From Meals to Ideals

From Meals to Ideals

The American kitchen is a complicated affair.

Although the last 75 years or so have witnessed an unparalleled outpouring of ideas for simplifying, improving, and beautifying it, this torrent of creative thinking has not eliminated the mystery of what the kitchen wants to be. Not coincidentally, what we want it to be pretty much defies coherent explication. An informal poll of what a number of friends want from their kitchens found an identity crisis of a room:

"I want my kitchen to reflect my design aesthetic." "I want it to stay clean." "I want it to inspire me to make incredible meals." "I want to feel at home and safe there." "I want it to be the centerpiece, the place where everything happens." "I want it to keep my secrets." "I want it to be bigger." "I want it to feel like my grandmother’s kitchen." "I don’t want it to remind me of my mother’s kitchen." "I basically don’t have one." "I want it to express my love of food." "I want it to make me feel good."

Back when kitchens were mainly workhorses for producing meals, the situation (if not the work) was a lot more straightforward. It was the early modernists who, recognizing the kitchen’s untapped potential for unifying utilitarian, psychological, and aesthetic goals, raised the programmatic ante—and struck a blow to freewheeling cooks the world over.

In the 1920s a young Austrian named Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was tapped to create a small, mass-producible kitchen suitable for Stuttgart’s Weissenhof Estate—an apartment complex and modernist showcase designed in part by the likes of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. Like the architects, Schütte-Lihotzky saw herself as equal parts designer and social engineer, and her particular concern was the domestic emancipation of women. Her kitchen, modeled on the galley of a railway car, put every necessary item and implement within arm’s reach. Storage was analyzed, optimized, and labeled; countertops and shelving were smooth-lined, no-nonsense, wipe-and-go affairs; everything was neat and tidy and could be put away. Efficiency was prized and therefore drudgery would be banished; Schütte-Lihotzky took to running time-and-motion studies with a stopwatch. In short, her design was so rational it was quickly hailed as revolutionary and is widely referred to today as the blueprint for the first modern kitchen.

In the early 1950s the University of Illinois Small Homes Council scored a major coup by unveiling the kitchen work triangle—stove, refrigerator, sink—proclaiming that the distance between the three points should be no less than four feet and no more than nine feet, while the sum of the three sides of the triangle should not exceed 26 feet. "Traffic flow" crept into kitchen discourse, as in "traffic flow should not enter the work triangle." Along came zone theory, which grouped functions into areas called workstations. And a couple of years from now we can celebrate a century of fervent research into counting kitchen footsteps so as to devise new ways to limit superfluous movements.

Though some of these experts-with-stopwatches breakthroughs were dramatic, others call to mind Fran Liebowitz’s observation that "food is an important part of a balanced diet." People eventually started to grumble and rebel; chefs railed against designers who knew nothing about the art of cooking. Julia Child’s kitchen featured pots, pans, and whisks hung on exposed pegboard—a messier but no less valid take on functionality. In fact, Child advised keeping every implement in view—weren’t you less likely to use your wonderful tools if you stashed them away? Child’s larger message was simply, Enjoy yourself. She and her husband, Paul, ate virtually every meal at their kitchen table because they felt like it, whether it was à deux or with the Queen of Sheba.

It’s true that a certain kind of modern kitchen can seem maniacally antiseptic and hard-edged—the anti-kitchen, you might even say, a place where you could eat off the floor, if you could find anything to eat. But at the same time there are modern kitchens whose spare, streamlined beauty brings the processes of cooking and the pleasures of the table to an entirely new level, as the design pioneers intended.

It seems likely that we’ll crack the code of the ideal kitchen around the time we figure out what the ideal relationship looks like. In the meantime, thanks in part to a resurgence of interest in fresh foods and sustainable living, kitchens have started to reflect an organic sensibility, from the choice of materials to small touches like the herb garden that lives on the countertop. The hard edges are getting a little softer; the ruby beets with dirt still clumped at the roots belong. Ars and techne are aligning. And we seem willing to take a few more footsteps than are completely necessary.

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