• 09.14.10

To See How Our Society Has Changed, Look at Your Kitchen

A new exhibit at MoMA shows that you are where you eat. We talk with one of the curators about world-changing designs in the kitchen.

To See How Our Society Has Changed, Look at Your Kitchen

Consider the kitchen: After the bedroom, it’s the most fraught room in the house, a place of both technological innovation and gender anachronisms, of luxury and provision, of gastronomical pleasure and, occasionally, discomfort.


Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen
, a new exhibit at MoMA, tracks how kitchen design has evolved in the past century or so, from assembly line-like layouts during Industrialization to the proliferation of Tupperware after World War II and beyond.

If there’s a theme to it all, it’s that kitchens and what’s inside them have always echoed, and at times rebuked, the political, social, and economic tenor of the times. Think of the famous debate between Nixon and Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War, in which the humble kitchen was transformed into a referendum on the relative merits of capitalism and communism. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the contents of our kitchens define us — that we are where we eat. Below, we talk to the show’s assistant curator, Aidan O?Connor, about some of the key innovations over the years.

Kitchens used to be dark, miserable, badly ventilated places relegated to basements and annexes and often staffed by servants. Industrialization and electricity changed some of that, giving way to a Taylorist approach to kitchen design epitomized by the Frankfurt Kitchen (1926) below. The brainchild of Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, it was organized like a sort of domestic conveyor belt, with a long, narrow corridor and “stations” (what we now call sinks, ovens, cabinets, etc.) for ultra-efficient cooking and cleaning. The layout was meant to empower women; the faster they could finish their domestic duties, the more time they’d have for factory work and leisure.


Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen was the centerpiece of a larger effort to modernize Frankfurt after World War I. “If you could perfect and standardize the kitchen as a rational, clean place to work, everything would follow from there,” O?Connor says. “The kitchen design folds out into the design of the apartment, housing, and really the whole city.” But with introduction of refrigeration and other technologies that demanded vast amounts of space, the ultra-lean Frankfurt Kitchen fell out of favor.

[Each Frankfurt Kitchen came equipped with labeled, metal pouring bins.]

World War II changed everything. Metal shortages forced kitchen suppliers to turn to alternative materials. Here, Corning used glass to make a frying pan. “You don’t associate glass with a frying pan,” O?Connor says. “And maybe most people wouldn’t like the idea of frying something in glass. But when you think of it in its historical context, it makes perfect sense. It was appropriate design given the materials available.”


A more artful glass design came courtesy of German-born inventor Peter Schlumbohm. His Chemex Coffee Maker was a cross between Bauhaus tableware and a mad scientist’s flask, and nowadays, it’s considered an icon of 20th-century design — a kitchen object that’s both beautiful and functional. James Bond had it on his breakfast table in From Russia with Love.

After the war, tech-enabled abundance became a collective American fetish. In the kitchen, nothing embodied the spirit — and the tensions — of the era better than Tupperware. Invented by chemist Earl Tupper, it exploited advances in plastics engineering to create a revolutionary air- and watertight Burper Seal that was then marketed like mad — prefiguring, in many ways, the slick product launches of today. Women had emerged from the factories, heady from their contribution to the war effort, only to be told to go back to the kitchen. So Tupperware’s marketing team (led by single mom Brownie Wise, who was later promoted to VP in the company) came up with the idea of parties in which housewives could sell Tupperware to make extra cash. Now an oft-ridiculed symbol of American suburban ennui, Tupperware parties were, at the time, billed as a source of women’s empowerment.


[Tupperware tumblers from 1957]

Over in Europe, the Marshall Plan was helping manufacturers like Braun reemerge from the rubble of World War II. Dieter Rams joined the German home-appliance company in 1955 and spent the next 30 years transforming it into a design powerhouse. Everything from toasters to blenders (below) conformed to his legendary design principle: “omit the unimportant.”


Stateside, kitchens kept expanding — and so did the amount of junk inside them. New products were supposed to make life easier on housewives, but often they had the opposite effect; more stuff just meant more upkeep. Before long, the whole system of conspicuous consumption came under attack. “As people are designing and designing and producing and producing and advertising and advertising, with corporations stressing how great it is to have anything you want in your kitchen,” O?Connor says, “some designers started wondering: How can we rethink the modern kitchen?”

The Solar Cooker below was an early example of what O?Connor calls a “shift in vision” toward the socially and environmentally responsible home design that features prominently today. Inventor Adnan Tarcini — who was a Lebanese diplomat, of all things — devoted his spare time to exploring solar energy and solar cookers beginning in the 1950s. (The one shown here is from 1970.) To heat food, you just pop it on the grill and let the sun go to work.

These days, kitchens and kitchen accessories oscillate between being functional and decorative; occasionally, they’re even marketed as high art. Case in point: Philippe Starck’s sculptural lemon squeezer (1988) below, about which he reportedly said, “My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons. It is meant to start conversations? — such as, “My, isn’t Philippe Starck pretentious?”


Still, he has a point. In the kitchen, even the most quotidian of objects are freighted with meaning.

Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen opens tomorrow. For more info, visit

[Images courtesy of MoMA]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.