In the last 60 years, kitchens have gone from a design afterthought to one of the most important rooms in the house. Compare homes built prior to say, 1945, and newer construction.
Michele Ingrassia has a fascinating article at Newsday about the evolution of the American kitchen, and how the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution, followed by the suburban migration of the post-World War II era, were two major societal changes that got kitchens to where they are today. Kitchens now are not only where we cook and eat, but where we come together at the end of a hard day, where the kids do homework, where our guests gather during parties and holidays, where we pay bills and charge the cell phones.
In older 20th-century homes, the kitchen was tucked away at the back of the house, behind a door, and often featured a Hoosier cabinet, which was the ancestor of today's cabinet-countertop style kitchen. The kitchen was a workspace for the Lady of the House, who only spent enough time in there to cook, clean up and get out. As long as it was easy to keep clean, and there was enough storage not to clutter up the counters, it was good enough. Square footage was kept to the absolute minimum to focus more attention and money on the living and dining rooms, where entertaining was done.
The boundless optimism and can-do spirit that came over America after World War II affected kitchens as well. Women were marketed to in a way never seen before as corporations looked for greener pastures now that tanks and munitions were no longer needed as much. Anything time- and effort-saving, from dishwashers to TV dinners, were snapped up. Women were seduced with the idea of being unchained from the kitchen and having free time to play tennis, watch the newfangled television, socialize with friends, take up ceramics.
Modern homes began opening up the kitchen to the living areas, so aesthetics mattered in a way they never had, as shown by the vintage Formica ad above. Colors like pink, turquoise, red and yellow -- think classic Fiestaware -- became popular kitchen color schemes.
Over the next 20-30 years, kitchens changed with the home trends. The chill of the Cold War seemed to bring about the urge for a warm, cozy space such as the knotty pine kitchen of Don and Betty Draper in "Mad Men." The radical style changes of the '60s played out in psychedelic orange and yellow countertops. The interest in the environment in the '70s showed in the nature-based trends of dark, heavily grained wood (or faux wood) finishes and appliance colors like avocado green, dark brown and harvest gold. It combined with the Colonial nostalgia surrounding the Bicentennial in 1976 to create what we now see as dark, dreary spaces. The pendulum swung the other way in the '80s, as light finishes such as whitewashed wood, white and bisque appliances and style themes from Santa Fe to cluttered country took hold.
I began seeing the first glimpses of today's heart-of-the-home, attractive kitchen when I would go out to job sites in the early '90s with my sister Deborah, an interior designer. Her clients were often well-to-do people in Litchfield County who entertained a lot in their large homes. It was there I first saw the kitchen-great room combination, islands with prep sinks, customized cabinets, commercial-grade stainless steel appliances, natural stone countertops, under-cabinet lighting, huge range hoods and creative tile backsplashes.
Since I'm not rich, I had to settle for a 1970s-style kitchen in my little ranch home. It's not big, but it's so much better than any of my old apartment kitchens. The one in Glens Falls had no counter space; I had to do any food prep on the table. Ditto for the apartments in Syracuse. My Lakewood place had an old, narrow wall oven with the cooktop cramped against it.
The only improvement we've made so far is to buy a new dishwasher after the old one broke. We went with black, because white wasn't available and we really don't like stainless. Yes, I realize that's heresy.
I often dream about what I'd want in this space, drooling over some of the kitchens on "Spice Up My Kitchen" and devouring articles in the shelter mags. Adding onto the house or knocking down walls aren't possible. The basic fridge-sink-stove triangle works well. But storage is always an issue, and the laminate counters are looking worn. Christopher Peacock, designer of gorgeous kitchen cabinetry, offers up kitchen remodeling tips in House Beautiful that make a lot of sense.
My plan would involve knocking out the soffits (no ductwork, no second story, no problem) and extending new cabinets to the ceiling. The cabinets would have roll-out shelves and other features designed to maximize storage. A microwave with a vent would go over the stove, so the rolling cart the old microwave is on could go. My appliance wants are simple. Give me a slightly bigger fridge, with the freezer on the bottom and an icemaker (now that I have one, I never want to go without again), and a gas range with a self-cleaning oven and I'd be a happy girl.
A back door would be put in where the window at the back of the house is (right behind where the picture would have been taken), so we wouldn't have to go through the garage to get outside and to the grill anymore. I'd take out the ceiling fan and put in recessed lights, and, with the soffit gone, I could put a cool light over the sink. The light fixtures at Schoolhouse Electric are really fun. Part of the wall to the left of the fridge could be knocked out to make room for a bigger fridge. My dream countertops wouldn't be granite, but these recycled glass countertops from Vetrazzo. The backsplash would be this glass horizontal pattern. Ah, to dream.