September 22, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Counter Space
Kitchens of the Future

Barnes & Reinecke (Chicago, established 1934). Publicity photo for Future Kitchen scale model. c. 1946. Silver gelatin print. The Museum of Modern Art. Architecture and Design Study Collection. Photo: Charles McKinney, Chicago

If you have been to visit Counter Space here at the Museum, then you have already met this woman. We do not know her name—though we’d welcome any information out there!—but her image, blown up from floor to ceiling, provided a perfect photo-mural for our title wall. She instantly introduces visitors to several important themes in the exhibition, including the role of housewife-consumers in the promotion of modern kitchens, the development of the American “dream kitchen” following World War II, and the subject of this post: the concept of a Kitchen of the Future.

Kitchens of the Future, or Kitchens of Tomorrow, have long been the focus of researchers, designers, and especially large companies that test and promote innovation in the kitchen, often pushing the boundaries of technology toward more complete automation to optimize efficiency and vanquish drudgery. In the golden age of the Future Kitchen, from the late 1930s through the 1950s, fantastic prototypes were widely exhibited to the public to stimulate consumer excitement (“Never before!” “Have it all!”) and to celebrate the kitchen as a site of endless possibility and promised luxury.

In Counter Space we display several photos of a Kitchen of Tomorrow developed under the direction of H. Creston Doner and exhibited by the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company (based in Toledo, Ohio) in 1944. This prototype kitchen was designed to foster consumer demand at a time when the end of WWII seemed imminent. Three full-scale models equipped with appliances and gadgets were reportedly seen by more than 1.6 million people in major department stores across the country, beginning with Macy’s in New York. Visitors could vote for the features they most wanted to see realized. “The ‘Kitchen of Tomorrow’ that does everything but put out the cat at night now makes its debut,” declared one Philadelphia newspaper. Cooking was done in glass-topped recessed vessels that eliminated pots and pans. Sliding panels covered the sink, cooking unit, and automatic food mixer, so when not in use these units became part of a long buffet, “ready for use as a study bench for the children or a bar for dad.”

Another example represented in the exhibition is Frigidaire’s 1956 “Kitchen of the Future,” shown in the famous General Motors film Design for Dreaming. Frigidaire, part of GM since 1919, developed this kitchen with an “ultrasonic” dishwasher/drier/sterilizer, an IBM electro-recipe file (which activated an ingredient dispenser), rising storage cabinets, a “thermopane” domed oven, a roto-storage system with dry, refrigerated, and frozen sections, a loudspeaker telephone (with voice and written messaging capabilities), and a laundry machine activated when the wash load reached 8 lbs.

Two years prior, the first GM/Frigidaire Kitchen of the Future had been displayed at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York:

“Electronically controlled cabinets slid down to easy reach with the wave of the hand, and cabinet doors pop open by light pressure on the front panel. A new appliance provides a choice of cold water, ice cubes, or crushed ice. For easy reading, recipes are flashed onto a screen when they are placed in a photographic viewer. The sink provides water at any temperature from a single faucet. An electronic oven rises at the press of a button, bakes potatoes in five minutes, or roasts a turkey in 45. Even the flour-sifter is motor-driven.” [“Kitchen Comeback,” Time Magazine, February 1, 1954]

It was also in 1956 that Whirlpool/RCA launched their “Miracle Kitchen,” which featured a planning center, an electronic (microwave) oven, a mechanical maid, and “mood lighting.” This joint-venture concept kitchen traveled across the United Stated in 1957 before arriving at the American National Exhibition in 1959, the site of the famous Kitchen Debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Krushchev.

Although many features in these prototypes never did make it onto the mass market, some, such as the microwave, would become standard. And while the dreamy, Populuxe sheen of this era’s Kitchens of the Future may not resonate with us today, the model is still relevant—see, for example, these references to contemporary Kitchens of the Future by MIT, GE, and IKEA in Fast Company, CNET, and Gizmodo.

If you are interested in more information about futurism in American design, popular culture, and propaganda since World War I, a good source is Lawrence R. Samuel’s Future: A Recent History (University of Texas Press, 2009).