Gendered McMansions, Part 2: large kitchens and attached living areas

The size of McMansions provides a lot of interior space. How is it used and how does this relate to gender?

If the exterior of the McMansion is imposing and garish, the interior provides room for family activity. The ubiquitous open concept kitchen and living area with updated appliances, surfaces, and island provide space for social gatherings, storing stuff, family interaction, and solitary time for residents. This is private space par excellence in the United States.

The interior emphasis on kitchens and living space can be connected to norms and expectations regarding women, home, and family life. If the large and flashy exterior of the McMansion leans toward notions of masculinity in the United States, the roomy interior leans toward the work of women serving as supporters, wives, and mothers. The men may seek escape in a “man cave” (which suggests the rest of the interior space is not for men) and children may seek solace in their large bedrooms but the center of the home in terms of time and activity still generally involves the kitchen and attached living spaces. Even with a shift away from cooking food at home, there is still much sentiment and many expectations attached to women working in the kitchen.

Going back to the McMansion of The Sopranos, the big suburban home may represent something different for Tony’s wife Carmela. While Tony wants to come home and relax and bask in his success (including running his nuclear family), the McMansion offers Carmela space to entertain and show others that she is taking care of her family. Through gatherings and food as well as the size and location of the home, Carmela can show she is ensuring the success of her husband and children. See the two cookbooks published with Carmela’s imprint on them. Her kitchen is open to an eating area as well as a family room where the family can watch TV (though there are other spaces to escape to or that are used for more formal gatherings). Toward the end of the show, she pursues work outside of the home – though that work is still connected to houses – and encounters difficulty convincing her own family that this work outside the home is worthwhile.

Similarly, many an HGTV episode features a reveal of an open concept kitchen and living area that is often said to be for a female resident. This can be the case even if the people on the show admit that they do not cook often; the kitchen is seen as the primary gathering space. Thus, if McMansions strive to provide sizable and gleaming kitchens and living spaces and such spheres are often associated with women, the primary family and social areas in the McMansion are gendered.

Questioning the open kitchen

Lots of newer homes have kitchens open to great rooms or other gathering spaces. However, there are a few people questioning the trend:

J. Bryan Lowder, an assistant editor at Slate, recently slammed the open concept in a widely read article called “Close Your Open-Concept Kitchen.” He called the trend a “baneful scourge” that has spread through American homes like “black mold through a flooded basement.”

Lowder’s point, and one echoed through the anti-open-kitchen movement, is that we have walls and doors for a reason. While open-kitchen lovers champion the ease of multitasking cooking and entertainment and appreciate how the cook can keep an eye on the kids (or an eye on a favorite TV show), the haters reply that open kitchens do neither effectively. Instead, the detractors say, open kitchens leave guests with an eyeful of kitchen mess, distract cooks, and leave Mom and Dad with no place to hide from their noisy brood.

And apparently defenders of the open kitchen are quite vocal:

Roxanne, who blogs at Just Me With … under her first name only (and chose not to reveal her last name in this article for fear of backlash from open-kitchen devotees), ranted against the concept on her blog. For Roxanne, the open kitchen destroys coveted privacy.

Who knew this topic was so controversial. And how did we move from older homes with kitchens at the back of the house to the open kitchen of today?

Design psychologist Toby Israel, author of “Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places,” said open kitchens have gained such momentum because the kitchen is often the heart of family existence and a central gathering point.

All interesting. But, another issue with this article: the headline suggests there is a backlash against this design but presents limited evidence of this. Sure, it quotes a few people who don’t like the open kitchen. And there is a citation of an odd statistic that just over 75% of home remodelers are knocking down walls. All of this indicates more of a discussion about open kitchens, rather than a big trend.

This is a common tactic today from journalists and others online: suggest there may be a trend, present limited evidence, and then leave it to readers to sort out at the end whether a big trend really exists. There are several ways around this. First, present more data. A few articles that start heated online discussions do not tell us much. In this case, tell us what builders are actually doing or what homes people are buying. Second, wait it out a bit. Having more time tends to reveal whether there is really a trend or just a minor blip. While this doesn’t help meet regular deadlines, it does mean that we can be more certain that there is a discernible pattern.

McMansions also feature large kitchens

McMansions have particular exterior and interior features, including the ability to store all sorts of things in their spacious kitchens:

If you live in a sprawling McMansion, the sky is the limit when it comes to holiday gifts for the cook and the kitchen. But if, like me, you live in a house or apartment with limited storage space, kitchen gadgets, tools, appliances and even cookbooks must be carefully considered. There just isn’t room in my kitchen and pantry for anything that isn’t vital or that doesn’t get used regularly.

So, for this 2013 edition of the Gift Guide, I offer up some items that any cook would be happy to find under the tree on Christmas. They are all items that I own—and, most importantly, use.

McMansions may often be criticized for having too much space (and perhaps this space is apportioned poorly), but how many owners of new homes want small kitchens? If anything, the trend in recent decades has been toward bigger kitchens that offer plenty of storage, prep space, room for large appliances, space for people to gather, and space to see into or connect with other rooms. An interesting experiment would be to offer much smaller homes – since the average new home is around 2,500 square feet, maybe we’ll say 1,500 or smaller – but keep the kitchen large and shrink the other rooms. Just how much would people trade for a bigger kitchen?

A related question: does the average McMansion kitchen provide better quality food because of its space?

The similarities between selling kitchen appliances in the 1950s and today

Selling the kitchen has been a key component of the sales pitch for homes for decades. Adweek takes a look at how the sales pitch from the 1950s is similar to today’s pitch:

It goes like this: If you want to make that new fridge and stove desirable, advertise it as part of a kitchen that’s desirable. So long as homeowners blush with shame over their cracked linoleum and dated cabinetry, showing them the meal-prep space of their dreams is likely to spur them into buying the new appliances that go with it. Want proof? Take a look at both of the appliance advertisements below.

“History repeats itself because these ads are really quite similar,” observes graphic designer Ken Carbone, co-founder of the design and branding company Carbone Smolan Agency. “In their own way, they both say ‘modern’—and they both promise bragging rights, as in, ‘you too could have this!’”…

Move to 2011, and Jenn-Air appliances are using the same kind of dream-kitchen sell GE did 56 years before, but with key aesthetic variations. “In the old ad, color itself says modern, and stainless steel is the secondary element,” Carbone notes. “Today, it’s inverted. Stainless steel is the hero.” He’s right. We’ve entered the era of the home chef and industrial chic. It’s also obvious that the Levittown ranch house’s 32 x 25-ft. footprint has morphed into McMansion proportions. (How else to fit that granite-topped kitchen island?)

Thematically, however, it was the same old pitch about the same new kitchen. “Both companies knew their audiences, and both were selling bragging rights,” Carbone says. “It’s just that the first ad suggests macaroni and cheese and the second fusilli al pesto.”

As a bonus, you can look at the original 1950s Levittown kitchen advertisement below the story.

Doesn’t this suggest that Americans are still falling for (or attracted to, depending on your perspective) for the same pitch based on “bragging rights”? Is this a good or bad thing? The pitch is still the same: get the right appliances to portray a certain image to others. The content of this image has changed, domesticity in the 1950s versus “professional” cooking today, but it suggests advertisers correctly tapped into the American psychology.

Are there other effective ways to sell kitchen appliances?

Thinking about kitchen appliances, I wonder how many Americans replace them while they still function just fine in order to “keep up with the Joneses.”

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.

The poor cleaniness of home kitchens

Occasionally, one can find stories about how dirty homes can be. Here is more evidence, this time regarding unclean kitchens:

The small study from California’s Los Angeles County found that only 61 percent of home kitchens would get an A or B if put through the rigors of a restaurant inspection. At least 14 percent would fail — not even getting a C.

In comparison, nearly all Los Angeles County restaurants — 98 percent — get A or B scores each year.

On its own, these are interesting results: restaurant kitchens are generally more clean than home kitchens. But there is more to this story: how exactly researchers found out about the kitchens.

The study, released Thursday, is believed to be one of the first to offer a sizable assessment of food safety in private homes. But the researchers admit the way it was done is hardly perfect.

The results are based not on actual inspections, but on an Internet quiz taken by about 13,000 adults .

So it’s hard to use it to compare the conditions in home kitchens to those in restaurants, which involve trained inspectors giving objective assessments of dirt, pests, and food storage and handling practices.

What’s more, experts don’t believe the study is representative of all households, because people who are more interested and conscientious about food safety are more likely to take the quiz.

A more comprehensive look would probably find that an even smaller percentage of home kitchens would do well in a restaurant inspection, he suggested.

On one hand, this sounds like innovative research that is the first to provide a broad overview of the cleanliness of American kitchens. On the other hand, the way the data was collected suggests one should be wary about making definitive conclusions.

The online quiz is also reliant on self-reporting.