What I Learned While Exploring the History of Kitchen Design

I have just finished reading the most fascinating book simply entitled The Kitchen by John Ota.  The book is a series of stories about the authors’ tour of kitchens across Canada and America not only in search of design ideas but also to fulfill his love of cooking.  As an architect he has a keen eye for noticing every detail which is what makes the book so interesting. While I am not a huge fan of cooking I do love the challenge of designing a great kitchen for my clients.

The Journey Through Time

Ota starts with a Pilgrim kitchen from 1627 in Plymouth Massachusetts and then takes us to the Thomas Jefferson kitchen at Monticello, 1809. Next to 1831 and the Hermann-Grima Kitchen in New Orleans. He crossed the border into Canada to visit Point Ellice House 1890 in Victoria, BC.  Then he takes us to a tenement kitchen in New York built in 1897 (one of my favorite chapters in the book more for the history of how people lived in tenement buildings than the kitchen). We are off to Pasadena, California to the Gamble House Kitchen 1909 and then back to Canada to the Spadina House Kitchen, 1920 in Toronto. Then a long haul to New Mexico to the Georgia O’Keeffe kitchen, 1949.

And now my favorite, a Frank Lloyd Wright kitchen at Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania, 1956. This is where I started to insert sticky notes into the book to mark the good spots.  Another thrill for him was to visit Julia Child’s kitchen built in 1961 when she moved to Washington, DC.  Julie and Julia is one of my favourite movies ever. I have watched it dozens of times and am still enthralled with the story of Julia Child.  He then took a musical journey to the Louis Armstrong kitchen, 1970 in Queens, New York.  Famous people were on his list as off he went to Graceland built in 1977. And finally, he visited long-lost family with an amazing kitchen on Vancouver Island built in 2016.

A Little History

In 1627 the pilgrims cooked over an open fire with a worktable and slept in the same room. Now that’s simplicity! In the 1800’s the stove had to be fed constantly to be able to cook a meal and it seems as though cooking took all day and required a team of people.  Because there were no cabinets the kitchens appeared chaotic and cluttered, but John assures us there was order under what looked like a complete mess. Such a contrast to the austere and clutter-free kitchens we are designing today. I suddenly have the urge to incorporate a pot rack.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that open-plan living, and minimalist design started to become a thing. Built-in appliances became popular as did the desire to hide everything. I find it so interesting that, for the most part, this design style is still alive and well today.

Informing Today’s Kitchen Design

As I journey through the pages of the book and look at the sketches over and over, I am struck by the desire to be more creative with the kitchens I work on. Consider cabinets and counters at odd angles, use curves, maybe even incorporate an island and a peninsula not one or the other.  Have work surfaces at varying heights for different activities. What about a pantry if space allows? Combine unusual and interesting materials and don’t forget some color!

Here’s the best sentence in the whole book in my humble opinion, “The kitchen would be more practical if we design it for cooking – not for fashion.” Although a little fashion is never a bad thing.

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