Vintage View: Historic kitchen designs, from railway carriages to Bauhaus brilliance

An American kitchen of about 1910 showing a hoosier storage and work cabinet to the right. National Photo Company Collection, The Library of Congress (US)

Kya deLongchamps selects the key ingredients of history’s top-performing kitchens

KITCHENS often provide the most eye-water modernity in an Irish house. Oddly the development of the fully fitted kitchen is relatively recent, if you can call about a century fast work!

Together with the containment of the open fire and the triumphant arrival of gas cooking, the architectural leap between the largely undisturbed Middle Ages kitchen and the tightly tailored storage slabs we know it today, was provided by new rational management of available space developed in America and Germany in the first two decades of the 20th century.

In most ordinary homes in the 19th century, be they cottages or terraces, the fire was still the centre of the kitchen.

Its expansive size and direct, fierce heat demanded quite a bit of territory for multi-tasking day and night. The free-standing kitchen was assembled with pieces of timber storage and surfacing — the norm for even the basement kitchens of the rich. Ranged around the walls, conjoined with counters at some points, the primary landing strip for food prep and dining was the large table at the centre. The furniture placement focused on the hearth and was as close as was possible to any piped water supply.

The Irish dresser, that beloved Irish altar of cosy domesticity, still survives in a stylised version in many built-in contemporary Irish kitchens, often the only free-standing element amid runs of glossy or patinated wood integrated cabinetry. Dressers were originally used for everything from keeping chickens in a lower hutch, to displaying pewter and other familial treasures. In some cases, a dresser would be turned into the room to partition off areas of a cottage in a multi-generational household.

Between the settle and the dresser, a large table and a couple of chairs, the kitchen area in a two-room cottage was integrated with the rest of the living space. Rooms behind and above a true chimney could enjoy some blessed radiated warmth through the masonry and flue.

It’s interesting to see a return by some designers to the idea of this more accrued arrangement of individual, legged units that flow seamlessly to living areas in open-plan spaces. Take a look at Devol’s Haberdasher’s Kitchen with its mid-century kick-out supports and brass pivot hinges, or the freestanding work of the Victorian Kitchen Company here in Ireland. It’s a more evolved, pushed together, layered period style of quality furniture rather than sleek, married MDF units — devolkitchens.co.uk, victoriankitchencompany.ie.

Ikea have always suggested teasing open their designs with multiple styling and framed, floor-standing shelving choices in just the same way. The English country kitchen with its bun feet firmly in the 1800s was largely the 1970s imaginings of Mark Wilkinson, who died in 2017.

In the US, the first piece of “modern” kitchen storage furniture distinct from earlier cabinets and sideboards was the hoosier cabinet. Named for The Hoosier Manufacturing Co of New Castle, Indiana, it stands out as a dedicated work-station for the cook.

It was compact, with a vertical thrust and contained a drop-down or slide-out metal tray-table for rolling pastry and so on. The micro-management of the drawers, shelves and dedicated glass spice and flour jugs inside a hoosier was big business in the 1920s.

Just about every American home had either a home-made or store-bought version. Hoosiers would die off in the 1950s as built-in kitchens became the fashion, but the Americans collect them as hotly as we do antique dressers.

In Britain and Ireland, well-to-do people did not socialise in their kitchens — this was a firmly middle-class development.

Pride in the kitchen arrived with growing consumerism, where a householder wanted to show off her new ware, appliances and kitchen cabinetry. Coal smoke and dripping laundry was pushed out of the living space by sealed ranges and innovative mechanical appliances like washing machines and gas cookers.

Born in Austria, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000) was an architect by trade. Following the First World War, she was involved in designing affordable, ergonomic housing for the bruised working families of German cities. Her ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ c.1928/1929 for the Römerstadt (a block of flats) is cited as the first truly modular kitchen by many design historians.

The built-in quality of the blue (fly-repelling) units set under one counter height was inspired by the storage compartments seen in German railway carriages. Centrifuged tightly to the walls, her work went beyond the elongated kitchen ‘buffets’ seen at the Leipzig trade fairs in the 1930s when Siematic kitchens appeared.

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chütte-Lihotzky did everything in her power to make her tiny modular kitchens extremely woman friendly, and was heavily influence by the American movement of Catharine Beecher’s ‘Taylorism’. Headed up by a visionary group of women writers and designers, Talylorism not only argued for putting logic to work while managing a household, but elevated cooking to a respectable profession.

In a bold move, Schütte-Lihotzky sliced her Frankfurt Kitchen away from the ordinary living space, making it a true room.

This signalled something of a social disruption to the familiar order of everything being done in one communal area during the day in a standard house or apartment.

Today, we are breaking back through those walls, and putting our kitchens back in place as family spaces.

Directed at a window for fresh air and ventilation, the Frankfurt Kitchen included a dedicated stool for the cook to rest while peeling or washing, a clever task light that pulled across the ceiling as needed, 18 dedicated drawers for ingredients and supplies, dish racks as standard, and most importantly, a dedicated oven that was part of the units.

Benita Otte, a textile designer in the Bauhaus school group, displayed a built-in kitchen in the Weimar House & Home show as early as 1923, but Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen brought it to the market in tens of thousands.

As for the gloss, we can’t get enough of? Again, Germany led the way. As early as 1892, Freidemir Poggenpohl was turning out white lacquered kitchen cabinets, and in 1923, the company introduced a freestanding kitchen cupboard, not unlike the hoosier in spirit. Kitchen design has a very long history in Germany that endures to today. Poggenpohl is the oldest surviving kitchen brand in the world and by the 1950s, its unit kitchen was the industry standard for excellent in matching wall and floor cabinetry.

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