Kitchen Is The New Center – Part 1

Over 90 percent of residential projects that come our way include the kitchen. The project can involve opening up the kitchen to living area, enlarging it to allow for a multi-function space, or even building an outdoor kitchen to create indoor-outdoor relationship. One survey notes that the average American family spends five times more hours at home in the kitchen than in the living room – (175 hours per month vs. 31 hours in the living room).

In this series of articles, we want to share our thoughts on how the kitchen has become more and more the center of the home, and what does this transformation had on  the design or remodel of a house.

There are many reasons why the modern kitchen has become more of a central hub in a home. One important reason is that today’s family lifestyle has become more casual, and with the casual lifestyle the time of each family member has is more fragmented; Daily meals are moved to the kitchen with various options at breakfast corner, window seat, or kitchen island.

Today’s mobile devices are another reason people have been spending more time in the kitchen. The technology  allows people to work, eat and play anywhere.

A third key reason revolves around health. It is healthier and more economic to cook at home. Meal kit services (like Blue Apron, Sun Basket, etc), has allowed people more time to be able to cook proper meals easily.

Last but not least, today’s families are also finding more time to entertain at home instead of going out. With friends and families coming over for an event, 99% of the time these events involve food.

Open kitchen is not a new concept. It has evolved throughout time to cater to changing lifestyles of the modern family. In “The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses”, Elizabeth Collins Cromley argued that “food has been the engine that drove spatial changes in American houses and their landscapes.” The book also discusses the evolvement of open kitchen concept in the early twentieth century as a result of “modern attitudes about women’s role in the family, combined with modern utilities systems”, and developed after WWII with “enhanced democratization and equality in the American economy”. Although back then the open kitchen concept was more of an ideological theory for modern house design,  the concept did not gain widespread acceptance until much later.

One of the earliest pioneers in the open kitchen concept is, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1930’s, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Malcom and Nancy Willey.  In the Willey House, he “knew that the Willeys were a middle income, university couple who would be doing a great deal of entertaining. Without the benefit of domestic help, Nancy would be preparing for guests on her own. The open kitchen was the solution for her to remain in contact with her guests while she herself prepared for and served them. To signal this change in social structure, to acknowledge that the room had evolved and to boost its esteem value, Wright renamed the kitchen the “workspace.”

Wright’s workspace had become “a room not for servants but for wives who were also hostesses entertaining guests or socializing with family.” Although (in comparison to today’s standards) the openness is limited and also screened by a glass partition with shelves, “those first exposed to this particular development it was nothing short of shocking.”

Source: “The House in the Museum Garden”, MoMA Website
“moma_catalogue_3251_300090420”, MoMA Website

Another earlier example of an open plan house is “an ideal modern house for a middle-class family” designed by Marcel Breuer for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was constructed in the museum’s garden. As Breuer himself explains, “The kitchen is central, controlling all activities. Kitchen, utility room, and service yard are adjacent and equipped so that household work is reduced to a minimum.” In this design, although the kitchen is physically at the center of the house, it also serves as a “control center of the home” functionally, and is still considered as a utility space.

The goal of the design is more for efficiency and safety (the mom can overseeing kids when she is cooking). A few sliding panels are installed at the interface between kitchen and dining/living to allow the kitchen to be either open or closed. This shows that the kitchen was still not considered as a presentable and integral part of the social area of the home. A good metaphor of this type of open kitchen in modern house is a ”hostess apron: made of delicate or fancy materials to adorn the hostess dressed for entertaining, it nonetheless was still an apron, the sign of the kitchen worker.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “The Kitchen Is the New Center” as we discuss more architectural pioneers as well as today’s modern concepts!

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