A few weeks back my mother mentioned that she’d unearthed some old magazines while clearing out a bunch of long-unused stuff. She thought I might be especially interested in a copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal from 1960 that had a feature on kitchens, but she knew I’d also appreciate the March 1950 issue of Esquire for its insights into middle-class American culture 70 years ago (such as the eye-catching cover image of a naked Caucasian woman wearing nothing but a feathered headdress and a string of feathers around her waist, her braids strategically placed to hide her breasts — this, above a trio of feature article titles topped by “Have You A Mistress?”).
I said I’d love to have them.
Flipping through the issue of LHJ the night the package arrived, I found the article on kitchens.
The feature opens with a kitchen in reclaimed wood coupled with stainless appliances and counters. (Unforgettable indeed.)
Next up: a pair of kitchens in color, classic representatives of the campy mid-century style that furnished so many middle-class homes.
Nothing surprising here, though I always appreciate historical resources that offer perspective into how people lived – or aspired to live, based on images published in magazines.
But when I reached the last spread I was stunned. Here was a kitchen clearly designed by an artist who’d conceived a three-dimensional sculpture in which to live. A long block of wooden base cabinets with strong horizontal lines left free of hardware contrasted with geometric blocks of black, white and blue. Simple holes made minimalist pulls for sliding doors. Clever storage and prep tricks such as a pull-out work surface and integrated spice storage in the backsplash suggested that whoever planned this kitchen was really thinking, as well as having fun. Color-coordinated curtains in a Danish modern pattern enhanced the lively, artful design. This was a room where I would want to spend time.
Turning to the text for some background on this outstanding example of modern design, I was stunned to learn it was the work of Tage Frid. Yes, that Tage Frid – the one who was a contributing editor of Fine Woodworking since its inception in 1975 until his death in 2004; who headed the woodworking program at the School for American Craftsmen in Alfred, NY, and later at the Rochester Institute for Technology; and who then taught woodworking and furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for more than two decades.
Furniture makers have long had a conflicted relationship with the kitchen. Are “cabinets” really furniture, some wonder? Many view the former as an inferior sub-species, at best. The good people at Fine Woodworking themselves have gone back and forth on this matter; in 2005 the magazine published my article about three kitchens titled “Built-Ins that Blend In” but today refer authors to Fine Homebuilding for pitches related to kitchens.
It’s undeniable that many still view the kitchen as a room of lower prestige than those more public spaces where Important Visitors have historically been invited to spend time. The kitchen – and by definition, the furniture within it – has long suffered diminished status thanks to its history as a place of labor done behind closed doors by servants (in the 19th century) or “maids” (in the 20th), the overwhelming majority of them women. Adding insult to injury is the contemporary view of home as real estate, a commodity that warrants regular updates to maintain its value, plus the construction industry’s view of kitchen remodels as potential goldmines, and you’re left with a question: Why would anyone put his or her best work in the kitchen if it’s destined to be torn out a few years later?
Fortunately, some of us are happy to challenge these views.