A new exhibit at the The Museum of Modern Art, Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, examines the kitchen and its continual redesign as a barometer of changing ideologies and technologies. The exhibition explores the 20th-century transformation of the kitchen as a space of symbolic and practical significance.
On view from September 15, 2010, through March 14, 2011, its centerpiece is MoMA’s recent acquisition of the iconic “Frankfurt Kitchen” Designed in 1926– 27 by Grete Schütte-Lihotzky. In the aftermath of World War I, thousands of these kitchens were manufactured for public-housing estates being built around Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, as part of a comprehensive program to modernize the city and society. Schütte-Lihotzky’s compact and ergonomic design, with its integrated approach to storage, appliances, and work surfaces, reflected a commitment to transforming the lives of ordinary working people on an ambitious scale.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (Austrian, 1897-2000). Frankfurter Küche (Frankfurt Kitchen). 1926-7. As illustrated in Das Neue Frankfurt 5 (1927).
Historically, kitchens were often drab, poorly ventilated, and hidden from view in a basement or annex, but by the end of the nineteenth century the kitchen became a bridgehead of modern thinking in the domestic sphere. It served as a testing ground for new materials, technologies, and power sources, where designers could also address growing modern concerns for hygiene, efficiency, and the rational organization of space. Since the innovations of Schütte-Lihotzky and her contemporaries in the 1920s, kitchens have continued to articulate, and at times actively challenge, our relationships to the food we eat and popular attitudes toward the domestic role of women, family life, consumerism, and even political ideology, as in the case of the celebrated 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
The exhibition begins in the early twentieth century with the idea of the labor-saving, rational kitchen as a “factory” or “laboratory.” From the Frankfurt kitchen to the standardized, stackable forms of Wagenfeld’s 1938 glass Cubus ware, and to posters issued by the British Ministry of Information during World War II, the dominant ethos is one of work, thrift, and hygiene. The next section continues the themes of ergonomic, functional design and technological innovation while steadily shifting the emphasis to consumer choice and the “leisure” kitchen, as captured in colorful 1950s Tupperware and Tom Wesselmann’s exuberant Still Life #30 collage of 1963. The final part of the exhibition restores a human element to the kitchen—in reality an environment of mess, neurosis, and frustration as well as aesthetic pleasure, sociability, and desire. Photographs, prints, media works and sculptural installations highlight the kitchen-related imagery that has permeated artistic practice since the late 1960s as a means of addressing larger debates around economics, politics, and gender.
The sections hinge around the installation of the Frankfurt Kitchen and a 1968 mobile foldout unit manufactured by the Italian company Snaidero. These two complete kitchens are complemented by a variety of design objects, many of which represent the changing times: appliances powered by gas and electricity (the earliest a 1907 kettle designed by Peter Behrens for AEG); aluminum, heat-resistant glass and steel cooking utensils featured in MoMA’s landmark 1934 Machine Art exhibition; colorful plastics ranging from Colombini’s 1957 bucket to Japanese artificial ‘display’ food from the 1970s; and architectural plans, posters, archival photographs, printed ephemera, and selected artworks, all drawn from MoMA’s collection, including pieces by Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, Andy Warhol, and Claes Oldenburg. Also on view are rarely seen industrial films by manufacturing giants such as General Electric, spanning back as far as 1915, and stills from Hollywood films that helped to prime consumer desire for modern kitchens and appliances.
Throughout the exhibition, prominence is given to the contribution of women, not only as the primary consumers and users of the domestic kitchen, but also as reformers, architects, designers, and as artists who have critically addressed kitchen culture and myths.
Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen comprises works drawn from the Museum’s collection, including design objects, photography, film, prints, drawings, and paintings. The exhibition is organized by Juliet Kinchin, Curator, and Aidan O’Connor, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art.