is an intact Frankfurt Kitchen, designed in the late 1920s by female architect Grete Schutte-Lihotzky. Housing authorities in Frankfurt cranked out more than 10,000 of these sleek galley kitchens in affordable public housing structures built throughout the city after the war. They served as a blueprint for modernist construction elsewhere in war-torn Germany and, then, throughout the world.
Schutte-Lihotzky, not herself a homemaker or a cook, based the construction on time-motion studies, interviews with housewives and women’s groups, and contemporary theory about efficiencies of workflow. The kitchen must have been a radical change from previous home kitchens in the not-too-distant past, with wood-burning stoves standing apart from the larder and the work table.
It looks not a whole lot different from that efficiency kitchen in your first apartment, but with more built-in storage. A gas stove occupies one side, across from a wall of built-in cupboards and drawers made from lightweight aluminum. Next to that is a two-compartment sink with slots for dishes to drip dry and a removable garbage bin. A workstation with a chopping board and swivel stool occupies the far wall, by the window. An ironing board folds up against the wall.
By the end of World War II, Americans had become the leaders in efficient kitchen design. There’s a funny film loop (embedded above, from archive.org) produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which a severe-looking home economist sitting behind a desk counsels a young couple on the wonders of the “Step-Saving Kitchen.” Cleanliness and efficiency are the great virtues of this kitchen, as evidenced by a homemaker demonstrating the joys of ample storage, wipe-free surfaces and electricity.
In one startling image, we see the homemaker quietly peeking at her dinner — three covered saucepans on the stove top. She opens the lids from which no steam escapes and smiles. Dinner’s almost ready. And completely antiseptic.
You have to ask yourself the question: How did modernist design affect home cooking?
Because this show was curated by design experts rather than cooks, it doesn’t try to answer that question as much as it invites you to appreciate the beauty of the rows of aluminum handles in the Frankfurt Kitchen or the OXO Good Grips vegetable peelers and Chemex coffee beakers later in the show.
But if you are a cook, the subtext of that question will provide its own narration, like an alternative recorded tour guide.
Efficiency makes for more efficiency. Soon we don’t need separate storage bins for wheat flour, rye, millet, corn, beans, sugar, tea, etc., etc., because these kitchens begat the great age of convenience foods in the 1950s. Baking becomes a treat (cookies) rather than a daily task (bread). Grains are no longer rehydrated but instead emptied from cans. People no longer buy commodities, but no-fuss, no-muss packaged items.
All those complex diagrams of people walking from Point A to Point B as they prepare food in the kitchen will boil down to the “triangle” of fridge, sink, stove.
It begs the question of where do we go from here. Now that there is a movement back toward more natural cooking, will this alter kitchen design? Will we soon want to have a built-in unit for pre-composting of vegetable scraps and bins for all those whole grains we’re trying to get back in our diets?
That Frankfurt Kitchen still seems modern.
“Counter Space: Design + The Modern Kitchen” through May 2 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For information, go to moma.org.