May 3, 2011
Last week I made it up to New York City for the first time in my adult life, in part to do the fun tourist-y stuff, but also to check out the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Counter Space.” The show, which closed on May 2, took a look at the kitchen and how it evolved over the course of the 20th century from dark, inefficient rooms that seemed like architectural afterthoughts to refined, multi-purpose living spaces.
I was surprised to learn that the modern conception of kitchen spaces is a recent development. Historically, this part of the home was a dark, dirty place with poor ventilation that designers generally tried to conceal. But after World War I, clean fuels such as gas and electricity became widely available in people’s homes, replacing roaring, smoky fires, and the industrial age ushered in new technologies and allowed for the mass production of everyday products. These factors allowed designers to finally re-imagine the kitchen.
Viennese architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky rolled out her wholesale revision of the kitchen in the late 1920s. Designing part of a public housing program, Schütte-Lihotsky dispensed with the clutter and disorganization typical of preceding kitchen spaces and created her Frankfurt Kitchen with an eye toward rationalization and efficiency. Equipped with a gas stove, built in storage, aluminum storage bins for staples, oak flour containers to keep out mealworms and a fold-down ironing board, it was a design that alleviated the drudgery of cooking and allowed homemakers to have more time for themselves.
The rest of the show (part of which can still be seen online, see below) radiates from Schütte-Lihotsky’s innovative approach. It looks at how designers continued to improve functionality and address the problems that arise in the kitchen. Pyrex’s flame-resistant glass cookware was an excellent substitute for traditional pots and pans when metal was rationed during World War II, and airtight Tupperware containers reduced spoiling and spillage. It was definitely a little surreal to walk into an art museum and find my grandmother’s Tupperware set artfully arranged in a museum case. But then I had to stop and remember that she’s had this stuff in her home for more than 50 years and it still looks fabulous and still works the way it should.
And that’s where a lot of the fun of “Counter Space” is to be had: finding the everyday items you take for granted and being able to acknowledge them as well-designed objects that make your life a little easier and a little more stylish. And the revolution of home conveniences is illustrated—sometimes hilariously—by way of films geared to sell the new industrial products hitting the marketplace. Case in point is A Word to the Wives from 1955, in which a homemaker conspires to trick her husband into updating her kitchen. Another worth checking out is a film promoting Frigidaire’s 1957 line of appliances, which served as muse to a pair of deliriously chipper dancers. And really, when haven’t home electrics served as an invitation to dance?
While you can no longer see the show in person, you can view a sampling of the items on display by way of our online photo gallery. And for more information, check out the exhibit’s official site and a curator-led video tour of the show.
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