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MIAD’s ‘Great American Kitchen’

Exhibit explores the room’s evolution from 20th century onward

Jul. 29, 2009
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The kitchen—its purpose, its function, even its placement within the house—is constantly in flux, adapting to suit the lifestyles of a culture. In American society, what was once a hot, dirty room of travail has become an epicenter of family life, functioning not only as a place to prepare food, but also as a place to eat meals, work on homework and entertain guests. The Brooks Stevens Gallery of Industrial Design at MIAD opened “The Great American Kitchen 1900-2010” on Friday, July 24, for Gallery Night and will present the exhibit until Feb. 20, 2010. The show explores the history and character of the modern American kitchen with five period kitchens containing appliances and relics that reflect the spirit of the times.

The exhibit begins its timeline at the start of the 20th century, between 1900-1920, when American society was changing faster than it ever had before. At this point, the down-hearth fireplace had been replaced by free-standing cook stoves, metal boxes that contained the fire that cooked the food and, in some cases, heated the home. And clunky water pumps were being replaced with a network of pipes capable of supplying water directly into the home.

“For those Americans who could reap the rewards of the last century’s progress, the first decade of the 1900s was a confusing time, especially for the lady of the house,” says Steven Gdula, author of The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home. “With so many changes reorganizing and dismantling the elements that composed the very structure of a woman’s daily life, it became difficult for some women to reorient themselves to a lifestyle where the responsibilities of maintaining the kitchen did not occupy their every waking moment.”

Despite the country’s shift from rural life to city living, many kitchens remained loyal to the pre-electric and gas era, visible in traditional mainstays that incorporated elements of new technologies, like a stove designed to use either gas or wood.

As advancements in technology and science started to ease the burden of other kinds of labor, women looked at the grueling and seemingly interminable chores they still faced in the kitchen every day and felt there had to be an easier way. The exhibit’s kitchen representing the 1920s through the 1940s shows how the disciplines of domestic science and home economics were exploring ways to optimize kitchen work to reduce cooking time and to improve sanitation and safety standards.

Meanwhile, the country’s widespread connection to a gas and electricity infrastructure heralded an age of kitchen product development. A trend to equip the kitchen with small and large electric kitchen appliances like blenders and toasters began.

The post-WWII housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s saw a continuing expansion of this trend, as well as a creative and compelling way to market these inventive kitchen appliances and cookware.

The American family found itself congregating in the kitchen in the 1970s, as mealtime seemed to be one of the only occasions when all family members were present. Television shows like “The Brady Bunch” illustrated a kitchen concept in its formative stage: a great room that blended the TV room, dining room and kitchen (made possible by the perfection of the extractor hood that removes airborne smoke, odor and heat from overwhelming the house).

The Brooks Stevens Gallery collection portrays the 1970s and ’80s as an era defined by a drive to create a cohesive stylistic appearance through color coordination (think avocado and mustard color palettes) of appliances, countertops, walls and flooring.

Today’s digital age has ushered in smaller digital electronics with contemporary designs, as shown in the exhibit’s 1990s through 2010 installation. Our kitchens now are about environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, bedecked in colors of monochromatic satina and stained concrete.

MIAD’s “The Great American Kitchen 1900-2010” provides the viewer with a comprehensive look at the cultural values, product innovation and consumerism of the last century and a peek at what is to come.


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