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Inventing the kitchen of tomorrow

How midcentury corporations remade the postwar kitchen

On July 24th, 1959, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev got into an argument about women, kitchen appliances, and the American way of life. It wasn’t planned. But it was recorded on film and broadcast in both nations. It was also the first high-level meeting between American and Soviet leaders since the 1955 Geneva Summit. In 1958, the two countries had agreed to a major cultural exchange project: the USSR would organize a World’s Fair-style exhibition in New York City, and the United States would do the same in Moscow. So Nixon traveled to the USSR, tasked with giving Khrushchev a tour of the American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Over 450 American corporations had created pavilions to show off their goods. Science and technology displays were presented inside a 30,000-square-foot geodesic dome.

The two leaders had several conversations over the course of the tour, but the most iconic of these occurred while they were standing with a crowd in front of a model American kitchen. It had all the modern conveniences you’d expect to find in the sort of new, postwar home that would sell for $14,000 (about $120,000 today): stylish cabinets, a dishwasher, a range, and a refrigerator. Khrushchev was cantankerous, waving his hand dismissively while declaring (through a translator) that the innovations in the American model kitchen were gadgets of little consequence. He then asked if there was a machine that that “puts food into the mouth and pushes it down.” Their exchange didn’t touch on the issues that really concerned citizens of the day—namely, the specter of nuclear war—but it did touch a nerve where gender was concerned, and it happened when Nixon drew Khrushchev’s attention to the dishwasher:

Nixon: I want to show you this kitchen. It is like those of our houses in California.

Khrushchev: We have such things.

Nixon: This is our newest model. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installations in the houses. In America, we like to make life easier for women . . .

Khrushchev: Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.

Nixon: I think that this attitude towards women is universal. What we want to do is make life more easy for our housewives . . .

Still fresh from the sting of the launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, the United States had responded by launching the Explorer I on January 31, 1958, and establishing NASA on October 1 of that year. The nascent, tit-for-tat Space Race had Americans feeling nervous. It wasn’t just a competition for scientific “firsts.” The space race and the development of nuclear weapons had potentially devastating implications for both countries, and indeed for the entire world. So to some extent, Nixon and Khrushchev’s debate wasn’t really about dishwashers. Nor was it about color television—an area in which, Nixon deftly noted, the United States was ahead of the USSR, as evidenced by the fact that their conversation was broadcast in color back home. It was about progress.

And whose progress was it? Was it in fact a “universal attitude” that Americans and Soviets alike wanted to make life easier for women? Corporations were racing to produce the kinds of products and devices that would lighten the domestic workload for women. Technological progress unfolded at an ever-quickening pace from the Industrial Revolution through the postwar boom, but the idea that housework should be women’s work remained vigorously in place in postwar America. In the 1950s and early 1960s, companies unveiled gleaming, efficient dream kitchens to get consumers excited for what was to come. “The future” held robots, automation, style, and ease, but it didn’t promise any changes in domestic gender roles—quite the contrary.

The display that triggered Khrushchev’s feminist critique of American society was meant to represent the kitchen of a home that would cost $14,000, an affordable sum for a typical American worker in the 1950s, according to Nixon. If Soviet visitors to the fair were moderately impressed by the middlebrow gadgets in the model kitchen, they were wowed by the aptly named “Miracle Kitchen,” a joint venture between Whirlpool and RCA first designed in 1956.

Photo by Heidi’s Bridge
Photo by Heidi’s Bridge

The Miracle Kitchen traveled across the US throughout 1957, then went on display in Moscow in 1959. It was introduced to Soviet visitors at the American National Exhibition by a young woman named Anne Anderson, who was born in Illinois to Ukrainian parents, and spoke fluent Russian. Photographer Robert Lerner took portraits of Anderson demonstrating devices and posing with appliances in the Miracle Kitchen for LOOK magazine, which ran a feature on it in July 1959. Anderson looked as though she herself had been styled to coordinate with the kitchen’s brightly colored Formica panels: she wore a pale blue shirtwaist dress, bright red lipstick, and a red manicure; strands of pearls and a pair of black high heels completed the effect. She was wearing the midcentury uniform of a woman who keeps house on her own, but also commands a small army of machines to lighten her workload.

The kitchen had been designed to intimidate Soviet visitors, and to engender in them a feeling of being have-nots, even as their government maintained an edge in the early years of the Space Race. But the Miracle Kitchen was a kind of appliance fantasia, more aspirational than realistic, even for wealthy Americans of the era. It featured a compact vacuuming robot, described by Matt Novak on the blog Paleofuture in 2015 as a “proto-Roomba.” The freestanding range could (theoretically) bake a cake in three minutes, using microwave technology. The dishwasher would slide on a track over to the dining table after meals for easy loading. Anne Anderson demonstrated the kitchen’s push-button “planning center,” from which she could summon the dishwasher or the mini-vacuum cleaner. If all of this sounds too good to be true, it mostly was: according to Novak’s interview with one of the kitchens’ designers, Joe Maxwell, who had worked with the Detroit-based design firm Sundberg-Ferar, a two-way mirror installed in the kitchen display allowed someone behind the scenes to move the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher back and forth by radio control. Perhaps some Soviet visitors believed this display represented a typical middle-class kitchen in the United States, but the closest we came during this period to a kitchen “miracle” was in Hollywood.

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

“Design for Dreaming,” a 1956 industrial short film, was created to promote Frigidaire’s “Kitchen of Tomorrow” at Motorama. During this era, Frigidaire was owned by General Motors, which purchased the company in 1919. The car company incorporated kitchen displays at its annual auto show, which was first staged at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York in 1949 and ran nearly every year until 1961. Directed by William Beaudine with music by George Kleinsinger, “Design for Dreaming” begins inside the Waldorf at Motorama in a woman’s dream. A masked man, played by Marc Breaux, appears in the bedroom of the dreaming woman, played by Tad Tadlock. All of the dialogue is sung. The man shows the woman a series of cars, including a Corvette and a Cadillac, then he brings her to the Kitchen of Tomorrow, where she starts to cook, and eventually bakes a cake in a translucent, rotating oven. After a dance sequence, the pair hop into a Firebird II and drive away on the “road of tomorrow,” the implication being that the Motorama experience has led them to fall in love.

Photo by Daniel Dent

The Kitchen of Tomorrow was one of the highlights of a short-lived but high-profile episode in Frigidaire’s history, and not just because the kitchen itself was such a big hit. In the mid-1950s, General Motors hired a group of women they nicknamed the “Damsels of Design.” Harley J. Earl, at the time the vice president of the company’s styling section, began discreetly hiring these female industrial designers in the 1940s because he believed they could help GM better understand women’s preferences—namely how they shopped and made major purchasing decisions. Earl recruited most of the “damsels” from the Pratt Institute in New York, and GM publicized the hires widely. Dozens of color photographs show the women posing with clay models of concept cars in progress, or showing off the features of new models. Six of the women— Ruth Glennie, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Peggy Sauer, and Suzanne Vanderbilt—were assigned to the automotive interior-design department on aspects of decor, with the exception of the dashboard. The other four—Dagmar Arnold, Gere Kavanaugh, Jan Krebs, and Jayne Van Alstyne—worked at Frigidaire, where they were part of the team that designed the Kitchen of Tomorrow. Earl organized an event called the “Feminine Auto Show” in GM’s Styling Dome in 1958 to show off their innovations, which included things like makeup mirrors, storage consoles, child-proof locks, and retractable seat belts.

In the end, the “damsels” didn’t last long, but the association between cars and kitchen design, improbable though it may seem today, was deeply rooted both at General Motors and in the corporate design world at large. Appliance designers had tapped the aesthetics of trains and cars in the 1930s, as in Raymond Loewy’s and Norman Bel Geddes’s streamlined appliances in the 1930s, or Henry Dreyfuss’s Hoover 150 vacuum cleaner in 1936. With the emergence of color as a marketing tool in the postwar years, appliance makers borrowed something else from the car industry: the practice of annual styling. Alfred P. Sloan, president, chairman, and later CEO of General Motors during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, pioneered this concept in car design, inspired by the logic of planned obsolescence.

Along with styling, one of the key design innovations of the post-war kitchen was standardization. And it’s probably not a huge surprise that the metrics shaping kitchen proportions came from the average heights of women. Christine Frederick had identified this as an area for improvement during her kitchen engineering experiments in the 1910s and ’20s, noting that a woman standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall would be best served by 31-inch countertops. In the 1930s, with the advent of continuous countertops, counter heights were standardized across the industry at 36 inches. The food writer Leslie Land described the curious process in her 2005 essay “Counterintuitive: How the Marketing of Modernism Hijacked the Kitchen Stove.” Average women in the 1930s were about 5 feet, 3 inches tall. But, Land notes, the famed domestic engineer Lillian Gilbreth, whose time-motion studies performed with her husband Frank inspired both Frederick Taylor and Christine Frederick, stood at 5 feet, 7 inches. So her demonstration kitchens were scaled up, and the counter height was set at 36 inches, which became the industry standard. Because most American women were several inches shorter than Gilbreth, the new standard countertops ended up being too tall for them, in the very room that had supposedly been engineered to fit women’s needs.

The error is a curious phenomenon because during this period, from car design to appliance manufacturing, the concept of “anthropometrics,” which is also known as human factor analysis or ergonomics, was quickly gaining traction. Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss wrote two key texts on the topic, Designing for People in 1955 and The Measure of Man in 1960. His charts, case studies, and illustrations featured two hypothetical people, Joe and Josephine, shown in an array of situations interacting with designed objects great and small. And Josephine was shorter.

The Cornell Housing Research Center at Cornell University took height into consideration when it created its famed “Cornell Kitchen,” which was described in detail in the September 1953 issue of Popular Science magazine. In the title of the article, written by Gardner Soule, the Cornell experiment is described as a “New Kitchen Built to Fit Your Wife,” and a cartoon illustration shows a woman being measured from head to toe by a set of handheld calipers, as though she were the size of a doll. The kitchen’s great innovation in the age of manufacturing standards was that its countertops could be raised and lowered. Developed by Glenn H. Beyer, professor of housing and design, and Mary Koll Heiner, an associate professor in Cornell’s home management department, the kitchen was designed with three principles in mind: build the cabinets to fit the woman, build the shelves to fit the supplies, and build the kitchen to fit the family. Cornell sold the kitchen as a kit that could be sent away for and installed by homeowners. Beyer described its installation as “a one-man job, no more trouble than making something with an Erector set.” It was both mass-produced and customizable.

Just beyond the horizon in the late 1950s was an even more novel way of creating durable, stylish kitchens built to fit the American housewife: plastic. The bright white Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, debuted in 1957, part of Disney’s future theme park, Tomorrowland. Monsanto sponsored the home’s design and construction, partnering with Walt Disney Imagineering and three professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: architects Marvin Goody and Richard Hamilton, and building engineer Albert G. H. Dietz. The home was “set” in the year 1986, and tours brought 20 million visitors through its doors before it closed in 1967. The house had an intercom system, and the kitchen had a microwave—both features that were extant, if not commonplace, by 1986. Its bright white exterior and large glass windows gave it the look of a television of the era. Its interior was brightly colored and flooded with light. More than any of the other “kitchens of tomorrow,” the Monsanto house embraced the use of the material that defined the 1960s: plastic.

Photo by Bob Coscarelli
Photo by Mark Lipczynski

Color and convenience abounded in the postwar kitchen, and for the generation that experienced it first, it came as a vibrant surprise. If the bright pinks of the 1950s and harvest golds of the ’60s seem eye-popping to us today, imagine how colorful they must have looked to people who were used to the all-white kitchens of the 1920s, or the cast-iron stoves of the decades before. Color was marketing magic, and shaped the look of appliances, cooking equipment, and countertops.

Of all the innovations that brought color into the kitchen, the most iconic might be Formica. Like Pyrex, Formica has been around for over one hundred years, but it has an especially strong association with midcentury kitchens. It was a very early plastic invention, developed in 1912 by Westinghouse as a substitute for mica, which was used for electrical insulation, and that’s where its name came from: “for-mica.” The laminate that covers tens of millions of kitchen countertops today is made from layers of melamine resin. Like Tupperware, Formica is durable and easy to clean. In 1927, the Formica Insulation Company, as it was then called, patented a process for printing marble or wood-grained surfaces on the laminate using a process called photogravure.

One of the best-preserved examples of a laminate kitchen can be found in Temple, Texas, at the Ralph Sr. and Sunny Wilson’s Historic Wilson House. And it doesn’t contain any Formica: it’s decorated throughout with Wilsonart High Pressure Laminates. Ralph Wilson, Sr., founded Wilsonart (initially called Ralph Wilson Plastics) in 1959, and his company competed with Formica. He designed the house with his daughter Bonnie McIninch, and it’s a veritable laminate wonderland; every conceivable surface was turned into a canvas for laminate. Wilson actually lived there from 1959–72, but he also wanted the house to serve as a model for how his laminates could be used. The kitchen in particular is a masterpiece, with colorful laminated cabinets, and countertops that are a very early example of a technique called “post-forming,” in which a laminate surface is wrapped around a rounded edge. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

If the Wilson House represented a kind of aesthetic laboratory for testing the limits of laminate’s potential, the 1964 Formica World’s Fair House was the material’s fashionable pacesetter. The World’s Fair House was a model home perched on a low hill on the fairgrounds, which offered free admission and guided “talking house” tours with animated displays narrated by a recorded voice.

The 1964 World’s Fair was a design mecca that attracted 51 million visitors. Like the 1939 fair before it, the ’64 fair was an exercise in futurism. It featured a groundbreaking IBM pavilion by Charles and Ray Eames with high-tech, immersive presentations on computers and mathematics staged inside an egg-shaped theater designed by Eero Saarinen. The Formica World’s Fair House introduced visitors to the laminate’s new look, and a new hue was clearly on the horizon—avocado green. The seven-room house was designed for a family of four to six, and featured skylights and an indoor barbecue pit. Formica products were used throughout the house: on furniture, interior walls, and cabinets.

The bright, sunny kitchen almost looks upholstered: a rich avocado-colored laminate is used on the countertops and work surfaces, while a textile-inspired pattern in a paler shade clads the cabinets and appliance surrounds. In publicity photos, where the kitchen is staged with food, there are clues to be found that a new, faintly rustic sense of style is at work, even though the whole house is a Formica tour de force. Contrasting with the different shades of avocado green, there are tinted yellow windows to lend a bit of warmth to the natural light. Floral designs, each one unique, adorn panels just above the electric range. A cast-iron skillet hangs in a white brick display nook. A large wooden bowl with matching tongs is filled with salad, wooden napkin rings keep four bright yellow napkins neat, and teakwood canisters store coffee and tea on the counter. Next to these, there’s a hand-thrown stoneware pitcher with a white glaze, applied with asymmetric abandon. Scandinavian-style casserole dishes sit atop the stove and counter. The house may have been space age, but there’s something simultaneously cosmopolitan and crafty about the Formica model kitchen. The accessories made from clay and wood, the European-style cooking vessels, and the laminate pattern that looks like a Dorothy Liebes weave all give the room a sense that something creative is meant to happen there. For all its conveniences and miracles, Khrushchev’s teasing aside, the midcentury kitchen was really just like any other kitchen: above all, it was a place to make things.

Reproduced by permission of the Countryman Press. All rights reserved.

Sarah Archer is the author, most recently, of The Midcentury Kitchen, from which this excerpt is adapted.


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