In the fall of 2011, we traveled to a leafy suburb of Munich, Germany, to examine a kitchen that the Department of Architecture and Design hoped to purchase. When we arrived, there in the garage of a collector we found an assembled kitchen from Unité d’Habitation, Le Corbusier’s famous apartment building in Marseille. The kitchen, designed by Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, had been disassembled for sale and the collector had reassembled it in his garage. Our job was to assess the kitchen’s condition, gauging what type of conservation treatment might be necessary to prepare the piece for exhibition.
This would not be the first time that MoMA purchased a complete kitchen. In 2009 the Department of Architecture and Design purchased the Frankfurt Kitchen (1926–27) designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, which was featured in the exhibition Counter Space: The Design of the Modern Kitchen, organized by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor. However, the Frankfurt Kitchen had been restored prior to the Museum’s purchase. The Marseille kitchen had not been restored, and, in fact, retained all the marks of use from its 60 years of existence. Nonetheless, we determined that the kitchen was in good condition in comparison to examples we had seen in other collections.
MoMA purchased the Marseilles kitchen, and it was again disassembled in Munich, and crated and shipped to New York. Upon its arrival it was unpacked and was assembled, once again, in the Sculpture Conservation Department at MoMA. We did a full assessment—recording the condition, identifying missing elements, and researching the various paint campaigns from its years of use. Not surprisingly, for a kitchen nearly 60 years old, there are approximately six layers of over-paint.
Unlike the majority of the collection at MoMA, this work functioned as a household kitchen for half a century prior to its acquisition, and so can be interpreted both as an artifact and as a design object. Therefore we feel that it will be important to present the kitchen in a way that it sensitive to it history and use. The treatment strives to be consistent with this complex understanding of the kitchen, and requires collaboration with many departments throughout the Museum—exhibition design and production, registrar, conservation science, and curatorial—as we proceed.
The aim of this treatment, ultimately, is to present the kitchen in a way that best reflects the original design and color scheme implemented by Le Corbusier in 1947, while maintaining the signs of use. We will be able to achieve this nuanced balancing act by using evidence collected through archival research and scientific analysis.
With the generous support of A&D Committee Members we were able to hire an assistant conservator to focus on the treatment of the work over the course of one year. With curatorial input, the final result will show both uncovered original paint surfaces and areas of limited restoration, coming as close to Perriand and Le Corbusier’s vision of a postwar urban kitchen in France as possible.