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.
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A Kitchen Revolution Aimed At Freeing Women

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A Kitchen Revolution Aimed At Freeing Women

A Kitchen Revolution Aimed At Freeing Women

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

Ms. MERRILL EVANS (Writer, Food and Kitchen Magazine): Look at the racks for the dishes. Now, that's perfectly modern, perfectly.

SMITH: In fact, it's now in the Museum of Modern Art, in between the Andy Warhols and MoMA's snack bar.

The kitchen is tiny, about the size of a VW bus, and it's mostly outfitted in gunmetal gray - no granite countertops. But it's one of the first architecturally designed kitchens; you can see the ideas that launched a million home remodeling projects.

Mr. JOHN FILIPPELLI (Writer, Food and Kitchen Magazine): For instance, those built-in bins. I would put that in a kitchen if I were doing it today.

SMITH: You have pullout drawers, under-cabinet storage there, which I'm sure holds your flour, your sugar.

Ms. LESLIE CLAGETT (Writer, Food and Kitchen Magazine): The four-burner stove is a knockout. It was a thoroughly revolutionary design.

SMITH: That was Food and Kitchen writers Merrill Evans, John Filippelli and Leslie Clagett.

The Frankfurt kitchen is the centerpiece of a new show at MoMA called "Counter Space: Design in the Modern Kitchen." And curator Juliet Kinchin let me actually touch the artwork.

I'm standing here in front of a 1926...

Ms. JULIET KINCHIN (Curator): 1926 Prometheus gas stove.

SMITH: And if I turn this on, a museum guard is going to arrest me; is that right?

Ms. KINCHIN: Totally. Absolutely.

SMITH: Well, of course, now we're used to talking about kitchen design. There are entire magazines and television programs devoted to it. But in 1926, this was a relatively new thing, to design a kitchen?

Ms. KINCHIN: Yes. 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. And the kitchens were often poorly ventilated, shoved to the basement or annex, and caused a lot of drudgery in the kitchen.

SMITH: So what sparked a revolution in thinking about the kitchen as a place you could be proud of, a place that could be efficient?

Ms. KINCHIN: There was a whole tradition of women reformers who were trying to adopt a scientific approach to housework and to raise the status of housework.

The designer of this kitchen, Grete Schuette-Lihotzky, was passionately concerned about the quality of women's lives. And she felt that without sorting the drudgery that they were involved in, they'd never have time to develop themselves in a professional way.

SMITH: So the distance between the sink and the stove, this work triangle that people use today in a kitchen, this was a political statement at the time.

Ms. KINCHIN: There's always been that political dimension to kitchens.

(Soundbite of industrial film)

Unidentified Woman: See how easy it is to get out what you want.

SMITH: This exhibit features a lot of industrial movies from the '20s through the 1950s. And it's clear that once you let designers into the kitchen, they don't know when to stop.

(Soundbite of industrial film)

Unidentified Woman: This pullout board at lap level, 26 inches above the floor, gives a good working height. It permits a woman to sit comfortably in an ordinary kitchen chair, her feet flat on the floor, while she's working at long and tedious jobs.

SMITH: The architects weren't just creating kitchens. They were designing the perfect housewives to go in them. And over here in a corner of the exhibit, we actually see architectural drawing of a woman...

(Soundbite of laughter)


SMITH: ...with all the measurements on her.

Ms. KINCHIN: Allow me to introduce you to Josephine. She's the 5-foot-4 incarnation of the average American woman, life-size, and all her dimensions are clearly marked here. And this is what interior designers and architects worked with when they were designing the dimensions of the modern kitchen.

SMITH: Well, the designers obviously felt this was liberating. Did the women think this was liberating too?

Ms. KINCHIN: Schuette-Lihotzky did make women's lives a lot easier. But she has been criticized by feminist critics in the 1970s for actually isolating women in the kitchen.

SMITH: If you treat a kitchen like a factory, then a woman becomes like a factory worker, clocking in and out. Yeah.

Ms. KINCHIN: She becomes like a robot.

(Soundbite of industrial film)

Unidentified Woman: In this kitchen that has made her task of food preparation so much lighter, the housewife can share her family's enjoyment at mealtime.

Ms. KINCHIN: Of course, when we start cooking, we create mess and disorder, however rational and perfectly well-organized they are.

SMITH: What's your kitchen look like now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: You laugh. Everyone must ask you this.

Ms. KINCHIN: They do. So Ill just say: rational, ordered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: You're working out some issues here in this exhibition. I can tell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Juliet Kinchin is the curator of "Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen." The show runs at New York's Museum of Modern Art through next spring.

Thanks so much.

Ms. KINCHIN: Well, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: You can check out the Frankfurt Kitchen and see videos from the exhibit on our Web site,

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