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The radical roots of modern interior design

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A new MoMA exhibit shows how progressive design in the ‘20s and ‘30s still shapes our living space

Design trends and social shifts come and go, but if any space in the home tracks how modern architecture has shaped the way we live, it’s the kitchen. From the day-glo, pastel domesticity promised by ‘50s homes to the high-end, open plan spaces favored by today’s foodies, the modern hearth has been the site of countless technological, material, and social evolutions.

A new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), How Should We Live: Propositions for the Modern Interior, which opens this weekend, argues that the social shifts kicked off changes in our domestic spaces began in the late ‘20s and ‘30s, when a cadre of radial designers and architects, often women who haven’t fully gotten their due, reshaped space in a way that still influences modern life. Ideas of efficiency, free-flowing space, modern materials, and better design unshackling us from household drudgery—still part of the dialogue today—were pioneered generations ago.

According to curator Juliet Kinchin, at a time when the jump from cooking with solid fuels to electricity and gas was still a futuristic proposition, forward-thinking designers painted a streamlined view of modern life. As a poster from the late ’20s suggests, they’re "winning freedom from the outmoded habits of thought and old-fashioned equipment." Many of these early models—the Frankfurt Kitchen (1926–27), Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe’s Velvet and Silk Café (1927), and Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier’s study bedroom from the Maison du Brésil (1959)—will be rebuilt and reassembled in MoMA, offering a sort of fossil record of 20th-century living space, as well as proof that modernism, as these designers envisioned, brings joy and encourages sociability and positive social interactions.

"Some of these interiors are propositions, offering a sense of how things could be different, and questioning common assumptions," says Kinchin. "You can see the Frankfurt Kitchen, and observe how it’s not just a free-floating container of stuff, but a design where the ideas ripple out into ideas of the new city, new power and electricity sources."

At a time when feminism, technology, and social changes were reshaping a woman’s role in the world, and a series of groundbreaking exhibitions would form the basis for Modernism, it follows that women’s roles in the kitchen, and their relationship with domesticity, would also be changing. At the center of the exhibition, a replica of the famous Frankfurt Kitchen showcases one of the first important experiments in rethinking the home. Foreshadowing contemporary discussions of minimal living, the well-engineered space brought scientific rigor and user experience approach to German households.

"There was such an obsession with getting smaller and smaller, even at the time, people were questioning that minimal living didn’t need to be miserable," says Kinchin.

Designed in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who said she designed the space "as an architect, not as a housewife," the Frankfurt Kitchen was part of an attempt to solve an acute housing shortage that had been plaguing Germany after the first World War. Schütte-Lihotzky was recruited by architect Ernst May to design a small, efficient kitchen for New Frankfurt, a new worker’s housing development. She viewed the task through the lens of an engineer; inspired by studies of automation, ergonomic, and workflow, she envisioned a kitchen as a workspace, built for maximum efficiency (she even timed typical kitchen tasks as part of her research process).

These narrow kitchens—with sliding doors, pre-marked storage spaces, and easily accessible workspaces that reduced wasted steps—were installed in 10,000 units in the development at a modest cost, a commercial success that would influence the workstation-style kitchens seen throughout the rest of the century.

"This was about, how do we rethink and redesign these prefabricated modern materials to reflect the changing landscape in which we live," says Kinchin. "The thinking was, if you got that space right, everything else follows, in a sense. It determines the relationship to other spaces."

Across from the recreated Frankfurt Kitchen, the exhibit also recreates an iconic space which created a cascade of influence throughout modernist design. The Velvet and Silk Cafe, a collaboration between Lilly Reich and a young Mies van der Rohe, was temporarily displayed during a 1927 Berlin exhibition on Women’s Fashion, Die Mode die Dame. A flowing interior, draped in inky black velvet, gold and yellow silk, the display challenged notions of space, introducing a free-flowing concept of space that would echo through the architect’s later work. Kinchin uses a fashion analogy to describe the influence this display of open space had on the then-nascent ideas of modernism: this was catwalk, and others were ready-to-wear.

"The idea of breaking open the rectangular box to create this free flow of space through textile walls, which were choreographing your movement through the space, revealed the tectonic qualities of textiles," she says. "You could sit upon tubular steel chairs, sip a cup of coffee and listen to modern music. I’ve discovered there was a fountain of eau de cologne in an adjacent space."

Reich, an accomplished designer and textile artist, was a Bauhaus instructor, and with her cropped hair and modern dress, looked the part of a forward-thinking designer. At the time of the Velvet and Silk Cafe project, she had recently begun a relationship with Mies. While he would go on to become a figurehead of minimal, modern architecture, Reich’s contributions and influence have traditionally been underplayed. Between this cafe, and other collaborations with Mies, including Villa Tugendhat and the Barcelona Pavilion, Reich’s mastery of materials and ideas about open space would become foundational aspects of his later work.

"She was a big influence on him, with a great architectural sense, who was able to design spatially, as well," says Kinchin. "Since a lot of her work was of a more temporary nature, we tend to lose sight of how influential it was."

While Reich would stay in Germany throughout the rise of the Nazis and WWII, a stand which held back her career, her ideas would proliferate. Another early and influential modern interior, Philip Johnson’s first New York apartment, was influenced by Reich’s work, says Kinchin.

These two designs came about at a time of many other radical shifts throughout the design world, with exhibitions such as Die Wohnung and movements such as De Stijl, introducing new aesthetics and materials. How Should We Live: Propositions for the Modern Interior also delves into the groundbreaking work of Charlotte Perriand, who helped pioneer the use of tubular steel along with designers such as Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, and Eileen Gray, whose E. 1027 Villa, ostensibly designed as a holiday home on the French coast, exhibited an incredible focus on space efficiency and modern layouts, countering what she labeled "the atrophy of sensuality." Throughout this period, the work of this almost "itinerant" group of designers echoed back and forth, creating a truly international style and approach.

The exhibit continues to trace how these early concepts and designs cascaded throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, showcasing part of the Eames California Case Study House, itself a highly considered and staged example of modern living and entertainment, as well as a recreated room from Knoll’s New York showroom of the late ‘40s.

What’s most striking, perhaps, about the interiors on display is how alternately modern and historical they can feel. What Kinchin seems to suggest is that the questions and ideas these architects and designers were wrestling with are far from being settled; they, in fact, may have just started the conversations we’re still engaged in.

"Schütte-Lihotzky, later in her life, would get a kind of feminist backlash for the Frankfurt Kitchen," says Kinchin, noting how some said the workspace concept isolated women in the kitchen. "But her response—and remember, she lived to 103—was, 'I would be the first to say this wasn’t the last word. It would be a sad thing if you couldn’t make a better design now.'"