A Giant of Furniture Making Shows up in the Kitchen

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.

Note the wall-mounted vent over the cooktop.

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.

Feeling blue.
Future so bright

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.

“An upholstered bench is comfortable for seating and converts to a bed when maid stays overnight.”

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.

— Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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13 Responses to A Giant of Furniture Making Shows up in the Kitchen

  1. You have brilliantly defined this issue of kitchens vs furniture and the hierarchical thinking that seems to elevate one over the other. Tage Frid, a mentor to so many with his wonderful books (with bindings showing wear from decades of use), seemed to somehow bridge this at that time. What a find! For one who has stayed in the field of cabinetmaker/furniture maker, this argument has been ongoing, to say the least. It is with much gratitude to you for bringing voice to it from the perspective of class, gender, and the mindsets that go along with this argument. Since you are a well respected writer and craftsperson and with your new book coming out, I look forward to what light will be shed on this topic in any discussion that comes from it.

  2. Ron Stephen says:

    I’d rather be invited to the kitchen than the Parlor. 🙂 Are my Appalachian roots showing?

  3. Timothy T. McTague says:

    Tage Frid epitomized a style of woodworking that was informed from his roots and his love of wood. There was always a bedrock integrity to every choice he made. That kitchen was in the Frid’s modest home in Foster, RI; where so many other objets he made were.

    https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1990-12-30-1990364160-story.html

    • Nancy Hiller says:

      The kitchen in the article (or at least the design for it) was commissioned by the clients who are named in the article. Thanks for the link to the Baltimore Sun article. I couldn’t find any illustrations there, unfortunately; I would love to see the kitchen he made for his own home.

      • When I started woodworking in the late 70s, early 80s, I was truly lucky to see Tage Frid several times. His public talks remind me so much of Roy Underhill. Frid was a showman.

        He mentioned his own kitchen cabinets a few times. The only part I clearly recall was the sliding pull-out shelves he made, to make access easier. He used shellac that was a bit old, and everything stuck to them a little. He said that for years his wife would give him side-eye about having to smack a can to get it loose from the shelf’s grip.

      • Timothy T. McTague says:

        I could put you in touch with his daughter…

  4. A Earhart says:

    It seems every show on “home improvement” features a kitchen renovation of some sort, from major to minor. Every prospective buyer wants a large enough kitchen to “entertain” in. “Because everyone always ends up in the kitchen”. My architecture instructors 40+ years ago told me that designing a good kitchen and including large closets throughout the house were sure ways to sell a house.
    I spend lots of time in my kitchen and it needs to be functional AND nice to look at. I want to be just as proud of the kitchen cabinets I make as I am of my furniture I made in the rest of the house.

  5. Richard Mahler says:

    I come from generations of extended family where cooking is an art in which the all the inhabitants are Involved, so it is the center of living; in fact so much so that our homes are huge open spaces encompassing preparing, cooking, dining, living and socializing. When this is the way you live the home should reflect that. It may not suit some lifestyles but we have never had visitors who were anything but charmed by what they experienced; besides it is a great for entertaining!

  6. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    The kitchen is the room I love the most. It’s the one I spent most time perfecting. Everything there is thought through. Oh, and I love your writing. It makes me think.

  7. What a fantastic find! I love those sorts of discoveries.

    I picture you already thinking about a revision of your brand-new book.

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