MoMA Exhibit: How Kitchens Were Designed To Free Women These days there are magazines and television programs devoted to kitchen design, but it's an idea that took off only less than a century ago. In fact, as a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art shows, designing a kitchen started off as a political act.

A Kitchen Revolution Aimed At Freeing Women

A Kitchen Revolution Aimed At Freeing Women

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Three views of the reconstructed Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Austrian Margarete Schuette-Lihotzky. Courtesy MoMA hide caption

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Courtesy MoMA

Three views of the reconstructed Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Austrian Margarete Schuette-Lihotzky.

Courtesy MoMA

This week in New York, the city's foodie elites gathered to poke around an 80-year-old kitchen. It was designed in 1926 for a housing project in Frankfurt, Germany. But rather than being updated with Ikea fixtures, the entire kitchen was ripped out and shipped, piece by piece, to New York.


The exhibit runs Sept. 15 thru March 14.

The Frankfurt Kitchen is now in the Museum of Modern Art, in between the Andy Warhols and the MoMA snack bar. It's the centerpiece of a new show called Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.

The kitchen is tiny, the size of a VW bus. It's mostly outfitted in gunmetal gray -- no granite countertops. But through one of the first architecturally designed kitchens, you can see the ideas that launched a million home remodeling projects: built-in bins, undercabinet storage, pullout drawers and a four-burner stove.

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.

The Politically Progressive Kitchen

"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.

"The kitchens were often poorly ventilated, shoved to the basement or annex, and caused a lot of drudgery in the kitchen."

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."

"The designer of [The Frankfurt Kitchen], Grete Schuette-Lihotzky, was passionately concerned about the quality of women's lives," Kinchin continues. "She felt without sorting the drudgery they were involved in, they'd never have time to develop themselves in a professional way."

Last Word In Automatic Dishwashing (1950)

This video, part of the MoMA exhibit, is a salesman's guide to liberating the modern housewife.

The Perfectly Designed Housewife

The exhibit features a lot of industrial movies from the '20s through the '50s, which make it clear that once you let designers into the kitchen, they don't know when to stop. Architects weren't just creating kitchens; as it turns out, they were also designing the perfect housewives to go in them.

In a corner of the exhibit, there's actually an architectural drawing of a woman with all her dimensions clearly marked. Her name is Josephine.

"She's the 5-foot-4 incarnation of the average American woman, life-size," Kinchin says. "This is what interior designers and architects worked with when they were designing the dimensions of the modern kitchen."

The designers obviously felt designing the perfect kitchen was liberating for women -- but not all women agreed.

"Schuette-Lihotzky did make women's lives a lot easier," Kinchin says, "but she has been criticized by feminist critics in the 1970s for actually isolating women in the kitchen."

If you treat a kitchen like a factory, the criticism goes, then a woman becomes like a factory worker. "She becomes like a robot."

But the ideals of designers are often countered by reality. As Kinchin points out, no amount of design can overcome the chaos that happens in the kitchen. "When we start cooking, we create mess and disorder -- however rational and perfectly well-organized they are."

A Word To The Wives (ca.1955)

Another part of the exhibit, this is the story of how two women get a husband to buy a new kitchen.