January 7, 2011 / 11:11 AM / 8 years ago

"Counter Space" exhibit: Seeking utopia in the kitchen

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It’s considered the heartbeat of the home and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art provides a fresh perspective on kitchens and the emotional and ideological hold they have on cooks and non-cooks alike.

“Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” which has been extended to May 2, reels visitors in with objects from everyday life and reveals the economic, social and even political impact of kitchens.

“They have a tremendous symbolic value for us,” Juliet Kinchin, the curator of the exhibit, said in an interview.

“We’re constantly bombarded by images of kitchens in films, magazines, novels and television programs. They are where we form and maintain so many relationships within our families and with close friends.”

Some design engineers saw the kitchen as a place to accomplish ideals of efficiency and even equality. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the iconic Frankfurt Kitchen, which exemplifies efficiency.

Designed in 1926-27 by Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, its compact and ergonomic design integrates storage, appliances, and work surfaces and aimed to transform the lives of ordinary working people on an ambitious scale.

About 10,000 of the kitchens were made for public housing built around Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany after World War One as part of a five-year program to modernize the city.

“They’d just come through the complete upheaval following the First World War and there was a real commitment to trying to try to improve life,” Kinchin explained.

“It was unpretentious and socially conscious in the sense of moving toward building a better, more egalitarian world.”

In the United States, the modern kitchen also celebrated the prosperity of a growing middle class.

During the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 the kitchen and its gadgets even sparked an exchange known as the Kitchen Debate between then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev about national aspirations.

Comparing the technologies of the two powers at the height of the Cold War, Nixon spoke of the merits of household innovations that would make the life of housewives easier.

Khrushchev dismissed the inventions as merely gadgets and asked, “Does your life consist only of kitchens?”

The MOMA exhibit, which includes a photo and caption of the two leaders in front of the provocative kitchen, exemplified how the room functioned as far more than just places for cooking and cleaning.

It was also where many people encountered and embraced new technologies.

“If you think about technologies like microwaves or many of these innovations in heat-resistant materials, they were usually developed for other purposes like armaments or aviation, but they enter most people’s experience through the kitchen,” said Kinchin.

The exhibit is comprised of almost 300 works drawn from the museum’s collection: design objects, architectural plans, posters, photographs, archival films, prints, paintings, and media works.

The Frankfurt Kitchen is the earliest work by a woman architect in MOMA’s collection, Kinchin said.

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