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A Kitchen Revolution Aimed At Freeing Women – NPR

These are just the juicy women’s history segments of the story.  Read the entire article here.

This is a fascinating discussion of gender politics and design.  The MoMa now has its very own kitchen – dismantled in Frankfurt, Germany and reconstructed in New York – in its new exhibit, “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.”  Although the gunmetal gray leaves much to be desired, this exhibit argues that women were politically active about their own rights through kitchen design.

Author Robert Smith states, “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.”

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

“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,” says curator Juliet Kinchin.

“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.”

Although these advancements did relieve the “drudgery” of housework, they essentialized wives’ work by isolating them to the kitchen.  And ads to sell these new gadgets and contraptions conveyed that cooking and hostessing would make [young, white, middle-class] women better wives and better women.

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.”

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