At the dawn of the new millennium, Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw revealed that she only used her oven for sweater storage. With this comment to her ever-sensible friend Miranda, the fashion icon seemed to herald a new era of femininity untethered to the kitchen-bound domesticity epitomized by June Cleaver and other bygone stars of television. But this is hardly a 21st-century development; the kitchen has long been a war zone in which the politics of shifting gender roles are fought over.
Walking through MoMA’s revamped fifth-floor collection galleries recently, I came to a room curated by Juliet Kinchin with Andrew Gardner, titled Design for Modern Life. I peered through the window of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen (1926–27). The boxy yellow structure bisecting the gallery prompted questions around domesticity and feminism, a tangled relationship teased out in Kinchin’s 2010 exhibition Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.
When she debuted the Frankfurt Kitchen in the late 1920s, Schütte-Lihotzky (1987–2000), credited as the first professional female architect in Austria, forced us to reconsider what a kitchen could be, and how a woman could shape her place in it. The design was her submission to the Weimar government’s initiative to address a national housing shortage. The far-reaching revitalization program, overseen by Frankfurt’s chief city architect Ernst May, brought Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen into about 10,000 of the mass-produced, modular homes hastily constructed in the New Frankfurt.
Schütte-Lihotzky’s compact galley kitchen incorporated new ideas about cleanliness and productivity, and took advantage of state-of-the-art technologies like a gas stove. Each model was carefully organized with a prep table made of beech wood, resistant to staining and knife marks; a revolving stool; removable garbage drawer; and fold-up ironing board. A signature feature was the “pouring bins”: a grid of metal drawers for storing staples like sugar, flour, and rice, equipped with spouts to easily tip their contents.
Every inch of the lab-like space was thoughtfully considered for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. But the question at the heart of Schütte-Lihotzky’s redesign was how to reduce the burden of women’s domestic labor. In the end, as Johanna Fateman recently wrote in Artforum, the architect “elevated housework by granting it a space as functional and stripped of sentiment as that of any lab or office.”
Schütte-Lihotzky was quick to admit that she was wading into unfamiliar territory: “The truth of the matter was, I’d never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen, I’d never cooked, and had no idea about cooking.” In the absence of personal experience, Schütte-Lihotzky interviewed housewives and women’s groups, even conducting time-motion studies, to reveal exactly how women navigated their kitchens. These proto-consciousness-raising sessions, though sensible, were also remarkably forward-thinking; at how many other points in history were women consulted on the issues that would intimately affect their lives?
The success of Schütte-Lihotzky’s design—especially its adherence to ergonomics and cutting-edge technologies—did make its way to the United States, where access to basic amenities were still being rolled out across the country. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program sought to bring electricity to impoverished and rural areas. This campaign manifested in patriotic advertising initiatives, like a 1941 poster by Lester Beall, directed at rural housewives—the apparent gatekeepers to creating a modern, more equal America.
With the advent of the modern kitchen came a dramatic shift in culinary expectations for women across class lines. Prewar kitchens found in the basements of wealthy homes were the domain of servants. It was an out-of-the-way enclave where food was prepared before making its way upstairs. At the same time, rural or lower-class kitchens often lacked sophisticated appliances, hygienic conditions, or adequate prep space. Lihotzky’s design helped standardize these environments, and brought middle-class and wealthy women into the kitchen, thereby making it a desirable place to be, its labor commendable—and visible—rather than discrete.
As the century pushed on, middle-class women, especially in the US, became increasingly confined to the traditionally feminine sphere, promised pleasures from a refrigerator with built-in ice maker or a newfangled dishwasher. Rampant advertising in the boom postwar years of the 1940s and 1950s pictured happy housewives content to make life as comfortable as possible for their husbands and adoring children.
The American government even sought to promote the seductive appeal of these new inventions—and, by extension, capitalism—internationally. In the 1950s, traveling exhibitions supported by the State Department, corporations like General Electric—and The Museum of Modern Art—spurred the infamous “Kitchen Debate” between then–Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (Nixon’s best argument: “Would it not be better to compete in the relative merit of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?”).
The pervasiveness of this cultural messaging made its way into the consumerism-soaked artworks of the Pop artists, whose domestic scenes often parodied the advertisements they referenced or collaged into their work. Tom Wesselman’s collage-painting Still Life #30 (1963) lays bare the synthetic nature of these feminine ideals in a forced arrangement of polymer paint, ads for Dole pineapple and Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, plastic flowers, and a real refrigerator door.
As their role in the kitchen was ever more glamorized in popular culture, women’s restrictive place within its walls bred a simmering resentment. Their dissatisfaction with the promised good life burst into public discourse with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan lambasted the limited professional opportunities for women, challenging the idea that they should be fulfilled by hearth and home.
In 1975, Martha Rosler put women’s frustration center stage in her Semiotics of the Kitchen. In the video, Rosler appears in an apron—the costume of a housewife—in a domestic space vaguely resembling Julia Child’s TV kitchen of the 1960s. She grabs hold of odd tools lying about—knives, a rolling pin, a nutcracker—and assigns them letters from A to Z. “I was concerned with something like the notion of ‘language speaking the subject,’” Rosler has said, “and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity.”
Whereas Rosler expressed, in vocal terms, the increasing rage felt by many women of her generation, Laurie Simmons offered a damningly silent critique of the culture of domesticity in a series of photographs staging dollhouse scenes. Woman/Purple Dress/Kitchen (1976–77) gives an eerie impression of the ads that circulated in the 1950s and 1960s, the pictured doll offering Stepford Wives–level soullessness instead of contentment and satisfaction. The supposed “fruits” of her culinary labor—happy doll husband and doll children—are noticeably absent from the lonely black-and-white image.
Today, cooking has become a highly aestheticized endeavor for both men and women. Alison Roman or the editors of Bon Appetit are our dinner party heroes, food-savvy social savants who make time in the kitchen—and the food-styled recipes they churn out—seem chic and creatively fulfilling. The relationship women can now enjoy with their kitchens comes down to choice, economic opportunity—and widely available food-delivery services. Over these past 100 years, women have taken it upon themselves to reclaim the kitchen on their own terms—sometimes brandishing a knife.