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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

  • Gwendolyn Owens
Couverture de Food, Language, and Identity,                Volume 3, numéro 1, 2011, Cuizine

Corps de l’article

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 makers, blenders, and chairs in the exhibition make it clear that MoMA has been observing and collecting kitchen paraphernalia with intriguing designs almost since its founding in 1929. Devices such as a 12-cut pie marker from the 1950s may be nonessential, but are appealing from the point of view of design. Counter Space provides an opportunity for MoMA to display a selection from its vast and wonderful collection of design objects, often hidden away in storage.

The centrepiece, however, is the full-size Frankfurt Kitchen, famous for its logical, labour-saving, laboratory-like design. It is small (roughly 7 by 13 feet) and minimalist, coming out of a modernist tradition that eschewed ornamentation. Everything is within reach of the hypothetical cook, who could sit on a stool to prepare food at the sink or move just a few steps to the stove or the cabinets. The design benefited from the architect’s reading of The New Housekeeping Efficiency Studies in Home Management by American Christine Frederick, which had been translated and published in Germany, and Schütte-Lihotzky’s own studies and interviews about what would make work in the kitchen easier. Ernst May, who was in charge of the whole Frankfurt housing project, promoted the use of prefabricated elements to build houses economically and efficiently; he was also very efficient at getting the project publicized in the architectural press. As a result, the Frankfurt project was highly influential in subsequent thinking about cost and efficiency, both in terms of the time it takes to build a house and in terms of the square footage needed for living.

In North America, the influence of the Frankfurt Kitchen and other designs based on small but efficient spaces grew incrementally. It was not really until the 1960s that Canadian and American kitchens became more modern and lab-like, less homey than the post-war middle-class kitchens seen in women’s magazines; the latter were often highly feminine and featured patterned wallpaper, cheery curtains, and even coloured appliances. MoMA weighed in on the debate in 1950 when an exhibition of a three-bedroom house designed by Gregory Ain and co-sponsored by Woman’s Home Companion magazine was set up in the sculpture garden. Judging from a photograph that appears in both the exhibition and the book, the all-white Ain kitchen was a cross between the Frankfurt Kitchen and a more conservative North American design, with a larger space that seems less efficient, less rational, and not as elegant as Schütte-Lihotzky’s. Today, the Ain kitchen looks dated, while the Frankfurt Kitchen seems timeless. It is too bad that MoMA does not own any plans or photographs of the modernist houses built in Vancouver in the 1950s, by architects such as Fred Lasserre, Peter Thornton, Ronald Thom, and Catherine Wisnicki. The kitchens in these British Columbia houses were clearly influenced by the Frankfurt Kitchen; it would have been nice to see how some architects in Canada and elsewhere took up the mantle of modernism and incorporated some of Schütte-Lihotzky’s ideas, innovations, and designs into their own work.

The final section of the exhibition, Kitchen Sink Dramas, features works of art by Cindy Sherman, Martha Rosler, Mac Adams, Lucas Samaras, and many others, all of which use the kitchen as the setting for an ironic critique of modern life. Interestingly, the kitchens portrayed tend not to be influenced by the Frankfurt Kitchen or modernist design. These depictions of the non-modern kitchen—with its wallpaper, checked curtains, and frilly aprons—reinforces the triumph of the modernist aesthetic by making the alternative appear frivolous, silly, and out of date.

Ultimately, Counter Space is a mass-culture-inspired survey of the development of the modernist kitchen, not a scholarly study; by limiting themselves to works from their own collection, the MoMA curators could only tell the story for which they had the material. Many ideas come to mind for future exhibitions: more about the design of the room itself, the decoration, the implements found in the kitchen or even what one might actually prepare in a modernist kitchen. It would be particularly interesting for readers of CuiZine if a Canadian museum were to explore Canadian kitchens as distinct from that of American—or German, or British—ones. But this is a good start and MoMA’s success with this exhibition will hopefully lead to additional courses, preferably served up by a Canadian institution.