The kitchen was not always such a romantic place. At the turn of the 20th century, it was basically just another room, except with a stove in it. And not a very pleasant room: as Steven Gdula says in his book The Warmest Room in the House,
Kitchens were as close an approximation to hell on earth as one could find. They were hot, dirty, smelly, dangerous places, and the work done there seemed interminable.
In wealthy homes, large staffs labored there all day; in working-class homes, the central table served as food-prep site, dining area, and work surface for all manner of household jobs.
Domestic scientists and designers strove to rationalize our cookery, standardizing both recipes and the places where we prepared them. In the 1920s, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, one of the first female Austrian architects, was commissioned to design the kitchen areas in one of the first of the massive technocratic housing projects that came to characterize urban development in the 20th century. Asked by the city of Frankfurt to invent a modern kitchen in an era when electricity and gas lines were just becoming common, she did something that seems very strange to modern foodie sensibilities: she shrank it. Elsewhere, time-and-motion experts scrutinized the housewife, filming her in action and even strapping a bellows-like apparatus to her back so as to measure her breathing and see how hard she was working.
Under the influence of such domestic designers, kitchens for the masses were stripped down to a special-purpose room dedicated to food storage and preparation, hygienically separated from the parts of the house where people worked, ate, and relaxed. The table was removed in favor of built-in storage and work areas. Over time, such developments led to the “fitted” kitchen that we know today, with its fixed cupboards and 36-inch counters, its “triangle” of work areas for preparation, cooking, and cleanup.
An original Frankfurt Kitchen was recently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, part of a kitchen-design exhibit called Counter Space. The faint outlines of the modern galley kitchen are visible in its form: fixed counters and cupboards, sink and stove. But it’s tiny by modern standards, with almost no storage or workspace, or even really room for more than one person. And although it has that clean, industrial Bauhaus aesthetic, it also has that same impersonal quality. The Frankfurt Kitchen is not remotely personal or ornamental. It is a highly functional work area. It is not a place where people wander in to admire your knives.
Eventually, this streamlined, ultrafunctional vision was the victim of its own success. Electric and gas stoves, and then refrigerators and dishwashers, slashed the amount of time that women needed to spend feeding their families, especially after reliable home cold storage brought about a revolution in processed and frozen foods that could be prepared in minutes. Almost as soon as they acquired these fancy new labor-saving kitchens, women did the natural thing: they started leaving them. By the new millennium, more than three-quarters of women ages 25 to 54 were in the workforce; in 1950, that proportion was closer to one-third.
Yet the importance of the kitchen didn’t diminish just because we spent less time there. Rather, its social function changed. In Sixpence in Her Shoe, a 1960 tribute to the housewife, the poet Phyllis McGinley was already identifying a growing phenomenon that she called the “anticook”: the person who wanted “a parlor for her friends to envy, not a working kitchen. Nothing was meant for use.” The counters and floor have since been upgraded even further, from Formica and linoleum to granite and tile, and the pastel wall oven has in many cases been incorporated into a range worthy of a restaurant. All the while, the kitchen has grown massively—between 1974 and 2005, the area of the average new kitchen nearly doubled, to almost 300 square feet, accommodating the proliferating kitchenware popularized by celebrity chefs and specialty retailers like Sur La Table. The new space has allowed the banished kitchen table to return from exile, and hygienic remove has given way to open floor plans—perhaps because so few of us worry about any of that dirty, smelly cooking. Like many such trends, this one is most pronounced at the top of the income distribution: Schwefel of Sur La Table describes walking into the home of a friend with a brand-new Viking range—in which she was storing her sweaters. The anticook still thrives.