Sometimes a kitchen is just a kitchen, but not often. If a house is a machine for living, as Le Corbusier said, then the kitchen is its engine. If that machine is seen as a living organism — a house that is a home — then the kitchen is its heart and brain.
ARTKABINETT social network of fine art collectors appreciates a functional kitchen when hosting an art soirée.
The many-splendored thing that is the modern kitchen — as a coherent workspace, object of study and model of efficiency — began to take shape sometime around 1900. It has been a leading indicator of the state of design ever since.
It has also been a battlefield of conflicting belief systems, not least regarding the role of women in society.
As the use of servants declined, housewives became at once early adopters of new products meant to free them from drudgery and targets of corporate advertising that relentlessly defined them as household fixtures themselves.
Which is to say, kitchens were heavily symbolic sites long before any of us became involved with the ones that bless or blight our individual lives. This is elaborately demonstrated by “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen” at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Counter Space” sprints with dazzling speed and pinpoint precision across an amazing amount of social and aesthetic history, and shows how these histories are connected.
The kitchen’s design evolution meshed with the new availability of gas and electricity; with the rise of cities, the middle class and health consciousness; with early stabs at prefab housing; with the growing independence of women; and of course with the emergence of modern design itself, as a self-consciously forward-looking, socially minded discipline whose brief was to improve everyday life for all.
Two world wars fed innovation by making efficiency and conservation pressing matters, creating food and housing shortages and luring women into the work force.
As cities grew, the kitchen’s need for regular infusions of fresh foodstuffs, heating and cooling energy, and waste disposal connected it to urban networks that were themselves still taking shape. The kitchen was something like Rome, with nearly all a city’s infrastructure leading to it or away from it.
The objects range chronologically from the brown paper bag that Charles Stillwell designed for the Union Paper Bag Machine Company of Philadelphia in 1883 through a Levittown kitchen’s worth of pastel-colored Tupperware from the mid-1950s to Philippe Starck’s overly sculptural Juicy Salif Lemon Squeezer of 1988 (a countertop Louise Bourgeois spider, shown here) and Smart Design’s far more user-friendly Good Grips peeler of 1989.
The show’s centerpiece is a stupendous recent acquisition: one of the last surviving examples of a relatively complete Frankfurt Kitchen designed in 1926-27 by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000), Austria’s first female architect.
It was mass produced for housing blocks built in Frankfurt to meet housing shortages caused by the devastation of World War I, and remains a model of cockpitlike clarity and purpose.
Including a grid of small metal bins (for storing rice and the like) that resembles a hardware store, it was one of several determinedly modern kitchens designed mostly in Germany in the late 1920s.
But it is probably alone in being the subject of a recent music video tribute by the Austrian musician Robert Rotifer, which is also in the show. His video is played on our homepage.
Tomorrow, more about the life of this remarkable woman who was both avante-garde designer and Nazi resister…