Historical Roots of the Modern Kitchen by Don James

Don James, Kitchen Views

Have you ever thought about the historical roots of the modern kitchen? As with most things in life that we take for granted today, form really does follow function.

Born and raised in historic downtown Hingham, Massachusetts, I’ve always had an affinity for elements of architectural design and aesthetics. Researching historic facts of architecture has informed my design ability. There is so much we can learn about ourselves by studying the past and the lessons learned by those who came before us.

Sioux indians (mid-1800s) gathered around the cooking fire

Sioux Indians (mid-1800s) gathered around the cooking fire

Settlers of the American West gathered around the Chuck Wagon

Settlers of the American West gathered around the Chuck Wagon

We are inherently drawn to the source of our nourishment, but most of us don’t think about it consciously. Without a building, we are drawn together around the cooking fire. This shared experience forges emotional ties. Family loyalty is strengthened by these everyday routines.

The kitchen is now truly the heart of the home, however, this wasn’t always the case. From the colonial period up until the mid-20th century, most kitchens were an afterthought in the planning of a house.  They were simple rooms predominantly for food storage and minimal food preparation. They lacked space and no one could say they were “designed.” The cooking methods and tools of the day were primitive, which left kitchens dysfunctional for centuries.

Typical kitchen in the early 1900s

Early 1900s

Typical kitchen 1920-1930

1920-1930

Typical kitchen in the 1940s

1940s

It was not until the late 19th century that iron stoves became commercialized and municipality systems for gas, water and electric became readily accessible. Once these advances took place, kitchens were poised for transition, and the kitchen industry was born.

The industrial period led to scientific studies of productivity that considered efficiency dealing with movement and spacing, from which came kitchen design concepts that took into account the process of food preparation. The stove, sink, refrigerator and counter space were identified as key work areas and were now being spaced according to a well-thought-out design for maximum efficiency.

Starting in the 1950s, household work came into vogue depicting the “perfect” middle class household. As a result, even more emphasis was placed in the kitchen. Traditionally, the kitchen had been built at the back of the house, away from living areas. The advancement in technology, flooring, lighting, etc., changed the location of the kitchen within the home.

With this new focus on kitchen appliances, and the development of suburban neighborhoods, competitiveness required that upwardly mobile families had state-of-the-art kitchens. “Keeping up with the Jones’” became a way of life. These modern appliances had become both necessities and status symbols.

With pride in their modern kitchens, families were happy to gather at the kitchen table to eat meals together, instead of in a separate dining room. Kitchens were becoming the place that brought the family together. This was the beginning of the concept of a kitchen as “the heart of the home.”

This period of rapid development from the 1950s through the end of the century saw the family gathering place being improved. With homeowners willing to invest in modern kitchens, designers explored color choices and new materials (such as the aqua blue 1960s kitchen shown below), storage options inside the cabinets, and new configurations to eating areas (such as the 1970s picture with seating around an island instead of a stand-alone table).

Typical kitchen in the 1950s

1950s

Typical kitchen in the 1960s

1960s

Typical kitchen in the 1970s

1970s

The 1980s saw a change in kitchen layouts, which most people didn’t realize was moving them out of “the heart of the home.” Kitchens began to be designed with work islands in the center, to provide more work space for meal preparations. The kitchen table got pushed to the side, or back into a designated dining room. Individuals went to their bedrooms or a designated family room and/or entertainment area during their recreation time.

Typical kitchen in the 1980s

1980s

Typical kitchen in the 1990s

1990s

How many people understood that this physical separation was creating an emotional rift in their family? There is no one factor responsible for the shift in American society. But any honest observer recognizes that we went through a turbulent period with jobs requiring relocation or frequent travel, a rise in the divorce rate and a generation that was out there trying to “find itself.” Perhaps that’s why we’ve finally seen a shift back to the importance of family, whatever form that family takes.

Today’s kitchen is the focal point and gathering place for family and friends. Kitchen islands have transitioned back to include seating for the family to gather in the kitchen, at least for casual meals. The family is also being brought together with the contemporary concept of an open floor plan. This could include a dining area as well as a family room and/or entertainment area. Parents want a line of sight to see small children playing while they do their kitchen tasks. Older children working on homework or playing video games are still “part of the family” instead of off in their bedrooms alone. The family cook may have felt separated from the family, alone behind a wall. With open concept layouts, the person preparing meals can easily converse with the family. The concept of the kitchen as “the heart of the home” has been expanded to include a larger family living area.

It’s where family bonds are made, a place where kids do homework and preparing meals with one another is a pleasant activity. Today’s kitchen is fully integrated into your lifestyle and deserves to be stylish and functional.

contemporary 2014 open concept kitchen and living area

This open concept kitchen and living area layout is a good example of what we have discussed as a contemporary style.

Traditional cabinetry details are included in this contemporary open concept kitchen.

Traditional cabinetry details are included in this contemporary open concept kitchen.

current-2014-two-islands-in-open-concept-kitchen-layout

This open concept kitchen includes two large islands, with natural flow into the family living area.

 

As you can see from these examples, there are endless variations on the theme of open concept. Your kitchen should reflect your aesthetic and your lifestyle.

Don James | Showroom Sales & Design
Kitchen Views | 3356 Post Road, Warwick, RI
djames@kitchenviews.com

Don graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Architectural Engineering Program. He began his career in 1986 hand drafting kitchens for other designers. Don’s notable skill in conceptual design has earned him a reputation as one of the areas premiere kitchen designers.

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1 Response to “Historical Roots of the Modern Kitchen by Don James”


  1. 1 vindiesel December 12, 2014 at 12:56 am

    Great post. Thanks for sharing .


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