explore: counter space at moma and ‘objectified’

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I have been meaning to go to this exhibition, MoMA’s ‘Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen’ since it opened in September (it’s at the museum until May 2nd) and it proved totally fascinating for anyone like me whose itch lies at the intersection of design, food, architecture and interiors. The centerpiece is a full size reconstruction of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s “Frankfurt Kitchen” from the Höhenblick Housing Estate in Frankfurt, Germany, created in 1926-27. The rest of the exhibition, organized into chronological sections from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1960s and beyond, is focused on products, posters, photographs and designs exploring kitchens themselves and enticingly hinting at their larger sociological significance, and their importance for understanding what constitutes modern living.

Like the Airstream trailer upstairs in MoMA’s permanent design galleries, the Frankfurt Kitchen makes for an enticing, visionary display that generates all kinds of fantasies of alternative living as you lean in its little windows and try to imagine yourself into its efficient little space. But unlike the Airstream, the grounded kitchen doesn’t offer fantasies of escape but of minimalist and efficient daily life, and therefore draws attention to its context and its history in different, and inevitably more sobering ways. MoMA has been on a Weimar kick recently, between the important presence of interwar German design here (photos of Walter Gropius’s kitchen!), the current ‘Dreams and Nightmares’ Weimar film series and the excellent ‘Workshops for Modernity’ Bauhaus exhibition from November 2009. Here kitchen design is represented as a central part of the larger redesign of Frankfurt, and the planners’ and architects’ intentions to provide a blueprint for modern city living all over the world. Interwar Germany shared future-oriented ideologies with many other countries, especially the US, ideologies that ranged from the progressive-if-flawed to the downright crazy, but most of which were animated by the earnest intention to harness the insights of science and management, offered by gurus like Frederick Winslow Taylor, in order to improve everyday life for ordinary people. It now seems like a period when designers with radical ideas about how to organize lives, homes and cities were given freer reign than they are today, as though destruction allowed innovation to flourish (and thus it’s perhaps not surprisingly a period that design curators yearn for.)

In the evening after the exhibition, we watched Gary Hustwit’s Objectified, his intermittently fascinating but unfocused follow-up to the great and glorious Helvetica (more proof that absurd restriction – like making a documentary about a font – can be more creatively generative than expansion – a documentary about ‘product design’ in general. Not that I’m not psyched about his new project Urbanized.) From toothbrushes to the MacBook Air, Objectified ranged widely, with interview subjects who held a variety of often incompatible points of view about product design and its goals and costs: should design be special or democratic, visible or invisible, everywhere or nowhere…? One of the most compelling cases for paying attention to these questions was made by Paola Antonelli, the senior design curator at MoMA, who suggested that designers should be a larger part of our cultural conversation on a wide range of subjects, that their expertise ought to be mainstreamed; she took as her point of reference the cultural role played by philosophers in France, who are brought in by the mainstream media to illuminate all manner of social and political crises. (Watch her 2007 TED talk for more on all this.)

At MoMA, one of the disappointments – a product of how fascinating the early part of the exhibition was – was that there was very little attention paid to the present moment, to investigating the shape and purpose and elements of the modern modern kitchen. The narrative of the exhibition follows the post-WWI contracting of space and the kitchen’s reorganization around concepts of efficiency, followed by WWII and rationing (with its posters enthusiastically promoting jugged rabbit: Rabbits Are OFF THE RATION!) The postwar expansion of the kitchen is detailed in the ‘Visions of Plenty’ section, when the contractions of efficiency are rejected in the 1950s in favor of a feminizing and romanticizing of the kitchen as the ‘heart of the home.’ Vintage commercials and advertisements here make clear the connection between the rediscovery of domestic pleasure and plenty and the hard sell of a plethora of new labor-saving devices and acres of built-in cabinetry.

But where are we now? Kitchen design in urban settings seems to be stalled at a late-nineties moment of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances – trumpeted in just about every New York condo listing – with the tacit understanding that these are aesthetic spaces for inhabitants who don’t cook. Yet the idea of a house or apartment built without a kitchen still seems lopsided, amputated, to most people, whether it’s a cost-saving measure, a cynical statement about the low expectations of the inhabitants, or a feminist project (as detailed in a book I now really want to read, Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities.) Yet something is touched by the idea of houses without kitchens, that this somehow represents a violation of an unwritten right, the deeply inefficient sense that even if the occupants never once set foot in their kitchen, or touched any appliance other than their microwave, and even if they didn’t see the need for a kitchen themselves, they nevertheless required and deserved to have those appliances in their homes. Even as a feminist I sympathize with that feeling: I’m also a misty-eyed devotee of all efforts, be they Jamie Oliver’s or Michelle Obama’s, to bring the simple cooking of fresh food back to the kitchens of everyone made unhealthy and poor by an over-reliance on processed crap. At the same time it was striking to me to see in this exhibition how little has changed – kitchens are still designed around a ‘work triangle’ first laid out in the 30s, and how the size of an ‘ideal’ kitchen might swell or contract but the elements within it stay roughly the same. I’m not a designer, and I have no real theory as to how they could be different, but it’s curious to me how little attempt has been made to redesign the location or functioning of the kitchen, after the huge changes at the beginning of the twentieth century when the kitchen was transformed from the servants’ invisible basement domain into the heart of the home. Why has the living room not become the heart of the home, for instance?

A large part of the fun of the exhibition (not just for me but for those of my fellow visitors whose conversations I overheard) lies in the thrill of recognizing products you own or your parents owned, or products that you’ve coveted yourself, either in the original or modern reinventions. And then there are the heritage brands enjoying a renaissance, like the beautiful chemistry set of products in glass and cork by Chemex, especially its drip-filter coffee maker (on display at a coffee house near you since they became newly hip a few years ago – here’s a great NY Times article all about it.)

But kitchen products are not kitchens. The mobile Italian kitchen unit and the solar-powered grill were a few exhibits that spoke to an intent to actually rethink the standard layout or functioning of the space and components of a kitchen, but overall kitchen design seems to be spoken in the language of constraint – how to manage on what you have. But if we could remodel – really remodel – what would we do? How do we make kitchens that are both efficient and sustainable – how do we bring in cleaner technologies, reduce waste, promote recycling and reuse? What would a genuinely new kitchen for the 21st century look like?


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