Kitchen Liberation - Page 4

Did the trendsetting open cook spaces and newfangled foods of the mid-century free women—or simply trap them?
  Kitchen Liberation
Tupperware made the mid-century housewife's work in the kitchen a bit easier.

"Kitchens of tomorrow, in other words, sold conservative gender roles disguised as an escape from them."

And if that wasn't bad enough for women, consider the moral conundrum over whether or not to use cake mix, which came of age shortly after World War II. Sure it saved time—maybe 13 precious minutes per cake, home economists calculated.

But cake from mixes didn't taste the same. Chef James Beard inveighed against the raw taste of vanilla flavoring. And women worried that not baking from scratch showed lack of love for their families. For many a wife, Shapiro wrote, using cake mix proved psychologically harrowing, like using "guilt in a box."

If the motivation behind heavily processed mid-century foods was primarily to make money, what was behind the open kitchen was more about social betterment.

Modern open-plan kitchens appeared first in Europe. Perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most influential, was designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, a rare woman architect at the time.

  Kitchen Liberation
Handy-dandy kitchen gadgets (here by Waring) were all designed to reduce kitchen chores.

Her compact, 13-by-seven-foot 'Frankfurt kitchen' was created in 1926 for workers' apartments. Like the Eichler kitchen, it grouped functional elements together to save space and increase efficiency.

Other advanced architects supplied their open-plan homes with small kitchens that opened to living areas, including Gerrit Rietveld in Holland for his 1924 Rietveld-Schroder house in Utrecht.

In the United States, the architect who originally inspired Eichler, Frank Lloyd Wright, included open kitchens in many of his designed-for-the-people Usonian houses.

"We did a great deal in the open plan when we took the hostess out of the kitchen and made her attractive as a hostess," Wright wrote. "She was no longer a cook in the kitchen; we made her a feature of her establishment."

A model kitchen designed in the 1940s for farmhouses, by Cornell University, includes features soon to be seen in Eichler homes, including cabinets with simple sliding doors.

Juliana Barton wrote: "The Cornell Kitchen's upper cabinet could be closed with sliding doors that concealed all the contents. The design also employed 'pocket' doors for the base cabinets that could be tucked out of the way when not in use.

Kitchen Liberation
Right: Why learn to make a cake from scratch when cake mix was all you needed? Left: Saran Wrap made for a convenient container.

"Practically speaking, both the sliding and pocket doors solved the problem of heads and shins bumping into open cabinet doors. They also had the aesthetic effect of lending whatever home they were installed in a clean, efficient appearance."

Beneath the hanging cabinets in many Eichler homes is a form of kitchen island, a design that the magazine Better Homes & Gardens has bragged about popularizing, starting in 1944 with a story titled 'Tomorrow, You Can Live Like This.'

To some designers and social thinkers, the open kitchen was about more than cooking convenience. It was about the American way of life.

Architect Gregory Ain, a well-known Los Angeles proponent of social and cooperative housing who designed several early modern postwar tracts, positioned the kitchen in the center of the home in a deliberate effort to put the woman front and center.

To him, the open plan represented freedom. "As people's lives become freer," Ain wrote, "their homes must provide opportunities for greater enjoyment of the freedom."

  Kitchen Liberation
Even cowboys loved TV dinners.

Ultimately, though, the argument for the open, modern kitchen as an exemplar for freedom was made most famously not by Ain, but by Richard Nixon, when he was vice president.

In 1959, Nixon engaged Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in what became known as the 'kitchen debate' when the RCA Whirlpool 'Miracle Kitchen' was displayed in Moscow. Ordinary Russian women were wowed by such miracles as a 'compact vacuuming robot' and a dishwasher that sidled up to the dining table for easy loading.

But Khrushchev did not believe this spoke well for the United States. "Does your life," he demanded of Nixon, "really consist only of kitchens?"


Photography: Ernie Braun, Sabrina Huang; and courtesy Formica Group, Art, Design & Architecture Museum (UC Santa Barbara), Rico Tee Archive

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