Sandy Isenstadt

23 May 2006


Over time, as household chores were outsourced to commercial ventures, domestic labor, which was nearly always the labor of women, came under rational scrutiny.  Kitchens, as a result, fell under the rubric of “household engineering,” with the homemaker herself — her physical movements and her use of time — an object for scientific management.  The distinctively modern form of the kitchen blossomed with Margarete Schütte‑Lihotzky’s 1926 “Frankfurter Kuche,” installed in thousands of units of social housing in Germany.  Following principles described by Christine Frederick, who drew from the time-motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and analyzing the compact kitchens of ships and trains, Schütte‑Lihotzky designed task-specific, built-in cabinets, along with hinged and sliding surfaces that could be swiftly summoned, used, and stowed away, making room for the next step in the dinner algorithm.  By concentrating utility precisely, she diminished the spatial concessions to convenience and pared the minutes required for particular chores.  As it began to orbit around similar ideas of function, modernism saw in the kitchen a confirmation that it was the style most intimate with the industrial Zeitgeist and could therefore transcend the question of style altogether.


But streamlining function was never the ultimate aim of any version of modernism.  Rather, the benefit of a rationalized architecture was a liberated individual, a man or woman freed from drudgery because mechanization had overtaken repetitive and spiritless tasks.  In this light, the kitchen became a place not simply to do certain things; it also became a place to display those doings.  It not only was efficient; it looked “efficient,” and so came to symbolize the virtues of a design approach that abjured symbols.  In other words, the kitchen’s representational value became just as important as its use value; together, an uneasy alliance of use and representation underpins our understanding of the modern kitchen.


With general acceptance of modernism after World War II, and in the context of an American consumer society, the symbolic value of the kitchen became only more important.  The spatial concentration of function and the efficient use of women’s labor within the kitchen were viewed as prelude to time spent outside the kitchen and away from work.  Popular journals suggested ways to economize a woman’s work without compromising quality.  Labor, in other words, was licensed in the postwar period by the promise of leisure.  That such an understanding was commonly held is clearly demonstrated by the “Kitchen Debate” that occurred between the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, and the American Vice President, Richard Nixon, in front of a model kitchen on display at a trade exhibition in Moscow, on July 24, 1959.  On the defensive after Khrushchev charged that American industry depleted itself on gizmos, Nixon countered, “What we want to do is make easier the life of our housewives.”  America was an aggregate of families, he suggested, so an easier life legitimated a national economy based on consumer goods.  In the context of the Cold War, and the World War that preceeded it, the modern kitchen was a device to realign women’s work with the home after it had been exercised in factories, temporarily, for wartime production.  Just as soldiers returning from war became fathers and businessmen, Rosie the Riveter became June Cleaver.  And, just as with men, women’s labor was revalidated with a goal beyond labor itself.


These are all themes present in Terence Gower’s Diptych, “Kitchen I and II,” a pair of photographs taken, respectively, by Julius Shulman of the Bass House, in Altadena, California, built in 1958, by Conrad Buff, Calvin Straub, and Donal Hensman, and by John Fulker of the Gower House, Vernon, British Columbia, from 1965, by Terry Gower.  The images have been cropped and arranged by the artist, who grew up in the Gower house.  Common to both photographs is a portrait of a woman preparing food — not a meal with its connotations of formality and its burden of good nutrition, but a snack, a treat premised on pleasure.  The parallels are underscored by the similar orientation of the women and the fact that both are posed, knife in hand, just before the steel edge slices into some edibles.  They are captains of a domestic industry, each taking up position in her center of command.


But, as noted above, their kitchens are not just functional.  They are beautiful, too.  Their modernism is a virtue, heralded in a dramatic manner codified in part by Shulman.  Systems and tools are so well-integrated they have become all but invisible; an infrastructure of helpful devices vanishes behind the flush surfaces and visual sweep of postwar modernism.  Advanced technology has become so assimilated into everyday life, as Nixon had presumed, that the space of the kitchen itself surrenders to the optical pleasures of modernist aesthetics.  In the context of the national progress Nixon invoked, the woman’s productive labor has been redeemed, although its scope has narrowed from the factory to the home, and the wages for her labor reduced to nothing.


Yet however much the two images seem to share in formal terms — the woman, her orientation in the kitchen and in relation to the picture frame, the moment captured — and however much they rely upon the very same narrative — woman as domestic commander as well as beneficiary of lightened labors — their juxtaposition makes clear they are entirely opposed in their broader outlook.  However alike their embrace of modern motifs, they replicate the underlying fracture between function and representation that characterized modernism from the start.  One is focused inward, so to speak, on the management of nothing less than time itself; the other looks outward toward a transcendance of time.


In the Gower House, the space of the kitchen is tight, with the shortest dimension found at eye level, as if to suggest visual constriction is precisely the point, which is underscored by the curtain that takes up the rear plane of the space.  The curtain has some inherent decorative interest, but in the context of the glass-walled postwar house it is a categorical closure, an explicit denial of visual scope.  The kitchen is a space with “no exit,” to borrow the title of Sartre’s one-act, one-room play, from 1944: the ceiling plane is insistent, and the camera itself blocks the only evident way out.


With Mrs. Gower as the key, everything in the image can be seen to reinforce the kitchen as a space of labor.  She not only attends to her task, her body starts to curve around it.  Bending to her work, she has accepted the curtain’s denial of the outdoors, the iconic site of leisure for the postwar house.  On the counter stand several cups and bowls, with little connection to the task at hand, almost as independent signifiers of containment and measure.  With no external referent, the main theme of the kitchen is given by foreground elements, the most conspicuous of which is a clock.  Its face stares down on Mrs. Gower as intently as the camera itself.  Both clock and camera are emblematic — indeed, Foucauldian — of the scientific management of time, their combination being the sine qua non to studies such as those of Frederick Taylor.  Everything — from the infinite variety of natural foodstuffs pressed into the mold of mankind’s geometric imagination of bowls, cans, and sliced bread, to the completely artificial lighting, to the on-off switch below the clock — suggest a uniform sense of time measured out in discrete integers, with the sphere of human labor — its hardships along with its hopes — contained within.


In contrast, the Bass House kitchen is perforated.  Openings appear not only in the walls but above, too, and ways out of the kitchen are suggested by body-sized gaps between cabinets on the right side of the image.  The gaze of the camera is thereby splintered into a play of apertures: a triangle of sky at the left, a dining space behind the rear counter, a window beyond that in the rear wall framing a skewed tree trunk, and a lunette peeping outward at the end of a billowing vault.  Conceptually connected with these outdoor  views, an arc of organic intricacies weaves through the space: the foreground vegetables, the oranges in front of Mrs. Bass, and the flowers behind, encircle her in nature’s own bounty.  Most telling are the capering figures of light that, as if to celebrate the end of a 93-million mile trek across empty space, shatters itself joyfully on every surface it can find, taking on shapes unanticipated by flush cabinets and flat counters.  As with the camera’s gaze, the light splinters through the kitchen and, in its one encounter with volume rather than surface, positively wraps itself around Mrs. Bass’s chest, an illuminated embrace echoed by the glinting curves of the shapely vase directly in front of her.


Although Mrs.Bass turns her eyes toward her work, her head is erect; she can look away without changing her pose, which she might as well do since the orange she is about to slice has already been sectioned by nature, and both vase and foreground vegetables, not so much food as ornament, signify beauty more than work.  Her labor seems superfluous, and barely contained by an overall geometry too cheerfully ruptured to insist upon itself.  A clock is present but it is concatenated with other controls and concentrated into a single panel with the oven.  As with Schütte‑Lihotzky’s kitchen, utility is spatially concentrated but the space emphasizes the rewards of function with an inexact equation of food and art and the female form.  It may be no less a place for efficient processing than the Gower kitchen but it overflows with moments of sensory excess.  Time in the Bass kitchen is heterogeneous: a medley of moment, day, and season casually entwined with the pleasant and potentially erotic, but surely not-too-demanding, rituals of domestic life.  Mrs. Bass’s labor occurs in the context of the fullness of compound cycles, a spatial and temporal continuum suggesting that the purpose of the modern kitchen is to dissolve before a beneficient nature.


From Mrs. Bass’s point of view, her labors are light, presumably.  From our view, however, she is, after all, part of a pair.  The discomforting message that comes into focus when one steps back from examining each photograph on its own terms to compare them is that the palpable pleasure of the Bass kitchen is no less an artifact of the industrialization of time than the Gower kitchen.  Rather, while the photographers have each in their turn chosen to emphasize either use or representation, their coupling in the diptych makes clear that the modern kitchen, if not modernism itself, stands upon the unsteady foundation of these two divergent principles.  In relation to the promised transcendance of labor through the embrace of rationalized time, the question remains whether Gower’s diptych, which is, after all, a sort of duplication, is meant to recall the tentative unity of modernist principles or the endless series it would become.