By ROBERTA SMITH
The New York Times Published: September 19, 2010
Sometimes a kitchen is just a kitchen, but not often. If a house is a machine for living, as Le Corbusier said, then the kitchen is its engine. If that machine is seen as a living organism — a house that is a home — then the kitchen is its heart and brain.
The centerpiece of “Counter Space” at MoMA is a Frankfurt Kitchen, 1926-27, designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. More Photos »
The many-splendored thing that is the modern kitchen — as a coherent workspace, object of study and model of efficiency — began to take shape sometime around 1900. It has been a leading indicator of the state of design ever since. It has also been a battlefield of conflicting belief systems, not least regarding the role of women in society. As the use of servants declined, housewives became at once early adopters of new products meant to free them from drudgery and targets of corporate advertising that relentlessly defined them as household fixtures themselves.
Which is to say, kitchens were heavily symbolic sites long before any of us became involved with the ones that bless or blight our individual lives. This is elaborately demonstrated by “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen” at the Museum of Modern Art.
Using a tantalizing sprawl of design objects, artifacts and artworks, this exhibition places the modern kitchen in a broad historical context. It is bound to invite personal memories: I rediscovered the Ekco vegetable peeler, Chemex coffeemaker and copper-bottomed Revere Ware saucepan of my mother’s kitchen; the Terraillon plastic food scale and timer from my first New York apartment; and the old domed Magnalite tea kettle that an ex-boyfriend cherished.
But in the main, “Counter Space” sprints with dazzling speed and pinpoint precision across an amazing amount of social and aesthetic history, and shows how these histories are connected. The kitchen’s design evolution meshed with the new availability of gas and electricity; with the rise of cities, the middle class and health consciousness; with early stabs at prefab housing; with the growing independence of women; and of course with the emergence of modern design itself, as a self-consciously forward-looking, socially minded discipline whose brief was to improve everyday life for all.
Two world wars fed innovation by making efficiency and conservation pressing matters, creating food and housing shortages and luring women into the work force. As cities grew, the kitchen’s need for regular infusions of fresh foodstuffs, heating and cooling energy, and waste disposal connected it to urban networks that were themselves still taking shape. The kitchen was something like Rome, with nearly all a city’s infrastructure leading to it or away from it.
“Counter Space” confirms that few museums can muster a show of this kind as effectively as the Modern. It been assembled by Juliet Kinchin, curator in the department of architecture and design, and Aidan O’Connor, a curatorial assistant, who have drawn entirely from the museum’s collections. In addition to some 300 design objects clustered according to era, material or designer, it includes posters, paintings, films and film stills, prints and photographs — something from every department.
The museum’s vision of and faith in modernism are a major subtext. MoMA’s historic determination to encompass all that is emblematic of modern life is so breathtaking as to be almost self-congratulatory. “See?” the museum seems to say. “We have this, that and the other, and they’re all relevant and they all fit together in this story.”
But the Modern has the goods. Peter Behren’s 1909 electric tea kettle is here, nickel-plated to resemble parlor-worthy silver, along with a poster he designed two years earlier encouraging the use of electricity. An American poster from 1917 encourages Americans to eat less meat and fat, more grains and vegetables, not for their health, but to save food for Allied troops.
The objects range chronologically from the brown paper bag that Charles Stillwell designed for the Union Paper Bag Machine Company of Philadelphia in 1883 through a Levittown kitchen’s worth of pastel-colored Tupperware from the mid-1950s to Philippe Starck’s overly sculptural Juicy Salif Lemon Squeezer of 1988 (a countertop Louise Bourgeois spider) and Smart Design’s far more user-friendly Good Grips peeler of 1989.
The show’s centerpiece is a stupendous recent acquisition: one of the last surviving examples of a relatively complete Frankfurt Kitchen designed in 1926-27 by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000), Austria’s first female architect. It was mass produced for housing blocks built in Frankfurt to meet housing shortages caused by the devastation of World War I, and remains a model of cockpitlike clarity and purpose. Including a grid of small metal bins (for storing rice and the like) that resembles a hardware store, it was one of several determinedly modern kitchens designed mostly in Germany in the late 1920s. But it is probably alone in being the subject of a recent music video tribute by the Austrian musician Robert Rotifer, which is also in the show.
“Counter Space” proceeds in three sections. “The New Kitchen” centers on design up through World War II, when the kitchen was conceived of as a kind of no-nonsense laboratory. Form follows function here, as do metal and glass and a tensile sense of geometry. The mid-1930s brought such classics as Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Kubus stacking storage containers, made of textured glass; Sherman Kelly’s cast aluminum ice-cream scoop, upon which Brancusi could not have improved; and a handy-looking one-shot cake cutter by an unknown designer that could be a Duchamp readymade. Also here are posters from wartime Britain: those by Frederick H. K. Henrion expound on the economies of raising rabbits for food; several more by Herbert Tomlinson single out the destructiveness of mice.
“Visions of Plenty,” the second section, covers the explosion of new materials, especially colorful plastics, and expanding markets and growing residential footprints that followed the war, when one German designer presciently noted that “America has fat kitchens, Europe has thin ones.” In 1968, when the Italian designer Virgilio Forchiassin designed a mobile kitchen unit that folded up into something like a Minimalist cube, American kitchens were in the process of absorbing dining rooms, living rooms and the den.
Clever forms and pretty colors often superseded function. I, for one, can’t imagine putting anything but decorative pieces of fruit in the bright transparent plastic serving dishes that Kenneth Brozen designed in 1963. But this was also the heyday of Braun’s svelte appliances that made plastic seem as refined as porcelain, and signaled a Germany design resurgence; Kaj Franck’s handsomely basic Kilta tableware for Arabia; and works of genius like the wasp-waisted Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser designed by the renowned Kenji Ekuan in 1961.
The final section, “Kitchen Sink Dramas,” centers on the kitchen as grist for the artistic mill starting with Pop Art — Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, paintings by James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann — and continuing nearly to the present. In a way it is too bad not to devote all the gallery space to design itself, especially since some objects are displayed on high shelves and are difficult to see. But the tradeoff is a sharpened sense of the organic relationship between art and its social context.
An especially vivid example of this relationship is provided by the veritable mother lode of short promotional films and television commercials from the Modern’s holdings in which the presumption of female docility and devotion could not be clearer. Titles like “The Home Electric,” a 1915 silent, and “A Word to the Wives,” from 1955, barely require description. Along with other clips, they supply visual evidence of the stereotypes that artists like Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons began to dismantle in the 1970s as the women’s movement got underway. Their works are seen in the show’s final section.
The connection is of course boilerplate art history, but to see it made with real-life art and artifacts against the rich backdrop of this exhibition is something else. Art may not be the best revenge, but it certainly helps.
“Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen” continues through March 14 at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400, moma.org.