The kitchen of the future has long been a preoccupation of mine. A few years ago I wrote that the future of the kitchen might be no kitchen at all, as prepared or ordered food took over and the kitchen got Ubered out of existence. The theory was that the kitchen was going the way of the sewing machine; cooking would become a recreational activity that people do on weekends in their big fancy open kitchens with Wolf ranges, and a little “messy kitchen” behind where they toast their Eggos and punch their Keurig.
“For the first time in a generation, Americans began spending more money at the supermarket than at places where someone else made the food. Grocers saw eight years of projected sales growth packed into one month. Shopping trends that were in their infancy were turbocharged. ‘People are moving on to more complex cooking, and we don’t see that going away,’ said Rodney McMullen, the chairman and chief executive of Kroger, where sales rose 30 percent at the onset of the pandemic.”
If people are going to be doing more cooking, it might be a good idea to have kitchens that you can actually use efficiently instead of the kind of stuff we make fun of on Twitter.
Sarah Archer, author of “The Midcentury Kitchen” points to a film produced in 1949 by the USDA’s Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics called “A Step-Saving Kitchen” that has some interesting suggestions that would be appropriate today. The kitchen was designed by USDA home economist Lenore Sater Thye, who also narrates the film, and J. Robert Dodge, an architect who wrote a number of books for various branches of the U.S. government on everything from farm buildings to cooperative housing.
The kitchen is a classic U-shape, with a classic “kitchen triangle” that was refined by engineer Lillian Moller Gilbreth (and who Alexandra Lange says couldn’t cook, which makes me feel a lot better writing about kitchen design). Lange writes that “even though she did not do it herself, Gilbreth still considered housework unpaid labor, and as such, capable of efficiencies.”
Here is the plan with the classic triangle between the fridge, the sink and the range. Lange notes also that Gilbreth wanted kitchen counter heights to be set appropriately for the height of the cook.
“Stand in front of your kitchen counter, shoulders relaxed, elbows bent. If you are 5 feet 7 inches tall, your hands should hover just above a work surface set at a standard 36 inches high, ready to chop, slice, or stir. If you are shorter than that (as the majority of American women are), you will have to raise your elbows laterally like wings, to get your whisk into position. If you are taller than that (as the majority of American men are), you will have to lean down in order to apply proper pressure on the knife. In the case of counter height, Lillian Gilbreth did not have her way. Manufacturers found it easier to standardize.”
Lange raises an interesting point. Kitchens are all standard heights, yet when you think of the standing desks everyone is buying now, nobody would buy one with a fixed height, they are all adjustable. You want your forearms parallel to the desk to type just as Lange describes what height your surface should be to chop, slice and stir. Perhaps the kitchen of the future should be built out of standing desks, separated from the appliances and storage below.
Lenore Sater Thye (who seems to have been the designer of the kitchen, with Dodge doing the drafting) thought about this too, trying to find the most efficient and ergonomic working height. She also designed a very clever pull-out work surface at sitting height, for doing lengthy and repetitive tasks.
The breakfast table is also on casters so that it can be a useful working surface. There seems to be some kind of home business going on here, filling boxes with something and then sealing them with the iron, all set up in some kind of jig. This is a real working kitchen.
In the “mixing center” where the baking is done (they did a lot of baking!) the counter is at generous, with everything in reach. Lower cupboards are for stuff that is used rarely (bending down is hard on your back).
This evidently was studied carefully; Lenore Sater Thye notes that they started with 36″ but found that it wasn’t enough, and that 42″ was much better for each zone. Lack of counter space is still a problem in kitchens; Sarah Archer, asked to comment on the film, tells Treehugger:
“Honestly the thing I crave more of isn’t gadgetry (or even style) but counter space. I do some of the cooking but my husband does more of it; I like to bake and he’s more likely to tackle dinner. We have lots of ingredients and tools around, we like our appliances fine, but we never, ever have enough work surfaces. This seems to be one way in which the Space-Saving Kitchen really excels: there are lots of places to stage ingredients and tools, tackle more complex projects, and stash things away from the flow of traffic. I’m sold.”
In many ways, it is a zero waste kitchen, with everything bought in bulk and very little packaging in sight. There is a place for everything; flour and sugar are right at hand for all that baking.
They even feed the lower flour bin from an upper bin hidden behind the door with a hopper that can hold 40 pounds of flour.
Baking and serving cake seems to have been a preoccupation of the era; if you look at any of the “kitchen of the future” videos from the time (collected here on Treehugger) they are all about magical cakes appearing instantly.
I thought that regular baking was pretty much a thing of the past, but during this pandemic my daughter has been delivering cakes and cookies (pictured above) and bread a couple of times a week, she has turned into a baking machine, and she is not alone. I used to think that urban ovens were for storing shoes, but it seems that’s no longer the case.
The biggest surprise for me was the utility of the corner lazy Susan cupboards that were above the counter. These corner spaces are often filled with small appliances; in my kitchen, that’s where the espresso machine and toaster are parked. But watching the cook at work here, she is getting so much out of that cupboard, all the time, while barely having to move from the baking station. The one on the other side of the sink has almost all the dishes. This seems a lot more practical and useful than a storage corner.
Over in the “vegetable preparation center” next to the sink, bins that can hold 20 pounds of potatoes and 10 pounds of onions are built in. “By taking off 3 inches and by using as much depth as possible in the outside wall, four bins are built-in under the windows.” That doesn’t leave much room for insulation. Similarly, there is a hole in the counter over the garbage pail, which is stored in a cupboard with an insulated door to the outside. This is evidently a farmer’s kitchen, because “it is no trouble to save the garbage for hogs – a problem chore in many farm households.”
In the cooking center, there are drawers for salt and oatmeal and other ingredients that are used at the stove. Pots, pans, and serving dishes are all within easy reach.
Dinner is served. Yum!
The dining corner is under the window, and has shelves for small electrical appliances like toasters and waffle irons, with “room for magazines and children’s toys.”
There is also a home office with a table on casters that can be used for cooking as well when not used for planning meals, a phone for making market orders, a shelf for books, and a mirror: “Homemakers say that when someone is at the door or when they join guests they like to see that they are presentable. A mirror above the desk meets this need.”
Outside of the mirror (we have our phones for that now) almost everything in this 1949 kitchen – a direct descendant of Christine Frederick in 1912 and Lillian Moller Gilbreth in 1931 – makes sense today. Lenore Sater Thye should join Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and the others as one of the influential kitchen designers of the 20th century.
When I worked with Workshop Architecture to design the kitchen for the apartment upstairs in our house, now occupied by my daughter, we looked at all kinds of designs, but I kept ending up with that triangle, with a peninsula to keep the cooking area separate. I am even coming around to accepting open kitchens; it’s nice to be able to see and talk to the cook without getting in their way.
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that with cooking and baking coming back not only as a hobby but as a daily part of life. A modern kitchen by Philipe Starck might inspire you to do other things, but it won’t help you cook. Instead of dreaming about the kitchen of the future, we should be relearning the lessons from the kitchens of the past.
Read the handbook for the kitchen in the Internet Archives here.