Designing kitchens for the people who work in them

An exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City explores the changing design of kitchens in the 20th century. While this room may indeed be a functional space, designs were often based on clear ideas about what kind of women were to be in such a space:

These days, there are magazines and television programs devoted to kitchen design, but in 1926 it was a new idea. In fact, curator Juliet Kinchin tells NPR’s Robert Smith, designing a kitchen was actually a political act.

“There’s always been that political dimension to kitchens,” Kinchin explains.

“For centuries, really, the kitchen had been ignored by design professionals, not least because it tended to be lower-class women or servants who occupied the kitchen space,” she says…

It was women who led the reform of the kitchen into an efficient space — one to be proud of. Kinchin says, “they were trying to adopt a scientific approach to housework and raise the status of housework.”

This is a reminder that homes and spaces inside and outside are linked to broader ideas about gender, social class, and what is considered the “good life.” Based on images from shows like those on HGTV and looking at real estate ads, the kitchen in today’s home is often the centerpiece with gleaming new appliances, rich cabinets, and plenty of storage space. This is commonly tied to ideas about the kitchen being the center of the home where someone cooks and the family gathers to work or play nearby. (This is somewhat ironic considering how much home cooking is actually done these days compared to eating out or eating prepared food.) Is placing more emphasis on modern kitchens empowering for women or a constant reminder about traditional values that would seek to keep women there?

I wonder if there are homes that feature “men’s kitchens” – though there may be plenty of big homes that have this in an outdoor kitchen/grilling area. This inside space might include a large television, large stove/grill, and comfortable seating.

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