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Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
September 15, 2010 to May 2, 2011
Reviewed by Erin Eisenbarth, Bard Graduate Center
Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen focuses on the ways design, art, and culture converged in one domestic location – the kitchen – during the twentieth century. Organized by MoMA’s curator of architecture and design, Juliet Kinchin, and curatorial assistant Aidan O’Connor, Counter Space mixes designed objects, works of art, film, and historical documentation to examine the Western kitchen’s changing, and often conflicting, identities as a “meal machine, experimental laboratory, status symbol, domestic prison, or the creative and spiritual heart of the home.”
Jam-packed with nearly three hundred works drawn from the museum’s collection, Counter Space provides MoMA with an opportunity to show off the depth of its domestic design holdings while documenting the kitchen’s importance as a site for modern design and an inspiration for modern art. The kitchen was an early battlefield in the struggle to bring modern design into the home, as a confluence of factors – a dwindling supply of domestic servants, the development of the field of home economics, and the desire to develop consumer applications for new manufacturing technologies and materials – brought a host of designs and devices into the kitchen that claimed to save time and labor, increase health and hygiene, or otherwise improve standards of living. Though critics and tastemakers might still debate modern design’s appropriateness in the living room or bedroom, Modernism’s aesthetic and social principles mixed so well with technological and commercial innovations that by the mid-twentieth century few would have denied that it belonged in the kitchen. Even critiques of the “modern” kitchen – as a site of conspicuous consumption or an instrument for the oppression of women – acknowledge the importance the kitchen holds in our cultural consciousness.
Held in conjunction with the museum’s recent publication of Modern Women: Women at the Museum of Modern Art (2010), the exhibition highlights not only the central role of women as the primary users and consumers of kitchen design, but also the contributions of women domestic scientists, designers, architects, and artists. Central to this project is the exhibit’s literal and thematic centerpiece, an installation of one of Grete Schütte-Lihotzky’s (1897-2000) Frankfurt kitchens (1926-27), the earliest work by a female architect in MoMA’s collection.
Drawing mainly on examples from Europe and America, Counter Space is divided into four sections: “Towards the New Kitchen,” “The New Kitchen,” “Land of “Plenty,” and “Kitchen Sink Dramas.” The exhibit opens with a brief section that examines the social and technological changes which would help make the age of “new kitchens” possible. Featuring objects as diverse as sugar cubes (patented 1872), the flat-bottomed pleated-side brown paper grocery bag (1893), Peter Behrens’s electric kettle (1909), and plans for Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built housing (c.1915-17), “Towards the New Kitchen” shows how the development of mass-production techniques was critical to bring new designs and ideas to the kitchen. Behrens, often regarded as Germany’s first industrial designer and one of the pioneers of corporate branding, was hired by A.E.G. (Allegemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft), a German electrical company, to help market electrical appliances (and the idea of electricity itself) to German consumers. His design for an electric water kettle referenced traditional metal forms, making it seem at home on the tea table, while still taking advantage of mass-production techniques. Wright’s American System-Built houses were the architect’s answer to the affordable housing problem. Designed so that all the components would be milled at a factory and assembled on-site to reduce materials and labor costs, the implementation of the program was halted by the United States’ entrance into World War I after only a handful of units had been built.
Though the First World War stalled a number of modernist design initiatives, its end provided adherents of modernism with an opportunity to put many of their plans into practice. Perhaps nowhere was this more pronounced than in Germany, where the wartime destruction of urban centers created massive post-war housing shortages. The rational designs promoted by modernist architects were a natural fit with the drive to build efficient and cost-effective homes, and the modernist goal of enacting positive social change by redesigning the structures of daily life held wide appeal to a generation reeling from the physical and emotional destruction of war. Counter Space’s “The New Kitchen” section examines the ramifications of these changes for kitchen design, using Schütte-