Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen at MoMA

November 17, 2010

On the contrary, we think that the machine must be grasped in an immediate relation to a social body and not at all to a human biological organism. Given this, it is no longer appropriate to judge the machine as a new segment that, with its starting point in the abstract human being in keeping with this development, follows the tool. For human being and tool are already machine parts on the full body of the respective society. The machine is initially a social machine, constitute by the machine-generating instance of a full body and by human being and tools, which are, to the extent they are distributed on this body, mechanized.

– Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

The Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margaret (Grete) Schutte-Lihotzky, and the centerpiece of the Counter Space exhibition at MoMA presents an early example of the modernist design paradigm. Interviews with housewives, applied research, and careful attention into the organization of space, along with the materials of industrial production and modular components, gave Schutte-Lihotzky the tools to re-imagine the kitchen as a one-person laboratory. Clean, efficient, and highly functional, the Frankfurt Kitchen appears to be the paragon of rationality, its military crispness evident even in the array of metal storage bins flanking one counter. In this space everything has a place and a use.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, this instrumental logic is mocked by Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which she picks up numerous kitchen implements such as a grater or a rolling pin, names them, and then demonstrates their use with a violent gestural force. Traditionally interpreted as a video of womens’ frustration, here Rosler’s video reads like an argument against the authority of design. That is, the design of tools directs our use of them, and that this direction is itself a sort of violence upon the user, who now must submit to the rational organization of the design.

Something is going on with Counter Space; functional architecture is historicized, abuts artworks, and is displayed against an array of beautiful products. Meaning passes from form, function, and history all to be reconfigured again at the next object. There is an odd mixture that blends together to provide a more comprehensive look at the contemporary situation than most exhibitions.

The curators Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor have divided the show into three components, which they mix and match throughout the exhibition space. The New Kitchen, of which aforementioned Frankfurt Kitchen is a part, details the innovations and challenges facing designers post World War I. Visions of Plenty focuses on the array of choice and the aesthetics of designer objects that invaded the kitchen after the rise of American style capitalism. Finally, Kitchen Sink Dramas deals with the social and cultural battles for meaning that arose from the configuration of the modern kitchen and its reinvention of the human.

These three perspectives — roughly focused on history, capital, and culture, respectively — bleed into each other, revealing that the divisions we traditionally erect between different modes of analysis are themselves faulty, and that the objects within our lives often inhabit multiple worlds. Counter Space consistently uses the lens of its theme to continuously explore outward from the personal and mundane to the social and extraordinary.

The exhibition space itself consists of one large room divided by a huge vitrine. At first glance the space feels unfortunately cramped, with its salon style hanging and all-over effect, but then one makes the association with the Natural History Museum’s wall of specimens, and the exhibition becomes a curio of artifacts.Given the strange archeology of the objects presented, it seems almost necessary to intersperse Counter Space with texts. These are often helpful for identifying historical context, and placing the many objects within a timeline, which is wonderful, as the viewer begins to form their own taxonomies.

The vitrine in the center of the space houses any manner of kitchen implements and objects from early modernist design and contemporaneity, and as humble as the common paper bag or as beautiful as Kenneth Brozen’s funky space-age serving bowls. Created in 1960’s, Brozen’s work is clearly situated at the aesthetic end of a design ethos, and is a far contrast to the multi-functional and efficient, but not-unbeautiful Universal Pressure Cooker debuted in the 1939 World’s Fair by Landers, Frary, and Clark.

Baudrillard, in the The System of Objects, examines the application of design in modern consumer products, particularly the automobile :

There was a long period during which American cars were adorned by immense tail fins […] Tail fins were a sign not a real speed speed but of sublime, measureless speed. They suggested a miraculous automatism, a sort of grace. It was the presence of these fins that in our imagination propelled the car, which, thanks to them, seemed to fly along of its own accord, after the fashion of a higher organism.1

What is fascinating about the application of design in both objects is that they share an ideological teleos towards the utopian promises of technological innovation, but the pressure cooker expresses this through a practical application towards functionality, whereas the serving bowl makes its point through the symbolic expression of its form and surface qualities. As Baudrillard points out in regards to tail fins, it is not actual function that is delivered, but the promise offered by the sign that produces its aura.

Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #30, a relief/collage, presents all the signs of abundance with its pop depiction of a modern kitchen space filled with food and the latest conveniences. This work is in striking contrast with a 1942 British war poster with a table, bearing a single dish, whose legs are a pitchfork and shovel that become a fork and knife as they pass above the tabletop. It implores the citizenry, who faced food shortages due to the routing of supplies by German U-boats to “Grow your own food”. The message of resourcefulness and economy is one that we would do well to heed today, as the impact of our consumption becomes more and more apparent in our ecology.

A pair of William Eggleston photos from 1972, Memphis and Untitled, of a view into an empty oven and a crammed freezer drawer with all of its pre-prepared foodstuff, reads as an elegiac representation America’s conflicted relationship with its own consumption. Compared with Wesselmann’s cheerfully satiric cornucopia, Eggleston’s pictures reveal the products of our success strangely out of joint; in our grasp but irredeemably remote and alien. As Bruno Latour argues in We Have Never Been Modern, the price extracted for our success is the creation of the third world, with its poverty and exploitation– vital to our way of life, but frozen outside of our techno-utopia.2

Created the same year as Eggleston’s photograph, Spazio Vivo’s compact (Living Space) Mobile kitchen unit presents the mobility and flexibility granted to those who are fortunate enough to live in the first world. This small unit, which folds into a cube, can be rearranged to reveal a surprising amount of functionality and storage space. The emphasis on choice and mobility in the work proposes a newly adaptable lifestyle that is centered around the individual rather than the family unit.

Vivo’s unit presents a liberatory ethic that Vito Acconci, in a lecture at Hunter College, discussed. For him architecture would respond to the actions of whomever was in the space. For example, if you reclined against a wall, the wall would form into a chair for you to sit. Rather than the old architectural of control, in which the architect determined the perspective of the subject, the subject would be in command of their surroundings and capable of configuring it to fit their needs and desires.

The freedom of the kitchen, or freedom from the kitchen, was, of course a major struggle for women, who had historically been relegated to the role of the homemaker. Much design, such as the Frankfurt Kitchen was focused on making the woman’s life easier and more efficient. A Step Saving Kitchen, a 1949 educational video by the US Department of Agriculture, begins by addressing the advantages of modern kitchen to couple, “These plans were developed for people just like you…” and while the man asks the questions, the video only depicts women working in the kitchen, and the presenter repeatedly refers to “housewives” and women as those who will be using the space. The unspoken implication is that it is the man’s responsibility to supply the best space for his wife, and it is the wife’s duty to use that space to serve her family.

Mako Idemitsu explores this historically assumed role, and technologies ability to assuage its inherent limitations. Hideo, It’s Me, MAMA, was based around the intersection of two phenomena in 80s in Japan: a push by marketers in Japan to sell newly introduced video players, and at the same time, a growing social problem with bored housewives, who would have nervous break downs before they could stand to let their growing children leave home. Idemitsu’s film presents a darkly comedic solution to the problem; a housewife places a video cassette of her son eating breakfast into the VCR and begins to place food in front of the television. As the video version of her son eats, she begins to talk to him and ask him questions in a loving voice, but of course, the video cannot respond, since it is only a recording. Technology, while marvelous, cannot makeup for the deficit of a way of life that is inherently unfulfilling.

Today, as we find ourselves surrounded by the wonders of technology, and access to constant, efficient productivity is increasingly inescapable, perhaps it is time to ask what sort of space have we designed for ourselves? The kitchen, and its implements defined the role of those women who inhabited it, and they had to free themselves from its grasp. For Martha Rosler, liberation was possible through the subtle misapplication of the tools provided, a detournement as the Situationists would say. Counter Space offers a valuable picture of how we are capable of defining and revolutionizing the space around us.


1. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (New York: Verso, 1996), 59.
2. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 9.