Making Do at MoMA's Kitchen Counter

Making Do at MoMA's Kitchen Counter

Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through March 14, 2011

The 20th century produced vivid dreams and nightmares about the kitchen, along with a rapid-fire sequence of household objects that promised to modernize it. Architects and designers envisioned an epicenter of rational efficiency that would transform everyone’s aesthetic tastes and everyday habits. Industrial designers promised to heat up consumer desires for the latest kitchen gadgets and appliances. Social conservatives wanted a bastion to protect traditional values and gender roles, while feminists proposed design reforms that would, they hoped, liberate women from the lonesome, repetitive, and relentless labor that tied them to the kitchen.


New York’s Museum of Modern Art has mounted an exhibition, Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, that reveals these diverse cultural currents through a history of iconic kitchen objects by well-known designers and interpretive frameworks by major artists. MoMA’s own history is a subtext here, for everything on display—some 300 objects—is drawn from the museum’s own collection. There are paintings, posters, photographs, videos, and all kinds of publications, but things take pride of place, a testimony to the Good Design program MoMA initiated in 1949 “to guide the American public toward good taste in objects available for purchase.”

A large acrylic cabinet presents a timeline of handsome, helpful utensils for the home kitchen, many of which will take some viewers back in time.  Food is a potent catalyst for memory, according to Proust, and so are the kitchenwares on display here. I remember savoring good coffee with a tempered glass Chemex and my first homemade espresso from a Bialitti Moka Express; sharpening Henckels poultry shears and weighing ingredients on a Terrailon plastic scale to make an elaborate dish from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and storing the leftovers in colorful Tupperware containers. The display culminates with things you might find in your drawer today, such as the ergonomic Good Grips peeler that hit the market in 1989.


Curated by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor of MoMA’s department of architecture and design, Counter Space divided the panoply of work and themes into three sections. “The New Kitchen” shows enthusiastic early efforts to update and upgrade every aspect of housework. Here is Charles Stillwell’s 1883 brown paper bag for Philadelphia’s Union Paper Bag Machine Company, every bit as radical as Peter Behrens’ 1909 electric tea kettle and lamp. American domestic science books, notably Christine Frederick’s Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home (1915), proclaimed the kitchen as a laboratory and the housewife as a trained professional whose every move had been carefully calibrated. The higher standards offset any reductions in the average time spent on housework.

“Visions of Plenty” presents the bounty of colorful lightweight products that appeared after World War II, many of them in plastics that had been developed for defense industries. A photo of the 1959 Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate reminds us that all these objects still had geopolitical significance. Cheery advertisements tout the ease and joy of a more informal domesticity as “The Good Life” that all Americans supposedly enjoyed.

he third section, “Kitchen Sink Dramas,” challenges such commercial fervor. (The title comes from post-World War II British artists and architects who focused on the daily lives of working-class women and their families.) Pop Art paintings by James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol celebrated the visual intensity of household brands. Feminists like Martha Rosler and Cindy Sherman invoked the isolation, drudgery, and insecurity that plagued so many housewives. Taking a larger perspective, Reyner Banham’s 1970 article “Household Godjets” criticized the “big white abstractions” of high modernism; he understood that the kitchen should force us to deal with the dirtiness, messiness, and ordinariness of daily life.

The highlight of the show is an original Frankfurt kitchen. Over 10,000 were mass-produced and installed as part of Frankfurt’s workers’ housing program, overseen by Ernst May. Grete Schütte-Lihotzky’s legendary 1926 design added the exuberance of European modernist aesthetics and progressive politics to American scientific management. A small desk and adjustable chair allowed the housewife to organize her day surrounded by a built-in storage system that mixed wooden cabinets for dishes with a grid of aluminum bins for rice and other staples. Despite being cramped, the space looks surprisingly comfortable as well as efficient.

Most New Yorkers will go home to apartment kitchens as compact as this one.  In contrast, capacious suburban kitchens are designed to accommodate all sorts of activities within an open plan—a trend that began just after World War II. Contemporary family life and social life supposedly revolve around cooking and enjoying meals together, although this is surely more true in principle and design than in practice. It’s not a new concept, nor is it dependent on square footage. Volume 2 of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1998, subtitled “Living and Cooking”) acclaimed those who convert the routines of domestic life into personal creativity to be shared with others. That satisfaction is principally a matter of making do with what exists.

Read all of AN‘s Friday Reviews here.