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Bringing the Heart of the Home to Work

Kitchens are slowly being integrated into commercial spaces, including offices and designer showrooms. Here, i+s delves into why that may be, and what we can expect from this evolution.

09/01/2017 By Kadie Yale

A large island acts as a meeting and work space in Interceramic’s new Dallas showroom.  Photograph courtesy of CallisonRTKL During the July 24, 1959 opening of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow, then-Vice President Richard Nixon debated the merits of capitalism versus communism The contemporary kitchen space in Shaw Contract Group’s Atlanta showroom doubles as a reception desk and work surface with service amenities around the perimeter Photograph courtesy of Perkins+Will Carvart’s New York showroom boasts a 40-foot steel island that is used as gathering space for employees as well as a demonstration surface for cooking presentations. Photo courtesy of Bradley Imaging

In recent years, there has been a growing trend of building kitchens into showrooms. It may seem innocuous, particularly since kitchens are commonplace in residential settings and places for food storage that resemble kitchens have been commonplace in office environments. 

However, the introduction of fully functioning kitchen spaces, complete with ovens, food and beverage storage, a stocked coffee or drink bar, and, at times, stovetops designed to be open to the rest of the showroom, is a new occurrence. Even offices, which have long-since introduced refrigerators and coffee machines into the workspace, would shy away from offering employees the utilities to do more than zap their meals in the microwave. Kitchen areas have often been designed to be hidden away from view—out of sight, out of mind; these areas are for the quick completion of the task at hand so one may return to work.

"How hard can we get the space to work?"

—Lindsay Wilson, executive managing principal, Corgan

Within the trending open- and no-office workspaces, we see the “heart of the home” settling into showrooms of all sorts, which seems unusual. Showrooms are spaces for design solutions where brands display their new releases and tried-and-true favorites. It seems almost against the nature of the space to use precious square footage to build in fully functional kitchens that may only be used a few times a year, particularly in an era when space is an expensive commodity. Yet, we see it repeatedly. For Lindsay Wilson, executive managing principal at Corgan, who designed the new Mannington showroom in Atlanta, the inclusion of a kitchen area was a means of answering the design question, “How hard can we get the space to work?” 

Having a working kitchen appears to be a no-brainer; after all, these areas typically serve as extensions of offices, and employees need a place where they can store and prepare their meals throughout the day. However, as the solution has generally been to provide a refrigerator and microwave—both of which can be essentially hidden in an office setting—and to have food at catered events, having a complete, operational kitchen goes beyond what is necessary. The answer lies in the historical repositioning of kitchens in American homes as centers of industrial manufacturing, and the emphasis of cooking as a participatory art as positioned by cooking and home design television shows. 

The merging of domestic kitchens and work environments has historical ties. Kitchens, while relegated as domestic task centers, have been what Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, describes in his book “B is for Bauhaus, Y is for YouTube” as “a buffer zone between the help and family.” In the Western world, food preparation was either a family activity done in full view of the living space, or, for the wealthier socialites, taken on by hired help or servants. Kitchens were out-of-sight from visitors, where the general housekeeping could be done between the homeowners and their staff. It was not below the status of the woman of the house to approach servants there, unlike in the servants’ quarters. After free work was abolished along with slavery in the 19th century, the work of food preparation fell on the woman of the house, particularly in the 20th century as the middle class continued to grow. The positioning of the home as a place of serious work that could utilize manufacturing and technological ingenuity also turned “women’s work” into a science. Home economics was a way for women to safely explore these scientific fields. 

Outside the home, the Industrial Revolution and advancements in science—particularly germ theory—made the general population more aware of ways in which the manufacturing process could be streamlined and how illness could be prevented, particularly in food preparation. While still a luxury, technology for the kitchen in the form of coolers and electric or gas stoves was more widely available to middle-class homes.

The kitchen as a more advanced working space was expanded upon by Lillian Moller Gilbreth in the inter-war period. An industrial psychologist and engineer, as well as the mother of twelve children, Gilbreth had worked side-by-side with her husband Frank B. Gilbreth to lessen the workload experienced by those on the factory line. In what would become known as “motion study,” the Gilbreths broke down work tasks into what they called “therbligs” to streamline the process, making the job faster and less taxing on the individual. After Frank’s sudden death in 1924, Lillian found she was able to continue her efforts through the “woman’s work” of tasks around the home. As Alexandra Lange quoted in “Belles on Their Toes,” written by two of the Gilbreth children: “If the only way to enter a man’s field was through the kitchen door, that’s the way she’d enter.” 

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