Maria Costantino The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen-Object, Space and Sign, in Scroope, Cambridge Journal of Architeture July 2015

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1. The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen Object, Space, and Sign Maria Costantino 147 Figure 1 (facing page): The highly reflective surfaces of the fitted kitchens in showrooms…
  • 1. The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen Object, Space, and Sign Maria Costantino 147 Figure 1 (facing page): The highly reflective surfaces of the fitted kitchens in showrooms allow the consumer to ‘see themselves’, while advertising copy encourages consumers to imagine themselves occupying and owning the kitchen. Image courtesy of Key to the development of the modern kitchen and to many of the contin- ued ideas about what the kitchen means was the American home econo- mist and household engineer Christine Frederick (1883-1970). Sponsored by the Ladies’ Home Journal, Frederick capitalised on the interest in home economics at the turn of the century and through her experiments fol- lowing Frederick Taylor’s investigations into scientific management, sought to rationalise the kitchen layout in order that optimum domestic efficiency could be achieved. In Frederick’s 1913 plans for the Efficient Kitchen, domestic ‘work’ was reduced to two basic procedures: preparation and clearing away. To en- able this, the kitchen components (stove, sink, and work surfaces) were laid out in a continuous, horizontal row like stations in a factory as- sembly line. The notion of efficiency has continued to dominate the forms and layout designs of contemporary kitchens that actually pre- clude preparing or cooking anything more complex than a single-dish meal, because to do any more, and then clear away, in both Frederick’s kitchen and in the contemporary fitted kitchen, would ‘make a mess’ and spoil the kitchen’s efficient appearance. The success of Frederick’s ideas about the form and layout of ideal kitch- ens that she espoused lay in her ability to use the media to promote both her ideas and herself as an expert.1 Frederick’s New Housekeeping (1913) was translated into German in 1921 by Irene Witte and the ideas expressed in it were well-received by the avant-garde, including the Munich economist Dr. Erna Meyer (1890-1975) who incorporated many of Frederick’s ideas into her own best-selling Der neue Haushalt (The New Household, 1926). Mey-
  • 2. er’s use of Frederick’s ideas was fundamental to the in the development of some of the kitchens in the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, the hous- ing development designed by the leading architects of the Modern Move- ment for the 1927 Die Wohnung (The Home) exhibition organised by the Deutscher Werkbund.2 Subsequently, the issues first raised by Frederick were applied to the Frankfurt Kitchen, designed in 1926-1927 by Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky (1897-2000). The Frankfurt Kitchen has featured in major museum exhibitions such as the V&A Modernism exhibition (6 April–23 July 2006) and was the highlight exhibit in the MOMA, NY Counter Space: Design and the Mod- ern Kitchen exhibition (15 September 2010–2 May 2011). This kitchen, one of some 10,000 originally installed in Frankfurt apartments, became the model from which contemporary fitted kitchens continue to draw their aesthetic. When re-contextualised in a museum display, the historical and cultural significance of the kitchen is highlighted, but as installations in such exhibitions where they can only be observed but not entered or used, the kitchen becomes an object upon which we can only gaze as a re-pre- sentation of past ideas and only imagine their ability to function. The Modernist kitchen emerged when the home was under scrutiny and question by designers, theorists, and social critics. Such scrutiny and ques- tioning about the home continues today, but what the kitchen is, and what it means today, continues largely to be articulated according to a narrow range of beliefs and values: that it is functional and efficient, that it is the site of productive activity, and that it is the ‘heart of the home’. It is easy to overlook the fact that the Frankfurt Kitchen, when presented to spectators in museum displays, doesn’t actually work, and nor do the kitchen tableaux or mock-ups used in retail showrooms at the luxury end of the market by manufacturers such as Bulthaup and Poggenpohl, in the mass-marketers’ showrooms such as IKEA and B&Q, or in the developers’ show houses. But unlike the museum, it is at least possible to enter into and interact with these ‘showroom dummies’, albeit in a limited manner. This interaction however consists largely of meaningless activities such as standing at counters and sinks; opening and closing empty cupboards and drawers, and stroking surfaces, all of which are visibly smooth. No kitchen, even when wired, plumbed and piped, functions on its own: it requires the presence of the cook. Despite claims that are continuously circulated by manufacturers, advertisers, and texts (whether academic or coffee table, lifestyle design books), no kitchen can ever be efficient in itself. Contemporary fitted kitchens may look functional, but their actual role in contemporary homes is less to do with the efficient production and consumption of food and is more concerned with their symbolic value(s). That the fitted kitchen that ‘doesn’t work’ retains its prestige value in a culture beset by fuel and food poverty (as well as ‘spatial poverty’) makes it a pure fetish and the ritual routines and practices that surround the fit- ted kitchen give it its fetishistic character.3 Like the museum kitchen, the contemporary British fitted kitchen as an object and in media representations is also a signifier of a number of ideas about the home, of productive work, of consumption, and increas- ingly, of leisure. In his discussion of the styling of kitchen appliances such as Kenwood and Braun domestic food mixers, Adrian Forty (2010) makes an important point: by the mid-1950s, when appliances began to be purchased by people who spent a large part of their lives working in facto- ries, the industrial appearance of domestic appliances not only ‘militated against notions of the home as a separate place from work, but also made housework look disturbingly like real work, a comparison that everyone was anxious to avoid’.4 It might be argued that today, it is not only the comparison with work that manufacturers and consumers wish to avoid, but increasingly real work itself. With the emergence of post-Fordist consumption as produc- tion or what Alvin Toffler (1980) termed ‘prosumption’, and the trend to- wards (or at least the encouragement of) unpaid, rather than paid labour, contemporary forms of production now involve all aspects of social life and the once-clear demarcation between labour (real work) and the rest of life (which in the past we would have labelled as leisure) becomes in- Scroope XXIV The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen 149148 to the development
  • 3. creasingly harder to sustain.5 The prosumer activities now undertaken in the contemporary fitted kitchen largely consist of assembling dishes from pre-prepared selections provided by food manufacturers. Yet, the fit- ted kitchen continues to be designed and marketed to appear to be func- tional, rational, and efficient when in reality, it is an expensive, high-tech object and space that is ‘over-designed’ and ‘over-sized’ for the majority of the activities that now constitute ‘cooking’. The contemporary fitted kitchen has arguably less to do with actual function or efficiency in the production and consumption of food, and more to do with the consump- tion of the fitted, kitted kitchen itself. In its original context of a Frankfurt apartment, the kitchen may have ‘worked’ and the window offered some view to the outside. In the mu- seum, however, the kitchen is perpetually lit during the museum’s open- ing times, and the window now offers views to the inside. The Frankfurt Kitchen is here reduced to a sign, a collection of ideas about Modern- ism’s triumphs and the notion of good design, and the idea of the kitchen and what it has come to signify: modern, Westernised, technologically advanced, civilised, and importantly, permanently settled rather than no- madic, transient, or homeless.6 The Frankfurt Kitchen was highly significant in the collective imagina- tion of its time. Like Frederick had done before, Schutte-Lihotzky with the help of Ernst May, Frankfurt’s chief city planning officer, used the media to sell a ‘new Frankfurt’ to its inhabitants.7 The Frankfurt Kitchen was the most widely publicised of the German model kitchens and effectively sold consumers the idea of the new, modern, rational, and functional kitchen. Through a range of media, the consumer was made familiar with what were to become the standard forms of the majority of fitted kitchens: pre- fabricated, standardized, modular, built-in, continuous height furniture that concealed the ‘contents’ behind solid doors, allowing the outward- facing surfaces to be smooth, continuous, and unblemished. In turn, the Frankfurt Kitchen shaped the behaviour and attitudes about the kitchen as an object, a space, and as a signifier of meanings that nearly one hun- dred years later, the contemporary media continues to reiterate. In the presentation of contemporary fitted kitchens in advertising, the way the kitchen looks dominates. When kitchens are presented to us as media signs they are largely presented as static and ‘pure’ spaces, and are described in the advertising copy almost exclusively in terms of their visual appearance: do they look futuristic or elegant, traditional or spec- tacular? The word vision is reiterated and phrases such as ‘vision of the future’ or ‘visionary design’ confine design to the sense of sight so it is enough that the kitchen is seen. To be visible is function enough. At both the V&A Modernism and the MOMA Counter Space exhibitions, a great number of visitors photographed both the Frankfurt Kitchen and themselves or friends against the backdrop of the kitchen. In so doing, spectators figuratively inserted themselves into the kitchen, making it possible for them to go beyond imagining how they would look in the space to seeing how they do look in the space (Fig. 2). Whether in show- room mock-ups or in media representations such as advertisements, this ‘insertion of the self’, or imagining how one would look in a fitted kitchen, is part of the consumption of the fitted kitchen. It is aided by the reflective materials used in contemporary fitted kitchens: shining glass and lami- nates, steel, polished marble, and wood that allow the consumer to see themselves in the kitchen, and through advertising copy that encourages the consumer to imagine how they would look, and how they appear to others, in the kitchen (Fig. 1). Artfully lit, the kitchens in the media appear ‘effortless’ as well as ap- parently occupying an enormous amount of space, presenting the reader with an imaginary yet desirable lifestyle in which the contemporary fitted kitchen assumes meanings beyond the merely functional. While the ac- tual kitchens represented in the media and in manufacturers marketing material may differ in price, all are photographed at their most ‘pristine’ moment and any extraneous matter (including people and food) is often excluded and replaced by static, measured, museum-style displays and still-lives of glassware and ceramics (Fig. 3). Baudrillard’s (1998) claim that ‘the humans of the age of affluence are surrounded not so much by other human beings […] but by objects’ may go some way in explaining the Scroope XXIV 151150 The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen the fitted kitchen itself
  • 4. Figure 2 (facing page, top): The view into Schutte-Lihotzky’s kitchen on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image courtesy of Gloria Graham-Sollecito, Figure 3 (facing page, bottom): Pristine and empty, people and food are largely excluded in representations of contemporary fitted kitchens (except for mono-foods that are themselves colour-coordinated). In their place are museum style displays and still-lives of glassware and ceramics. Image courtesy of Scroope XXIV 152 153 The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen absence of people from many contemporary advertising and editorial im- ages that depict today’s fitted kitchens.8 The two tasks that Frederick identified as work in the kitchen have con- tinued to dominate the thinking about and designing of the kitchen in the 20th century. Reinforced by advertising messages and with the advent of more widespread, industrial food production displacing many of the earlier tasks done in the kitchen, these ideas were no doubt accepted as logical. Today, the food industry allows us to ‘cook’ by simply reheating pre-prepared food, but the contemporary fitted kitchen continues to re- iterate the earlier notions of efficiency and ‘functionality’ even though the materials of, technologies in, and scale of many contemporary fit- ted kitchens make them over-specified for just two tasks. The amount of space, materials, and technologies on display in four kitchens in a recent Heinz television advert appear in excess of what is actually required to heat up a portion of microwaveable ‘snap pot’ baked beans.9 In the UK and Europe (except for Switzerland), the 60 cm-wide unit is the standard size for oven and fridge/freezer housings in fitted kitchens.10 This European Norm (EN 1116) is based on an earlier German standard ISO norm of the 10 cm grid. Neither norm however has any relationship to human bodily dimensions or indeed to any kitchen tasks to be performed: the norms represent purely mathematical solutions to achieve economic efficiency in the production of fitted kitchen units. Less costly kitchen es- sentials like cutlery trays and kitchen recycling bins are all designed and manufactured to fit into the standard norm. Consequently, even where a fitted kitchen has been custom made, the individual units will be based on standard industry norms. Any difference is in style, appearance, surface materials, and in their modes of representation: the underlying forms of all the kitchens remain the same and the materials used for the surface skin of the contemporary fitted kitchen are as Baudrillard claimed ‘gratu- itous under a cover of functionality’ and whose ostentatious use of materi-
  • 5. als such as granites, stone, marble, woods, and metal (or even simply in the appearance of use in the form of veneers and laminates), become the signs of value that are accrued to the owner of the kitchen.11 Part of Modernist minimalism, the ‘truth to materials’, absence of or- namentation justified as functional, and ‘less is more’ of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic, have continued in the design of contemporary fitted kitchens where material properties (in both real and simulated form) are presented for sensual effect rather than functional use. The aim is not to create the Modernist higher spiritual, physical, and aesthetic experience, but a higher sense of luxury in, as Jameson (1988) contends, ‘The compla- cent play of historical allusion’.12 Steininger’s Heart of Gold kitchen styled by Martin Steininger and Michael Paar is fabricated out of modular, pre- cast concrete units (Fig. 4). The brutalist material is now a sign of a ‘new luxury’ and is marketed as having a ‘tough and puristic outside with a glamorous inside’.13 This ‘heart of gold’ as the ‘heart of the home’ is made out of one of the cheapest materials, but is one of the most expensive fitted kitchens on the market today: units are made to measure, albeit on the planning grid that is the industry norm, and start at €25,000 per unit. Despite being concrete, it is no tougher (clients are advised not to place wine or any other stain-forming items on the surface) and no more functional than any other kitchen. Baudrillard’s object-as-fetish is further consolidated by the care instruc- tions for worktop surfaces given by manufacturers at all ends of the market. These care instructions betray the surfaces’ lack of functionality: despite the solid appearance of granite, stone, marble, wood, metal, and cast concrete, all the kitchen materials demand no hot pans or dishes to be placed on the surfaces, require no oil or water spills (or wet dishes) to be left, and no chopping or slicing directly on the surface. Instead, frequent washing with warm water and mild detergent, oiling of solid woods, and buffing and polishing of the surface are required to keep it looking shiny and gleaming. Although perceived as signs of quality and of functionality, the actual functionality of the kitchen’s material is compromised by use. Scroope XXIV 155154 The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen Figure 4: The once-brutalist material, cast concrete, is now a sign of new luxury. The Heart of Gold kitchen range designed by Martin Steininger and Martin Paar is one of the most expensive on the market today. Image courtesy of steininger.designers.
  • 6. Just as in Frederick’s and Schutte-Lihotzky’s kitchens, at both ends of the market, the removal of work in the fitted kitchen (and in its represen- tations) continues. To actually use the fitted kitchen means to spoil its pristine appearance of being ‘ready to work’. Instead of work, there is the illusion of work with the functional aesthetic while advertising copy re- inforces the idea of ‘no work’ in its use of language: Homebase’s Malvern country style kitchen offers the purchaser ‘style with minimum effort’, while the Monza Latte kitchen offers the (problematic) option of ‘han- dleless effect handles’.14 Function is merely an aesthetic and efficiency merely a myth, but both are influential ideologies that are continuously reinforced by the images of contemporary fitted kitchens circulated by the media. Between the kitchen as a physical object and what the kitchen ‘means’ is the space in which the kitchen is located. Thinking about space has long been dominated by ideas of physical, measurable space. As such, it is not surprising that it is an aspect that is rarely examined beyond the historical development of the open plan kitchen or in interior design books show- ing ‘optimum’ spatial organizations of forms in U, L, and galley kitchen layouts and ideal worktop counter heights based on early time and mo- tion studies. This spatial organization, worked out logically in relation to notions of efficiency in time and motion established in the early 20th cen- tury and that became part of the Modernist aesthetic, has itself become ‘naturalized’, what David Harvey (1990) terms a ‘realised myth’.15 Devised by Otl Aicher in the early 1980s, the island kitchen is one of the most desired forms and spaces by consumers. In essence, the island is a kitchen table with ‘knobs on’, and is no more functional than any other kitchen. While it occupies a significantly greater spatial footprint, this is not space required for work or actual cooking: the space is needed in front of the island so that the kitchen itself can be seen along with its owners to occupy a large space. The owner can then become part of the visual spectacle itself: just like the professional TV chef who addresses the audience directly to camera, while additional cameras to the right, left, and above the island record the cooking process itself. The kitchen Scroope XXIV 157156 The Contemporary Fitted Kitchen island for the domestic consumer means that they, as chef, are always the focal point. The open-plan kitchen panopticon that the housewife once occupied and through which she observed the rest of her household is now reversed; the island kitchen’s occupant is the subject of other’s gaze, and just like on television, the island kitchen’s owner is the star of their own show. Cooking is transformed into a performance: Rita Mielke (2004) writes that Boffi’s Grand Chef and Factory are kitchens that ‘build the stage on which passionate professionals show off their cooking skills. All you need are the spectators to applaud the show by eating and drink- ing’.16 The Bulthaup b3 kitchen advertising image is a rare representation of a kitchen actually inhabited, albeit by children who pose and p
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