Exhibition Review: "Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen"

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.”[1]
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.[2] 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.
Peter Behrens (German, 1868-1940)
Electric Kettle, 1908
Nickel-plated brass and rattan.
Gift of Manfred Ludewig, Museum of Modern Art.
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-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen as its central example.
Grete Schütte-Lihotzky’s (1897-2000)
The Frankfurt Kitchen (view towards the window), 1928
Even without the other delights that Counter Space offers, the chance to see a physical installation of a Frankfurt kitchen ought to be enough to draw lovers of design or culinary history to the museum. Designed by Schütte-Lihotzky for the new housing projects that sprung up in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, after World War I, the Frankfurt kitchen has come to serve as a representative example of modernism’s determination to bring order and efficiency to the domestic sphere, and by extension, society as a whole. Some aspects of the kitchen’s design – work triangles, standardized counter heights, hygienic and easy to clean materials – are now standard fittings in our own home kitchens, while others – like the bank of cabinetry fitted with removable pouring bins to store bulk pantry goods – have not become as widespread. Though the Frankfurt kitchen is written about in most histories of twentieth-century design, it is often illustrated with period black-and-white photographs that give the viewer little sense of its true physical presence. Seeing the kitchen in person, through a doorway as though one were standing in the next room, one gets an entirely new appreciation for the design.
The remainder of “The New Kitchen” section focuses on the incredible transformations that took place in European and American kitchens in the interwar period. Designers found domestic uses for new industrial materials like heat-resistant glass and aluminum, and the increasing availability of electricity and gas created a host of new housewares and appliances to compete for the consumer’s attention and dollars. Bialetti’s iconic espresso maker, the Moka Express (c. 1930), Wear-Ever aluminum cake pans (1929-1934), and a variety of Corning glass products are only a few of the objects developed during this time period which still find homes in kitchen cabinets around the world. The modernist drive towards rationality and efficiency in the home took its cues from science and industry, using the lessons of the laboratory and factory to streamline and simplify both kitchen tasks and the tools one needed to complete them. Posters and objects from the museum’s 1934 Machine Art show emphasize MoMA’s own role in championing and helping to define modern design. “The New Kitchen” section concludes with the coming of World War II, touching on the changes brought by materials shortages and food rationing. Catalogs from MoMA exhibits Wartime Housing (1942) and Useful Objects in Wartime (1942-43) and a series of British propaganda posters illustrate the design community’s responses to these new challenges.
“Visions of Plenty” covers the consumer explosion that took place after the end of World War II. A variety of images, both from feature films and from print and film commercials, show how the kitchen (with a full complement of color-coordinated appliances and accessories) was positioned as the center of family life. More new materials, particularly plastics, made their way to kitchen cupboards and drawers. Though the section starts off heavily dominated by American goods, reflecting America’s dominance and affluence after World War II, American objects are soon joined by European, and eventually Asian, ones, as the progress of twentieth-century industrialization and globalization is seen through kitchen goods. A Braun Corporation “Multi-purpose Kitchen Machine” (1957) – a combination mixer, blender, and food processor – doesn’t just illustrate the post-war yen for automation and convenience, it also shows how Braun, founded in Germany in 1921 as a radio equipment manufacturer, reinvented and sustained itself by focusing on domestic appliances after its factories were destroyed near the end of World War II.
As the “Visions of Plenty” section stretches on to the end of the twentieth century, it begins to slightly lose focus. In one small section of the gallery, the viewer moves from Italian concept kitchens to Japanese display food to the ubiquitous OXO Good Grips peeler. Lumping together postwar American abundance, European economic recovery, the development of the Italian and Japanese design industries, and the rise of ecological and ergonomic design dilutes, rather than emphasizes, the curatorial message of the section.
The final section of the exhibition, titled “Kitchen Sink Dramas,” presents a series of artworks which critique the visions of domesticity promoted by manufacturers and tastemakers and examine the differences between these promoted ideals and actual lived experiences. Many of the works, including film stills by Cindy Sherman (1978 and 1980) and Martha Rosler’s video project Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), comment on the ways that kitchens are traditionally coded as female spaces or make links between women’s bodies, foods, and other domestic commodities. Others turn the image of a happy, well-ordered family kitchen on its head, presenting spaces that are chaotic, as in Anna and Bernhard Blume’s triptych Kitchen Frenzy (1986), or hauntingly lonely, such as William Eggleston’s photographs (c. 1972) of the interiors of freezers and ovens.
Martha Rosler (American, born 1943)
Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975
Purchase, Museum of Modern Art.
Though works of art (particularly photographs and printed materials) are interspersed among the designed objects throughout the exhibition, it is only in this section that art’s ability to critique and comment on kitchens, domesticity, and consumption is explicitly examined. The division of the show into two chronological sections for design and one thematic section for art might lead a viewer – particularly one who is not well versed in twentieth-century art – to assume that there are no “art works” in earlier parts of the show. This is not the case, but it is left to the viewer to find them, which may be a difficult task given the sheer volume of objects in the show, many of which have minimal contextual labeling. One is left to wonder why some art works are interspersed among the design while others are grouped in the final section. Why, for example, are Andy Warhol’s printed grocery boxes (1963-64) or Irving Penn’s hypnotic photographs of frozen food (1958 and 1977) in the “Visions of Plenty” section rather than in with the “Kitchen Sink Dramas”? Works that make significant critiques of domestic or modernist ideals are easy to overlook because there aren’t any labels to tell the viewer more about them. In the “New Kitchen” section, amidst posters and architectural drawings promoting the modernist ideal of das Existenzminimum, or minimal existence (the idea that people should live in the smallest and most economically designed spaces possible), is “Minimal Dwelling” (c. 1928), a surrealist collage by Albrecht Heubner and H.L.C. Jaffé. Showing one man gasping with laughter while another bends double to fit inside a box-like room so small he cannot stand upright, this piece hints at the absurd result when the search for minimum living spaces is taken to an extreme. Presented with little commentary, it is the only hint the viewer gets of criticism for this design trend. Similarly, photographs from Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document project (1937) depict African-American families in exactly the kinds of old-fashioned, unscientific kitchens that modernist reformers railed against. This sobering reminder that the new prosperity and the new scientific kitchen did not reach into every American home is easily overlooked in a jam-packed exhibition. Without contextualizing information, these works blend in to the exhibit, and important chances to offer the very sorts of critiques that more artwork-centric section purports to offer are lost.
Though one might wish that Counter Space had more space – both for ease of viewing and for the opportunity it might present for more contextual information – it is nonetheless a valuable and enjoyable chance to see a variety of objects that don’t often get the full art museum treatment. How often does one see Tupperware in the same room as a Warhol? How often do we think about our coffee pots and saucepans as expressive works of art and design, or as the results of long and vigorous debates about the ways we can and should live? MoMA has long been ahead of the curve in recognizing the important role played by design in the story of modern art, and, by extension, of society, and Counter Space is a worthy heir to this tradition.
[1] Introductory text panels, Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, Museum of Modern Art, 2010.
[2] A smaller catalogue devoted solely to this exhibition is also being published by MoMA, but it is not yet widely available.