How the kitchen took over our homes

My last kitchen was a nightmare. From behind the front door of the handsome Georgian town house was a hodgepodge of a building. The dark and unwelcoming kitchen was at the rear in a poorly constructed 1970s extension.

At one point this kitchen must have represented an ideal, but it really needed knocking down and rethinking. The only space for our fridge freezer was in the covered yard. The roof leaked and the appliances gradually fell apart; when the handle came off the oven door my husband replaced it with one from a can of paint. We lived for 10 years with a chipped laminate worktop and orange carpet tiles.

We had planned to one day rebuild and achieve the dream open-plan kitchen/living room with a bank of floor-to-ceiling cupboards, an island and space for our mid-century dining table and high-backed chairs.

Throughout modern history, these two models of the kitchen have prevailed. First, the kitchen/living room as a combined space for the preparation, cooking and consumption of food, as well as a general space for living. Second, the decentralised kitchen, originating from large town and country houses, as a separate functional space purely for cooking and working, cut off from the rest of the house in cellars or back rooms to avoid the smells and fumes of cooking — and contact with servants.

One of The Family, 1880 (oil on canvas) by Cotman, Frederick George
‘One of the Family’ (1880), by Frederick George Cotman: the kitchen as all-in-one living space © Bridgeman Images

As we renovated, our house revealed how the kitchen had flipped between these two models throughout its history. Behind the Georgian frontage and reception room on the ground floor was a room made from the original cottage, constructed in about 1450. When we removed the modern plaster we revealed two alcoves that had been boarded up and the remains of an open hearth. A round-bottomed iron pot would have been suspended here over an open fire.

This arrangement survived industrialisation in rural communities well into the 20th century, particularly in the form of the country cottage, the farmhouse kitchen and the inn.

The room’s second, smaller alcove — in what would have been the front of the original cottage — had space for a cooking range that superseded the open hearth. In the combined kitchen/living rooms of the working classes, ranges were a source of heat for cooking as well as a source of warmth for comfort.

However, when our house was extended into the grander Georgian town house form, with a ground-floor dining room and first-floor drawing room, the kitchen became decentralised, reflecting the house’s newly elevated status.

‘Peeling Potatoes’ by Frank Holl
‘Peeling Potatoes’ by Frank Holl, c1880: many tasks were carried out by servants out of sight in a basement scullery © Universal Images Group/Getty

The bourgeoisie and the middle classes adopted the decentralised kitchen. It was segregated from the rest of the house, often with its own staircase and entrance. There was usually a separate scullery with a water supply for some of the food preparation tasks and washing up, which could also be used for laundry.

In the early 20th century, kitchens were often relocated from basements to the ground floor. This was a response to what was called the “servant problem” — a crisis about the availability and affordability of paid domestic help. Middle-class women managed and even performed tasks that might previously have been done by servants.

Until the 20th century, most domestic kitchens had largely evolved around function rather than having been consciously designed and decorated. Typically, they had a dresser, shelves and a central table for food preparation. Food was stored in pantries. Icehouses, larders and meat safes kept food cool.

In apartments and semi-detached suburbia, a new decentralised compact galley-style kitchen evolved in the 1920s that separated food preparation from eating. Both electric and gas cookers became popular, cleaner and easier to run than a range. Refrigerators began to supplement and eventually replace larders and meat safes. Some of the rough work previously confined to the scullery came into the kitchen.

A woman demonstrating Easiwork cabinet
A woman demonstrates an Easiwork cabinet, c1925: freestanding cabinets originated in the US in the 1890s and became popular in Britain in the 1920s © James Kerr 2018

I experienced this kind of kitchen when I purchased my first house: a small three-bedroom semi. It was a 1934 time capsule, which had had only one owner and was complete with its original decor and furniture. The only room that had changed was the kitchen. A neighbour’s house revealed the original layout, with the rear reception room used as kitchen/living-room and the front room as a parlour for “best”. It turned out that the small square kitchen extension had been constructed in 1948. It only contained a Belfast sink under the window, with a small enamel-topped table either side of it.

With the enthusiasm of first-time homeowners, we set about restoring the house. We acquired a working period gas cooker and a freestanding Easiwork kitchen cabinet.

By the mid-1920s, most British furniture retailers sold at least one style of kitchen cabinet in a range of sizes, prices and specifications. Originating in America in the 1890s as a rational and hygienic solution to food preparation and storage needs, kitchen cabinets were freestanding units with multiple doors, drawers and compartments to allow for the storage of food and cooking equipment. They housed a sliding or fold-down worktop for food preparation, a “hopper” funnel for dispensing flour and a meat safe. Larger ones even included built-in ironing boards.

New ideas of efficient design extended beyond cabinets to the entire kitchen. From the 1910s, the American home economist Christine Frederick recommended the adaptation of mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor’s notions of scientific management and efficiency, which were intended for the factory production line, to the layout of the domestic kitchen. Her ideas were taken up by British domestic reformers and household advice writers.

Such trends helped the emergence of a new ideal of the professional housewife, who serviced her family through the best labour-saving equipment. Her labour was hidden behind the kitchen door as she served her family via a hatch in the wall to the dining room. In retrospect, I realise that I was doing “action research” in my 1930s kitchen, recreating the life of the interwar housewife, even following instructions from domestic advice manuals.

The mother of the fitted kitchen is usually thought of as Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky with her 1926 Frankfurt kitchen. Her ideas stalled in Germany in the 1930s after the Nazis rose to power. However, the development of the fitted kitchen was progressed in Sweden and readily taken up in America in the interwar period.

Advertisement For English Rose Kitchen Equipment Featuring A Young Housewife with A Tea Trolley and A Selection of Desserts Cakes and Tea
Advert for English Rose Kitchen Equipment, 1952 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

In Britain, the fitted kitchen was slower to take off and the kitchen cabinet held sway. After the second world war, companies such as English Rose made modular fitted kitchen units out of surplus aluminium. Many people experienced fitted kitchens for the first time in emergency prefab housing — my nan maintains that hers was the best she ever had. Gradually, modular fitted kitchens were installed in new private and social housing.

After I had my first child, I installed an Ikea fitted kitchen, but I began to long for more space. I achieved this in my next house: a 1950s detached. It originally had a long galley kitchen, but this had been extended, giving enough room for a table. I created a US-inspired 1950s kitchen with shiny red laminate units, chunky chrome handles, a patterned Formica worktop and a chequered floor.

The American open-plan dream kitchen was also slower to catch on in Britain, despite being advocated by architects, designers and social reformers such as architect and planner Lionel Brett in his work for Hatfield New Town. This was due to space constraints, as well as the cost of new units and the difficulty in obtaining credit.

But middle-class notions of respectability also called for the separation of domestic labour from living and leisure activities, and associated the kitchen/living room with the working classes. Consequently, the kitchens of many older British houses remained unchanged until well into the 1960s.

Deborah Sugg Ryan
Design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan © Helen Yates

In the 1970s there was a strong trend for nostalgic design inspired by the country cottage. This was translated into a fashion for Welsh pine dressers and farmhouse tables. Doors became available for fitted kitchens in stripped pine or dark oak, complete with leaded light windows.

In the 1980s, flat-pack kitchens made it possible for householders to do-it-yourself. Separate larders, sculleries and laundry rooms became defunct, and became integrated into the kitchen. New technologies such as front-loading washing machines and dishwashers could be integrated, under seamless worktops, hidden behind doors.

The kitchen of the past has never gone away, re-emerging with the invention of the Shaker-style kitchen, natural materials such as wood, marble and granite for kitchen surfaces, and freestanding and broken-plan kitchens, such as those pioneered by British designer Johnny Grey. Modernism translated into minimalist “slab” doors, championed by the architect John Pawson.

I have never been able to achieve the vision of the open-plan kitchen/living room that is the aspirational ideal in the 21st century. It requires a large wide space and is quite difficult to do without extensive remodelling or extending. Recent research by Local Authority Building Control (LABC) shows that kitchens in new-builds have become progressively smaller since the 1960s and, at 13.44 sq m, are now only a little bigger than those of the 1930s.

Column chart of Average size (sq m) showing UK kitchens have been getting smaller since the 1960s...
Line chart of Proportion of average home taken up by the kitchen (%) showing ... but since the 1970s have been taking up a slightly higher proportion of the home

The contemporary ideal is a show kitchen in which only a performance of cooking and dining takes place. Although how much we now cook is unknown, with sophisticated microwaveable “ready” meals available or courier-delivered dishes prepared in “dark kitchens”. There is also a trend towards the smart kitchen: the networked voice-controlled home with the dulcet tones of the electronic servant.

The pandemic has given us tantalising Zoom glimpses of other people’s homes. Domestic power relations are revealed by who is working in the kitchen rather than the home office. Open-plan living is perhaps not so appealing when you might want to shut a door to get away from each other. When we’re locked down, cooking can be a chore rather than a leisure activity, a therapeutic pursuit or a hobby.

So will there be a return to a more compact decentralised kitchen? Or might we imagine a different kind of kitchen altogether? We need new models to address multigenerational inhabitants with different needs, as well as single-person households.

Throughout history there have been experiments with communal kitchens, which continue with the social eating and cooking movement in the work of the National Food Service and others. This not only provides food for people in need, but it also shares and teaches skills, prevents food waste, combats loneliness and promotes wellbeing. A different kind of kitchen indeed.

Deborah Sugg Ryan is professor of design history and theory at the
University of Portsmouth

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