Exhibition Review

Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, Museum of Modern Art, September 15, 2010-May 2, 2011. Curated by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor[Record]

  • Gwendolyn Owens

If Counter Space is any indication, the kitchen’s time on the world stage has finally come. Mounted at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the New York institution that has come to be seen as the international arbiter of taste, the recent exhibition suggests that the kitchen is not only officially cool, but also a space of equal interest to both sexes. For anyone interested in food studies or exhibitions about food, this is huge. It opens the possibility for more exhibitions with better funding on more focused topics. If MoMA can get an audience for their exhibition, it means that art museums and university galleries in Canada might venture into the kitchen and serve up a second course of Canadian design or food history. The focal point of the MoMA exhibition is a recently purchased “Frankfurt Kitchen.” Salvaged from a vast middle-class housing complex in Frankfurt, Germany, the 1928 kitchen was one of more than 10 thousand built using one of three similar designs by architect Grete Schütte-Lihotzky. Although its influence was not immediately felt, Schütte-Lihotzky’s well-publicized plan ultimately revolutionized our conception of the kitchen. The exhibition is presented in a modest second-floor gallery of the museum, fittingly situated close to the café. Chronological organization underscores the evolution of the kitchen from conservative to hip, thanks in large part to the push forward toward modernism from Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen. Objects in the exhibition—paintings, posters, film clips, kitchen gadgets, and furniture—were drawn from across the museum’s various collections, rather than being drawn exclusively from the Architecture and Design collection. It is, however, the Frankfurt Kitchen that serves as the linchpin, the turning point, that illustrates how kitchens evolved from under-designed after-thoughts to architectural centrepieces, spaces that give architects or designers an opportunity to show off. Curated by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor of the Museum’s Department of Architecture and Design, the exhibition is organized into four sections: Toward the Modern Kitchen, The New Kitchen, Visions of Plenty, and Kitchen Sink Dramas. The companion book follows the same organizational scheme, with short introductory texts for each section followed by photographs of some of the corresponding objects. It is not a scholarly tome meant to be read cover-to-cover, but a book to be perused, preferably at a kitchen table. Like the book, the exhibition was meant to appeal to a popular audience, not a selective high-art crowd: there is no complex theory; there are no inexplicable objects. Kitchen design, Counter Space makes clear, is accessible and appealing to everyone—not just housewives or architects. On the Saturday that I saw the exhibition, the room was packed with a cross-section of visitors: young, old, male, female. Although originally scheduled to close in March, it was extended until May, presumably because of its popularity. Beginning this exploration of the 20th-century kitchen, Toward the Modern Kitchen features film stills of several pre-modern iterations. The New Kitchen then illustrates various ideas for modernizing the kitchen, with particular emphasis on the Frankfurt Kitchen. Posters and brochures in Visions of Plenty reflect the midcentury promotion of healthy eating and cleanliness; one British poster from the Second World War shows a rat in silhouette, with the words, “he spreads disease.” Other brochures, such as Alcan’s aluminum foil advertisements, proclaim certain new products as ideal for the modern kitchen. A 1959 photograph documents the famous “Kitchen Debate” between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in which the two leaders squared off about whether Americans were happier than their Soviet counterparts because the former had modern kitchens with modern appliances. The sheer variety of casseroles, boxes, jars, coffee …