The Birth of the Modern Kitchen

I’ll give you a blank page and ask you to think of your own kitchen. Make a rough outline of its shape. Next, sketch in your sink. Then your stove. Finally, your refrigerator. Now estimate the distance between each of these three appliances, and write down the total (three sides of a rough triangle, most probably). Raise your hand if that total is greater than 15 feet. The odds are good that it will be close that that amount, or even less. How did that happen? Is it by chance? And why do you think this arrangement is shared by most, if not all, of you? How many of you think kitchens have always been designed and planned with the now-familiar sink-stove-refrigerator triangle? How and when did this happen?

Here’s a clue: imagine documenting the work involved in making strawberry shortcake. In 1929, in Brooklyn, New York, that’s exactly what was done. There was once a local gas utility company called Brooklyn Borough Gas Works, led by a young woman named Mary Dillon (the first and only female CEO in that industry at the time). She determined that to grow the business, she needed to focus on women’s needs and interests. As part of this plan, in her new headquarters building she installed a laboratory/showroom called the Home Modernization Department. It featured gas appliances, of course, but also offered demonstrations and classes on cooking, decoration, cabinet and counter design, and food preparation and storage.

Mary arrived at work one morning unhappy about an experience she had in her own kitchen while baking a cake. She felt it took far too long, tired her out, and she was convinced that her kitchen was totally disorganized and seriously lacking in design. She and her Home Modernization Department consultant, named Jane Callaghan, reached out to an expert for help. (Jane was my father’s cousin) That expert was Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, famous for her work in workplace efficiency and research on time and motion studies.

Together, they created a design plan for a model kitchen, which they called Kitchen Practical. As a demonstration of its performance, they analyzed and compared making strawberry shortcake in a typical kitchen to their design model. The work involved was reduced from 281 steps to 45, which was a remarkable achievement and proof of the model’s efficiency. While the inherent value of the triangular arrangement of stove-sink refrigerator remains true to this day, particularly in smaller kitchens, the actual function of the kitchen has evolved, reflecting the lifestyle of the homeowner. The range of appliances has expanded to include dishwasher, microwave oven, trash compactor, and so forth, and there are many more gadgets available. Kitchens have become areas for food preparation and storage, cooking, eating, as well as family entertainment centers. While the triangular layout of key kitchen appliances is a mystery solved, we often take this triangular concept for granted. All credit, however, must go to the work done nearly a century ago in Brooklyn, New York, by a team of very talented ladies.