By Design

White communists, socialists, feminists, and capitalists tried to engineer society through kitchen design.

By Design

Rich people are having a couture cooling moment. I know because the New York Times recently published an article about it, In the Kitchens of the Rich, Things Are Not as They Seem. And the New York Times usually knows about rich people. The new status symbol is an invisible fridge. Like most signifiers of wealth, the invisibility is an illusion. $20,000 fridges are fixed with panels to blend in with a kitchen’s $100,000 custom cabinetry. One cabinet-camouflaged fridge is fine, but according to celebrity Instagram posts, two are preferred. The secret fridges usually stand next to one another, one for drinks and the other for food. I imagine this is in accordance with some Goop dietary law that forbids the co mingling of collagen sparkling tea and Erewhon Organic Mushroom Bolognese Sauce 32 oz ($25.50). 

There are hidden cooling drawers too. The drawers are mostly built into kitchen islands. Although it’s increasingly common for the ultra-rich to have them installed in bathrooms for temperature controlled face creams. “Most people put four — or possibly six” cooling cubbies in the kitchen. What are all these drawers filled with? Mostly drinks. Different drinks than the second fridge holds. The rich enjoy a cooled bottled beverage. 

Wealthy people want their food to be cool, but not cold. There are increasingly few freezers in the homes of the rich. Sometimes there’s a tiny one for ice cream. Apparently, freezing food is just not really done anymore. Interior designer Martin Lawrence Bullard said, “Freezing food is becoming less and less fashionable. People want to eat more organically.” Whether he thinks organic food cannot be frozen or that eating once-frozen food is simply not natural is never revealed. Either way,  a stance a person can only take today if they are very sure they can afford non-decaying food tomorrow.

Of course, a person can purchase organic meat and freeze it. That’s how my family gets its beef each year. We buy half a cow from a local rancher. A butcher divides it into steaks, roasts, ground beef, oxtail, ribs, stew bones. We keep it in our freezer. It’s an affordable way to make our meat consumption more ethical. I know vegetarians who preserve seasonal finds at the farmer’s market the same way. Freezing is a method of food preservation that protects flavor and nutrients. It’s not really a fashion statement. But I suppose Bullard was right. Freezing does stop the organic process of decay. And the rich have always been pro-decay. 

I doubt the very wealthy are asking for tiny freezers and hidden refrigerators because they are on the side of Big Bottled Beverage and Big Rot. Probably they just think it looks nice. Designers like Shannon Wolcack agree. She owns a design firm in West Hollywood where she works with clients like Hillary Duff. Why does the kitchen need to host its own persistent optical illusion? According to Wolcack, “Kitchens used to be concealed. It had a door. That was where you had all your appliances. It was like the work space. And now, kitchens are more of a lifestyle. You want to make it pretty and seamless.”

Is there anything inherently wrong with sticking a panel on your fridge so that it looks like a cabinet? No, of course not. But rich people striving to make kitchens feel more like a lifestyle and less like a workspace is not a trend, it’s a fundamental principle of modern kitchen design. The history of kitchen cabinets, and the appliances tucked in snugly between them, is not pretty or seamless. It’s jagged with attempted liberation, deliberate oppression, Cold War marketing and feminist utopias founded on white supremacy. White communists, white socialists, white feminists, white capitalists and white supremacists have all tried to engineer society by designing the kitchen. 

Architecture is older than our recorded history. But a practical theory of kitchen design didn't emerge until the 20th century. Until then, kitchens were just random bits of furniture and a stove shoved in attics, basements and poorly ventilated back rooms. Architects didn’t care about kitchens because they were filled with servants and lower class women. What design did servants and women deserve?

After the horrors of World War I, some people decided to try to engineer a new world. Some of them decided to include kitchens in their plans. In Germany, New Frankfurt was one of those world building projects. The architects behind New Frankfurt were tasked with finding a way to build affordable housing that fostered community and equality by design. Grete Schuette-Lihotzky, the first female architect in Austria, was in charge of the kitchens.

In an interview before her death she said, “before I conceived the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926, I never cooked myself. At home in Vienna my mother cooked, in Frankfurt I went to the Wirsthaus. I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife." She was not a housewife, but that did not keep her from respecting the women who were. Lihotzky took the work of the home seriously. She thought it should be treated with professional dignity.

Lihotzky knew that not all women wanted to work in the home. She was, after all, one of those women. But Lihotzky was practical. She felt sure that gendered inequality meant that whether they worked in the home or outside of it, women would continue to do most of the housework. She was certain that,“women’s struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an absolute necessity.” Efficient design could liberate women.

Lihotzky created an orderly layout of storage, appliance and work surface using Christine Frederick’s research applying motion studies to domestic spaces. Frederick was an odd silent collaborator. Lihotzky was a passionate communist dedicated to an egalitarian future. Frederick was a home economist widely credited with disseminating the 20th century version of the separate spheres of men and women. She was also influential in arguing that all mass produced home goods should be made to fall apart so that industries could keep making mass produced home goods. (This is called planned obsolescence and tech companies still do it today.) Still, Communist Lihotzky took Consumer Capitalist Frederick’s measure seriously. Cabinets, shelves, appliances, work surfaces were each fixed in place, fitting precisely.

Inspired by the efficiency of research labs, Lihotzky standardized kitchen workflow and under-cabinet storage. Our kitchens look a little like a lab, standing work surfaces and cabinets lining the wall, because in 1926 a woman decided to give it the dignity and efficiency of one. Lihotzky’s kitchen is boldly utilitarian. It’s gunmetal green because research suggested flies disliked the color. Form follows doggedly after function on every surface and in every cubby. She created the first fitted, or built-in, kitchen. Complete with standardized cabinets and standardized liberation. 10,000 of Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchens were built in New Frankfurt.

In 1930, buoyed by the success of her kitchen, she accepted a commission to help design cities for the first of Stalin’s Five-year plans. The first plan was supposed to turn the Soviet Union into a great industrial power while creating a collective culture. Industry and culture would help realize a world of Soviet of ideals. Ideals can justify a lot of atrocity. People were imprisoned so they could provide the hard labor of world building. Agricultural land owned by the peasant class was collectivized through brutal, bloody force. 

Lihotzky helped design Magnitogorsk, an industrial city built around steel production. She was joined by many others. An American consulting firm helped design the steel plant at the heart of the city. The Holodomor, the famine Stalin engineered through collectivization, killed millions of Ukrainians by 1933. Efficiency can justify a lot of atrocity, I guess. Lihotzky  continued her work. Magnitogorsk served as a shining example of the supremacy of the Soviet Union.

She finally fled the Soviet Union in 1938 during Stalin’s final Great Purge. Even the architects who helped build his world were no longer safe. In 1940, she returned to Vienna to join the resistance against the Nazis. She was caught by the Gestapo and jailed for four years. Her liberation came as the war ended in 1945. Despite the success of the Frankfurt Kitchen, Lihotzky was not invited to help rebuild her country after the war. People were too wary of communist design. She spent the rest of her career working as a consultant for communist governments, rationalizing liberation through standardized measures.

Stalin and Lihotzy’s designs outlived them both. The iron and steel works of Magnitogorsk are still in use. People still cook in  Lihotzky’s efficient spaces. The apartment buildings seem small compared to the shadow and smoke. Magnitogorsk is one of the most polluted cities on earth. By the 90s, the pollution permeated every cell, only 28% of babies born in the city were deemed “healthy.”  

The Frankfurt Kitchen sought to help women put drudgery in its place. 20th century American appliance advertisements promised to free women of the drudgery altogether. Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, toasters, refrigerators, garbage disposals and adjustable temperature irons all made their first domestic appearances in the first half of the century. Once appliances could be mass produced, they needed to be sold. Thanks to planned obsolescence, once they were sold, they’d be bought again.

In the 1920s and 30s, appliance advertisements called appliances “invisible servants.”By the 1950s, the domestic help angle was dropped in favor of domestic pride. Kitchen design has always been political. The innovation available in every American kitchen was proof that American capitalist consumerism would defeat the Soviet Union’s communism. Every toaster served as a shining example of the supremacy of the United States.

The purpose of the home was fully remodeled during this era. Historically, homes have been a unit of consumption and production. Some homes consumed grain while producing children and textiles, for example. In Cold War America’s propaganda and policy, the home became exclusively a unit of consumption. The kitchen was the consuming center of that home. It was a white woman’s patriotic duty to have a house full of capitalist produced, time-saving appliances. She was supposed to use her saved time to devote herself to the American model of womanhood - a careful, carefree housewife with pristine children and a pristine home. Her home wasn’t a work space, it was an American lifestyle.

Marietta Shaginian, a Soviet journalist in the 1950s, called the American kitchen “ideologically inappropriate.”She claimed it existed as poor compensation for unpaid “professional housewife,” a ploy to keep women from trying to walk into the public sphere. Bold words from a woman whose country was institutionalizing people for publicly voicing anti-communist sentiment. But she was right about the ideology behind the showroom kitchen. American house wives were not expected, or welcome, in the public sphere. And they certainly weren’t about to be paid for their work in the private sphere. After all, America could hardly pay a wife and mother for her work in the home if it was determined to prove consumerism ended her work.

We do not acknowledge the economic value of unpaid labor in our GDP because we still consider homes units of consumption. If American homes are really all consuming and never producing, then they should be rich proving grounds for the ideology of consumerism. But they aren’t. Mass consumption doesn’t save women from work. In a Pacific Standard article about the subtle sexism of home technology, Dr. Yolande Strengers wrote,, “new domestic technologies entering the home (like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and irons) have increased expectations of cleanliness, and that burden has been disproportionately felt by women because they still do most of the housework.”

I can’t shake Strengers’ words as I look at the pictures of apparently appliance-less kitchens of the rich. If the fridge must be hidden then what of the bananas on the counter, the crumbs on the table, the dish in the sink? What about the broom, the dish rag, the cutting board? Where do they go in a space that is designed around hollow forms of  “pretty and seamless?” Who is that kitchen designed to serve? It takes a lot of work to make it look like there’s no work in the kitchen. I don’t think the people with five cooling drawers are doing much of that labor.

Of course, a pretty and seamless kitchen is still a kitchen. And for some white feminists, that was still too much. Some feminist architects envisioned a life truly free of domestic work spaces. No hidden fridges, no fridges at all. They sought to free white women, and their homes, of kitchens altogether. 

Remember reading The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in high school? A feminist classic, it’s widely hailed as a classic tale about the oppression of patriarchy and the creeping horror of domesticity.  But it's not the only thing Gilman wrote. 

In Women and Economics, Gilman opined:

“Take the kitchens out of the houses, and you leave rooms which are open to any form of arrangement and extension; and the occupancy of them does not mean ‘housekeeping.’ In such living, personal character and taste would flower as never before… The individual will learn to feel himself an integral part of the social structure, in close, direct, permanent connection with the needs and uses of society."

Certainly a house without a kitchen still holds people who need to eat. Who makes their food? If the men and women of the house aren’t doing housework, who is? Who is dusting those rooms where taste flowers and the form of society itself is touched? For Gilman these questions were simply  “a need for labor unmet.” 

In 1908, she published a paper in The American Journal of Sociology explaining how to meet that need. It is titled, A Suggestion on the Negro Problem. Gilman wrote that Black people living in America caused "social injury.” Her “suggestion” for that "problem” so A forced labor corp, complete with uniforms and bases.

She argued that Black people "should be taken hold of by the state” and “enlisted” into forced labor camps spread throughout the United States. She called it a labor corp and thought uniforms should be designed for the Black people kidnapped by the state. 

Black “men, women, and children, all should belong” to her “proposed organization.” The “enlisted” would be made to labor on farms, in mills, and in building roads and harbors. Gilman suggested the state build “a training school for domestic service” at each enlistment base. Once trained, “individuals could be sent….on remain out in satisfactory home service. In case of unsatisfactory service they should be reenlisted.” In Gilman’s ideal world, Black people were “free” to clean Gilman’s house or face enslavement.

Gilman’s vision is chilling and violent. It’s hard to consider that chilling, violent things have much to do with warm reality. But if reality feels warm, it's probably because you are in a room designed for your comfort.

In 1916, Alice Constance Austin was commissioned to design a socialist commune of kitchenless houses. Food was to be cooked in a central kitchen and sent to communal patios by a series of underground rails. Residents would send dirty dishes back to the central kitchen for cleaning. Laundry would be taken care of this way too. She said the central kitchen would be staffed with paid labor. Whose labor? What kind of pay?

Applications to become a member of the commune were open exclusively to white socialists. The commune’s founder didn’t think it was “expedient to mix the races in these communities." It is difficult to imagine their employment terms would have been more enlightened than their racist membership terms. There's no way to know. The commune fell apart over a lack of water and leadership. Austin’s vision of a home without a hearth was never built. But her vision of racist self-proclaimed progressives eating food delivered by underpaid workers feels fully actualized in the age of the gig economy.

White communists, white socialists, white feminists, white capitalists and white supremacists have all tried to engineer society by designing the kitchen. Each saw kitchens as permanently fitted with women - they just disagreed over what that meant. All kept the footprint of patriarchal understanding and most anchored deep into racist foundations. None of their blueprints made room for the meaning of the work in the kitchen. Forget the meaning, they could hardly be bothered with the function. Lihotzky, with all her research into pantry placement, didn’t seem very concerned when pantries were made fatally empty. She wanted to engineer a world for certain women, in a certain way. If other women starved while that world was built, maybe it was because they didn’t deserve to be part of the design.

This started out as a snippy little essay about design but I can’t seem to muster the energy to finish with much zip. Is kitchen design still a political act? For good or evil? For the people the kitchen serves or the people who serve in the kitchens? I don’t know. What impact can fitted rooms have if the women who move through them are consistently, deliberately, designedly disempowered?

Lean in white feminists claim the moral high ground. And then exploit the underpaid labor of other women to keep the high ground clean. CEOs insist that women do not just belong in the kitchen. And then do nothing when a pandemic pushes moms out of the workforce.. Politicians are adamant that the work of the home is real work. And then pretend full-time unpaid caretakers do not exist when discussing economic policies. A majority of men claim to embrace gender equality. And then men continue to ignore the housework. Liberals say women should work outside the home to provide for themselves and their children. And then refuse to fund universal childcare. Conservatives women should stay home with their children. And then refuse to pay them for the work they do in the home.

The law claims American women are free in their kitchens and outside of them. And then our highest court lets private citizens enforce an unconstitutional law with a vigilante bounty system. They force women to carry a pregnancy because it’s about time American women come to terms, I guess. And then a for-profit healthcare system charges them thousands of dollars to deliver the baby. Every other system takes over then, making damn sure that motherhood never stops costing women, ever. Once the babies are born, they’re expected to pay a price too, going into debt for school lunches and absorbing bullets with their bodies.

Engineering worlds through kitchen design is historically abhorrent. Maybe it's time to design the kitchen for the world we've engineered. Women have traditionally cooked in the kitchen. But they've wept and screamed there too. What work surface will bear our scratches best? Is there a line of cabinets deep enough to hold our grief? No need for a freezer. I am not even sure what there is to preserve.

You know what? Let's do use our fitted cabinets to hide our time-saving, time-sucking appliances. Why pretend the substance matches the surface? Hell, I could just start covering everything with cabinet panels. Visitors will walk into my house and have no idea where the kitchen is. The new status symbol is an invisible kitchen. Everything is cabinet now.