Counter Space at MoMA

Building Design, October 2010, Review

Curated by Juliet Kinchin, Counter Space is a fascinating survey of how kitchen design has shaped and been shaped by shifting social ideals over the past 90 or so years. The idea grew out of the museum’s acquisition of a rare, complete 1926-27 Frankfurt Kitchen – the marvel of efficient design by the Austrian architect Margaret Schütte-Lihotzky. Developed as part of Frankfurt’s massive post first world war project to modernise its social housing stock led by architect and planner Ernst May, Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen found its way into no fewer than 10,000 of the city’s new homes.

The first example of a fitted kitchen, it was radical in its day, with built-in cupboards, pouring storage jars, fold away ironing board and the now classic triangulation of sink, stove and continuous work surface. Schütte- Lihotzky drew inspiration from American social reformer Christine Frederick – her research into space efficiency, but also more generally her mission to see women’s activities in the kitchen recognised as “work” and the kitchen as a “workplace” deserving of decent design.

The objects produced at the time also reflect this application of science to the domestic sphere, and there are examples here of chemical porcelain casseroles, heat-resistant glass tea kettles and aluminium cake pans. There’s also a wonderful photograph of Schütte-Lihotzky with her team, her white coat lending her an air of scientific authority.

MoMA’s project to bring the Frankfurt Kitchen to New York is part of a broader ambition to expand the work of female architects in its collection. With women so poorly represented in both the practice of architecture and its written history, it’s a welcome move. Although Schütte-Lihotzky was a major figure in her time – she also built schools and social housing – today her name is less familiar than that of her contemporaries Charlotte Perriand and Lilly Reich. Her left-wing politics may be in part the cause. A card-carrying Communist, she was a member of the Red Brigade that visited Moscow in 1932.

Later, her reputation suffered again, this time from another shift in social attitudes when eighties feminism recast her self-contained kitchen as a gendered ghetto.

After the pared down ergonomics of the twenties and thirties and the compulsory efficiencies of the second world war, the show moves on to the cold war period. In America, with suburbanisation and a new affluence, the kitchen became the stage for endless gadgetry and social oneupmanship. There’s a wonderful photograph of Richard Nixon engaged in the famous “kitchen debate” with Nikolai Khrushchev at the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow. The show-home’s kitchen, complete with all the latest wizardry, served as a symbol for the Soviet-American ideological rift.

For the final section, MoMA has dug into its photography and fine-arts collection, and there’s a change of texture with works by artists like Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and William Eggleston offering a more overt critique.

Unspoken assumptions, and challenges to them, ricochet throughout the show. So there’s Henry Dreyfuss’s 1967 graphic of the dimensions of a woman, still the standard by which kitchen units are designed today. And promotional films from the fifties with manicured housewives playing one-dimensional domestic roles; but also a video from Martha Rosler parodying television cooking shows.

The chaos in Anna and Bernhard Blume’s Kitchen Frenzy series of photographs is set against visions of mechanised order. While in Mac Adam’s photographs, polished toasters reflect back images of semi-clad women. The kitchen as dramatic backdrop is also explored. In an image from Mary E Frey’s series Real Life Dramas, a girl asks her mother while they’re preparing hamburgers: “But how can you be certain”. “You never can,” her mother replies.

But while the show strips away, it doesn’t undermine. The sheer inventiveness of kitchen design is still celebrated, from Kenji Ekuan’s Soy Sauce dispenser and Peter Schlumbohm’s Pyrex creations to Marcel Breuer’s tea cart, Alfonso Bialetti’s coffee percolator, Adnan Tarcici’s solar cooker and James Dyson’s vacuum cleaner.

The article at Building Design