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The Kitchen

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In the oversized Victorian country houses of 19th century Britain, it was the custom for domestic tasks such as the preparation of food to be conducted out of sight of both family and guests but, in the Middle East, houses often a separate outside kitchen in which the maid roasts meant while, in the indoor kitchen, the mother or grandmother is in charge of cooking the rice and the daughter-in-law in charge of desserts and cakes. If the guest room – the majilis – is being used by men, all food is discreetly placed in the dining area from which it would not be possible to see into the women’s area i.e. the kitchen.

This tradition of the separation of culinary labour lingers in upmarket condominiums with their kitchens divided into separate “chef’s kitchens” and “social kitchens”.

Well into the 20th century, it was still common for middle-class houses in the English speaking countries to have dining rooms and “front rooms” or “parlors” for receiving guests. These were served by kitchens that guests never saw or had reason to even be aware of. Even in the 1930’s UK, a modestly-sized suburban household might have had a lady come in a few times a week to help with the cleaning and cooking. The cooking would have been done in a kitchen such as this next. It has a kitchen sink, a central table for parathion and/or plating, a gas cooker and hot water heater, and a kitchen dresser for the storage of utensils in the cupboards below and foodstuff in the shelves above. The dresser was the main piece of kitchen furniture.

By National Photo Company Collection – Library of CongressCatalog: download: url:, Public Domain,

Before the dresser moved into the dining room and its upper shelves came to be used for the display of plates, there were many local variations and customizations such as the example below with an enlarged surface top be used as a worktop, and customized compartments for the storage of essentials such as flour and sugar. This kitchen dresser is from around 1910 and shows practicality creeping into kitchen design.

Kitchen dressers existed since about 1600 in one form or another and so crossed the Atlantic fully formed and became less of a piece of furniture and more like a multifunctional but non-electrical appliance. Around 1900, the Hoosier Cabinet was developed in the US as a more practical and almost scientific variation. You can see where this post is headed.

The 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen was the first fitted kitchen but not as revolutionary as is made out. Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky and Ernst May must have seen people weighing, measuring, combining and heating substances and thought that preparing and cooking food could do with time and motion studies and the same kind of rationalization that May had brought to house construction. Had refrigerators existed, the work triangle would have been invented then and there.

It’s disingenuous to claim that cooking and eating are always about the saving of time and effort when the real goal is to have women spend less time in the kitchen and more time in the workforce. Little changed with the 20th century economic advent of the nuclear family when the wife became housewife, laundrymaid, cleaner and cook. The only difference was that the housewife was now encouraged to use as much electricity as possible, and companies such as nuclear reactor manufacturers such as Westinghouse and General Electric were keen to sell energy-consuming and time- and labour-saving appliances such as washing machines, clothes dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers and self-cleaning ovens with automatic rotisseries.

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In the above photo you can see a built-in blender, dishwasher, electric cooktop, refrigerator as well as a strange table with warming hotplates. We can’t see an oven. The lady talking on the wall-mounted phone could be standing in front of it but it’s more likely there’s a wall oven out of frame to the left. Another thing we can’t see is the in-sink waste disposal unit.


This image worries me. Perhaps is because of the high-heeled Stepford wives but maybe I read somewhere that the grill was nuclear-powered.

Or perhaps I’m confusing it with The Smithsons 1956 House of the Future (i.e. circa 1980) that I definitely remember being described as having a nuclear oven. But even a nuclear over of the future wouldn’t be in a trolley on wheels. I had to check.

Sure enough, just around the corner was the kitchen proper and above the port for the trolley in the photo above, were two serious looking ovens. In 1956 UK it was probably impossible to imagine a future without the roasting of beef, potatoes and carrots.

What looks like an atrophied cooktop in the above photos is, somewhat counter-intuively, the place where free-standing self-heating saucepans are used to cook anything that needed to be in a saucepan. (Perhaps that slot in the unit behind is an exhaust fan?) It’s not clear how these saucepans were to heat themselves but, to be fair, it’s also unclear in the following two contemporary photographs. Anyway, the Smithsons did get the self-heating saucepans thing right but the kitchen remained a separate room in 1980 when seen from 1956.

Prompted by spatial pressure and the new, open lifestyle porn photographed by Julius Schulman in the Case Study Houses, the kitchen became part of a single space co-joined with the “meals” and “living” areas. This three-in-one arrangement wasn’t always practical or even universally liked but hey most of us live in the same rooms we sit, live, study, work, eat and probably sleep as well. As foretold in this next photograph, the idea was to do less cooking. [What is in that yellow bucket is so fascinating? Kimchee?] Despite the famous open-ness of this kitchen, it still has what’s essentially a large “serving hatch” separating where the food is prepared from where it’s eaten.

The rest of the 20th century dragged on and the kitchen became a space to be lived in and for many people replaced the fireplace as the heart of the home. [We could probably track this shift using just the house plans of Frank Lloyd Wright.] The 1960s were probably the golden age of the kitchen, especially in Australia with its tradition of kitchen counter as confessional and social centre of the house.

From then on it’s been a steady decline for the kitchen but not without two extended rallies. The first was the country-style kitchen made popular by early cookery writers such as Elizabeth David who led us to believe the the countryside was where fresh ingredients came from. It featured at least one huge cooker, lots of timber, a battery of copper saucepans, and heavy things suspended above massive wooden island benches. The three main variations French country style, British country style and Scandinavian country style.

The second diversion is the restaurant-style kitchen that happened because the best ingredients came to be seen as coming not from the countryside but from restaurants. Popularized by modular kitchen manufacturers, this was the Italian fightback and, judging by the continued popularity of stainless steel effect cookers and refrigerators, it was hugely successful. These next two images of Italian stainless steel kitchens aren’t real kitchens but they’re not much difference than the other images in making us aspire to having one.

The microwave oven was invented in 1946 but only became a new kitchen appliance in the 1970s when Japanese companies, notably Sharp, could make them affordable. It was a new time and labour saving device and, increasingly, a necessary one with more women in the workforce. In the 1970s, Japan already had a system of meal deliveries, and you would find the menus of local noodle, sushi and other restaurants in your letterbox. Scooters were fitted with special dampened and swinging carriers to insulate the food from road vibration and shock. [NB: Like pizza or anything else, noodle dishes have to be delivered as hot as possible, but they also need to be delivered quickly quickly, before the noodles elongate.]

Importantly – and I hope this still happens – the noodles would be served in ceramic bowls that you would leave outside your door to be picked up the following day. Sushi and bento would be served in plastic imitation lacquerware. Or at least they were into the 1980s.

The 1950s were probably Japan’s golden age of noodle and bento delivery.

How little did anybody know that food delivery would become more a part of our future lives than the electric rotisserie or the microwave? As a final word on Japanese home delivery, the nature of the cuisine and people’s attitudes towards it are perfect conditions for meal, or rather dish, delivery. People would not think of making nigiri sushi at home. It’s something that other people have trained to make better. You order in, and even then most likely only on special occasions. It sat same with noodles and ramen. You can make it at home but other people can do it better and quicker. It’s not just about the time and effort saved.

Another factor in the demise of the kitchen is that the nuclear family either went atomic and split, or that now with everyone working, household members were rarely around at the same time. This coupled with the increasing cost of space meant the kitchen didn’t need to a social centre anymore or even much of a space for the preparation of food. Next are two kitchens Foster+Partners designed for the 100 East Fifty Third superslender. To be fair, probably not much cooking happens anyway in these “loft-style residences for art collectors to be able to display large-scale works and as entertain guests.” [huh?] These kitchens are of a type Foster+Partners has refined over the years. The main event is the counter for pouring champagne and, as is the F+P way, everything else is relegated to a wall of cupboards bookended by a refrigerator at one end a matching pantry cupboard at the other, with the space in-between exquisitely downlit and splashbacked. If the room is long and narrow, kitchens like this will be at the far end facing the window but, if the unit is long and narrow, these kitchens form an open corridor connecting bedrooms and living spaces on the two sides of the building. It’s always good to change a disadvantage into a feature.

In doing this however, the kitchen begins to stop looking like a kitchen and, in the photograph on the right above, the framed workspace begins to look like the artwork on the opposite wall. In residential developments such as these, space is simply too expensive for it not to multitask. Oswald Ungers’ 1991 House Without Qualities attempts to make the kitchen disappear as a concept as well as a dedicated space.

I remember as a kid seeing in some magazine such as Home Beautiful a house that its owner called the kitchen-less house. The kitchen in the Ungers house always reminds me of it. The one I saw wasn’t as stylish but it did take the idea further. The entire worktop had a hinged timber cover concealing the sink, and all cooking was done in an electric frying pan. I remember being mildly shocked.

Lacaton & Vassal’s Trignac Housing eschews the intellectual pretensions of Ungers’ House Without Qualities as well as the Spartan pretensions of my Australian example.

Where will it all end? What is the future of the kitchen, if it has one at all? One future is that the kitchen will continue to shrink until all that’s left is a sink as a source of water and a refrigerator as a source of coolth. The cooktop in the kitchen below can be replaced by two electric saucepans. Perhaps the basin could be relocated to outside the bathroom and the bathroom shrunk accordingly?

Or it could be that the kitchen disappears completely, and a serving hatch at the food and drink supplier is connected by a delivery rider to a serving hatch at the destination.

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