I Collect Kitchens.

My new apartment has two living rooms to match its two bedrooms.  A “drawing room” and a “den,” my roommate and I joke. Two girls used to tiny shared spaces, we send each other emails and text messages from across the house, then hear each other giggling upon receipt.

Before our housewarming party last month, we did our best to fill these living rooms with as much seating as possible. One futon and three armchairs, a couch, a bench, four chairs un-armed—all salvaged from roadside junk heaps and thrift stores. “Seventeen,” we proudly counted, before any of our guests arrived, “we have seventeen places for people to sit. Not counting the fireplace hearth, or laps or floors or the picnic table outside.”

But when our friends arrived everyone insisted, instinctively, on congregating in the kitchen, a narrow railroad space that connects these other rooms of ample seating.

It happens every time we have people over. We all end up standing, shouting against the sloping ceiling and horrible acoustics (sorry neighbors), squeezing past bodies pressed up against the refrigerator (excuse me, I’m trying to reach my beer), drawer pulls digging into the backs of our legs, leaning over the too-low counter tops,  smiling.

We humans are drawn to kitchens. There’s no way of getting around this, whether “kitchen” means a fire pit or a spread of stainless steel. We want to be where the food is, where the warmth is, where the stories are being told.

photo courtesy Peggy Markel

photo courtesy The Selby 

I have an intense love for other people’s kitchens. It’s not just about the food. I love seeing a stranger in his or her element—the way they spread themselves out over the counters, the kinds of bowls and jars are used to store the utensils, the beans, the slightly over-ripe fruit. Everyone has his or her own way of managing the mess in that most personal, most used space.

photo courtesy The Selby

photo courtesy The Selby

photo courtesy The Selby

Things get made in the kitchen. It’s the room where we blow out candles, where our parents sit us down to explain that they’re splitting up, that our last report card arrived, where babies come from. We sneak there at midnight to eat leftovers and stare out the window. Sometimes we cry there and sometimes, when the mood strikes, we make love on the hardwood floor. Bedrooms are private and front porches are where we go to meet the world; kitchens rest somewhere, comfortably, in between.

According to an exhibit currently at the MoMA, “Counter Tops: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” the kitchen as a public space in respectable homes is a relatively new phenomenon.

Until the 1920s or so, kitchens were hidden in annexes and basements. The gentlefolk ate upstairs in the dining room while the children, the help, and other working people entered through a side-entrance with their groceries. Most people didn’t cook unless they were paid to, or couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it for them, even if it was something they enjoyed.

The working class home, by contrast, still revolved around the kitchen stove and sink. Quite often, as was the case with my Italian great-grandmother Teresa—pictured below stewing tomato sauce in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1929—the kitchen was the home. Beds were pulled out of the closets and spread out on the floor after dark, the children sung to sleep under lingering smells of that evening’s dinner, woken up as Teresa shuffled to turn on the stove and start the coffee early each morning.

It was this kind of kitchen—the one familiar to those who ate the food cooked in it—that evolved into one that we know today, and the “Frankfurt Kitchen” that bridged the gap. Designed by German architect Grete Schütte-Lihotzky, the “Frankfurt Kitchen” prototype was well-lit and full of new technology, and brought the kitchen out of the basement and into the center of a house.

Based on a series of time-motion studies and interviews with housewives, the “Frankfurt Kitchen” was boasted to be “rational, unpretentious, and socially oriented” (leave it to the Germans to be so clear about their intentions), a space systematized for maximum functionality, and a clean space for entertaining family and other guests.

The MoMA website describes the detail with which Grete Schütte-Lihotzky researched and designed the modern room: “Each kitchen came complete with a swivel stool, a gas stove, built-in storage, a fold-down ironing board, an adjustable ceiling light, and a removable garbage drawer. Labeled aluminum storage bins provided tidy organization for staples like sugar and rice as well as easy pouring. Careful thought was given to materials for specific functions, such as oak flour containers (to repel mealworms) and beech cutting surfaces (to resist staining and knife marks).”

The kitchen as we know it—a room that would later be romanticized by a generation’s nostalgia, vilified by the women’s movement, and eagerly exploited by countless advertisements—was born.

This is the blank canvas that we build on today. We no longer have to be wealthy—or healthy—to pay someone else to cook for us, thanks to fast food. But the kitchen is still a place we come back to, whether or not we actually use it. Maybe our table is used mainly for doing homework, and maybe the shiny appliances are only for show. But every house has one. And chances are we like to be in it.

Noticing other people’s kitchens has taught me to recognize the difference between something self-conscious and authentic. Both the room and the way the people in it live their lives. Those who do it best lay what they have on the table and expose the cabinet shelves. They accumulate odds and ends and actually use them. Proudly presenting chipped china with mis-matched (yet color-coordinated) napkins and a heaping vase of fresh-picked flowers.

Two of my favorite kitchens, video-ed above, were certainly used and loved. In South Africa, a sun-hat full of tomatoes on a chopping block. A puppy skirting around table legs and rushing in and out of the side door. In Florence, a door painted with a curvaceous woman’s body by an old friend who happened to be spending the night, and who broke out his paints after an impassioned conversation and two bottles of red wine.

“I could live here forever,” I remember thinking about them both, the same way it feels to meet someone you somehow know will be important to you for a very long time.

These lessons on what makes a good kitchen, I think, also apply to a life well-lived. Comfortably lived. Possibly disorganized, but never disgusting. Not solely for show, but not too bad to look at, either. A certain something that can’t be explained or designed in advance. Only lived moment-by-moment. Something you might call “real.”


7 thoughts on “I Collect Kitchens.

  1. I just moved into a new one bedroom apartment. It’s the first time I’ve had space to myself; a space in which to spread out and leave my mark in the form of pink wingback armchairs and handpainted vinyl records hanging above my new/old thrift store sofa.

    But what I love the most is where my new kitchen is. It’s against one wall in the living area. So it opens into the rest of the apartment. All the seating I so carefully chose for my guests to use has been arranged to face my kitchen wall. It has a small oven; the Easy Bake Oven’s big sister. The four small electric burners earn their keep when I cook for more than two people. The counter space is just enough for a modest cutting board, so sometimes I send my sous chefs out to the dining area (two feet to the left) to do my oblique cuts.

    And all of that comes with ringing conversation in my tiny apartment. My apartment is built around my kitchen, and I have never felt more at home in a place.

  2. Another amazing blog! I love kitchens too! I prefer ones that are a little cluttered and aren’t too new. You know, where you appliances are almost as likely to catch your house on fire as they are too cook your food! Anyway,
    I look forward to many more great kitchens in my life.

    Thanks for this!

  3. My favorite is hanging out with Nina in the kitchen. I am told that when I was growing up I spent all my time sitting on countertops and trying to take over the cooking operation for my mom. I try to create the same experience for Ni. The other day as I was mixing batter for pumpkin bread, she sat beside me with a nutmeg shaker, spilling (all of) its contents into a metal bowl. These are some memorable messes.

  4. i love that you are familiar with the selby – one of my favorite and constant sources of inspiration! you and your kitchen and blog rock

  5. merete!
    just discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) this blog post that it seems you wrote some time ago…. i think this is one of my favorite blog posts ever! i love kitchens too and now i want to start taking pictures of kitchens for you. 🙂
    hope all is well in your world. i am thinking about trying to make it out to boulder sometime in the spring…. hope to see you!

  6. This was a great entry! Kitchens are just magical. I always tell people that my bedroom could be the size of a closet if that meant I could have nice, cozy kitchen. As you know, I love to cook. I appreciate the simple joy of creating something new (even if it doesn’t taste amazing), how it brings people together, how you can express yourself with food–no words needed. And, let’s face it, the kitchen appliances and tools are just so cute and so much fun to use.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s