Domestic Interiors
Domestic Interiors

Georgina Downey

Georgina Downey is an independent scholar and Visiting Fellow in the graduate art history program at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2013


Content Type:

Book chapter

Peoples, Cultures and Religions:

British (modern), Dutch, Flemish, North American

Related Content

Kitchens: From Warm Workshop to Kitchenscape

DOI: 10.5040/9781474294072.ch-006
Page Range: 91–110

In the history of interior design, the kitchen is the most traditional room in the house, for it has evolved more slowly over the centuries than other spaces that are more on show. In peasant homes, it was the heart of everyday family life: this was where meals were cooked, domestic chores were done, children were tended and even where sleeping pallets were spread on the floor. In nobles’ dwellings, the kitchen was occupied by servants and later by other staff: until the nineteenth century, it is far removed from the living and entertaining areas since its smells and noises were not welcome in polite society. As the middle classes became established, it became the scene of the housewife’s activities.

This chapter relates the idea of intimacy to the space, furnishing and equipment of the kitchen from 1880 to 1940. The subject is handled chronologically, but with a narrative emphazis based on the visual sequence of the kitchen interiorscape—in other words, by interpolating historical notes and critical commentary among the images: selected highlights orchestrate the kitchen’s various interpretations accordingly.

After a brief outline of the kitchen’s evolution from antiquity to the seventeenth century, the chapter proper begins with the concept of intimacy as the Dutch of that century gave it modern expression: kitchens in Flemish painting portray a vivid scene of interiority. Later, the ‘warm workshop’ of chefs and housekeepers in the early nineteenth century turns into the woman’s realm of the Victorian era. From 1860 to 1890, a series of inventions simplified the life of the housewife.

A serene interiority links the kitchen of the painting The Kitchen (1895), by the painter Carl Larsson, with that of the Gamble House (1907–8) by Greene & Greene: a diluted Art Nouveau informs a tranquil domestic world. In the first decade of the twentieth century, on the other hand, Christine Frederick’s scientific kitchen (1913), with its standardized labour and the ‘mechanical bride’ idea derived from Taylorism, anticipated the fragmentation of the soul in Ludwig Kirchner’s Alpine Kitchen (1918). In Europe, the experimental designs of the 1920s and 1930s prefigured a minimal and wholly functional kitchen. In America, on the other hand, the next decade saw designs for ‘the kitchen of tomorrow’—to paraphrase the title of a book on the home, Tomorrow’s House: A Complete Guide for the Home-Builder, by George Nelson and Henry Wright (1945). Before ‘easier living’ arrives, the Streamline interlude (1920–40) represents the idea of the Future with the aerodynamic looks of its utensils. Lastly, Nelson’s essays, articles and designs bring the practicality of the American kitchen into the modern era: the ‘continuous kitchen’ is an idea that has lasted—though with many transformations—until the present day.

Kitchen Flânerie

And, indeed, is there not something holy about a great kitchen? . . . The scoured gleam of row upon row of metal vessels dangling from hooks or reposing on their shelves till needed with the air of so many chalices waiting for the celebration of the sacrament of food. And the range like an altar, yes, before which my mother bowed in perpetual homage, a fringe of sweat upon her upper lip and the fire glowing in her cheeks.

(Carter 1985: 94–95)

In the history of interior design, the kitchen represents the most traditional environment of the house. Compared to other rooms that are more on show (such as the living room or bedroom), the design of the kitchen has evolved slowly over the centuries. The fact that it is the ‘heart’ of the house might partially explain its stable nature over time, not so much in terms of form but rather its more profound meaning: if food keeps us alive, cooking food represents the victory of thought over natural impulse. Since the discovery of fire in the primitive age, cooking—even in its most elementary form—has been what differentiates the hungry human from animals. The human being transforms food from simple nourishment, which comes from nature, into an artefatto (a product of human art) thanks to their work. The material is first modified and then harmonized by varying its preparation: the kitchen space represents the predominance of reason over instinct, of art over nature.

The kitchen is here investigated through the spatial and empathic relationship which, over the various ages, has existed between people and this specialized environment within the home: the kitchen is therefore seen as a true interiorscape, or space of interiority, of men, women and children. While organized chronologically, in examining the topic I have favoured a narrative construction that interpolates images, books and critical reflections: I move then within the kitchenscape like a flâneuse,[1] who turns her gaze to selected highlights in order to orchestrate the interpretative reading.

It is acknowledged that the modification of the kitchen is connected to the evolution of social customs and the gradual emancipation of the woman within the family and society. Until the Ancien Régime, the staffthat handled the cooking and table service in the houses of the wealthy social classes was male: the protection of the master of the house from poisoning was delegated to educated and competent men (Sarti 2006: 199). Furthermore, the honour of the house, represented by sumptuous banquets, also depended on the reliability and expertise of the domestic staff.[2] In more modest households, on the other hand, the woman was assigned the task of caring for the house and kitchen since the Middle Ages, as she was responsible for the family home economics: in the kitchen, she performed many of the daily duties including the preparation of meals and caring for offspring. Indeed, in the peasant culture, the kitchen was the only room in which women were permitted to eat, out of sight of other people who feared the elusive psyche or lunar character of the female being.[3]

During the Victorian age, the middle class concretized the separation of existence into two different spheres, public and private, which were assigned respectively to men and women. A division of labour between the sexes was implemented according to an ideology that emphasized the difference in duties and responsibilities (Hall 1994: 55, 62). The woman was entrusted with the care of the house, from managing the finances to decorating the rooms: the female figure was ‘cleansed’ of every dark power, transformed in the eyes of others into the exemplary model of mother and ‘fireside angel’ (Faré 1990: 11).

In addition to being connected to social custom, the sexual division of tasks in the kitchen depended on geographic context and family rank. In the nineteenth century, for example, at the heights of French and Italian aristocracy, it was the men who did the cooking, while in England they took turns with the women, in both middle-class and wealthy families. The English kitchen, therefore, had more pronounced domestic and feminine characteristics than elsewhere, particularly due to the reduced need to be on show in comparison with the very different court life (Sarti 2006: 202).

The history of the woman, the issue of feminism and its implications in the history of the home are reflected therefore in the kitchen environment, long considered the favoured feminine realm.[4] My reflections concern the kitchen as heart of the dwelling, or rather as centre of the family: in fact, the kitchen might be considered a ‘beloved’ or topophilic space within the house, to draw on the thoughts of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard.[5] It represents, therefore, a ‘living value’ (Bachelard 1984: 83), within which people of both sexes are present. The very terminology used in the past to identify the kitchen demonstrates its interior qualities as well as its domestic ones: ‘ Firehouse, bodystead, hearth room, house place —these variant regional names given to such space are terms both functionally descriptive and yet sensually evocative of the hearth and its fire as the structural and psychological centre of the household’ (Pennell 1998: 202).

The symbol of the kitchen is the fire in the hearth or stove: this heats and cooks the food (at least it did until the advent of electric energy), representing the dominion of intellect over matter, but its profound meaning is that of the ‘lived fire, . . . which gives us energy and life’ in the present (Bachelard 1990: 45). Thanks to the slight hypnotism it induces in the human being (‘the pensive man’), fire is in fact ‘the axis of subjectivity’ (Bachelard 1973: 127), around which rêveries develop. On the other hand, wrote Bachelard, fire is also a symbol of rest, or invitation to rest (Bachelard 1973: 138), precisely because it warms and comforts us. The very cooking of food then has more profound implications than just a mere material gesture:

[Fire] is not limited to cooking, it turns the biscuit golden brown. It materializes the joy of men. For as far back as it is possible to go, gastronomic value has suppressed dietary value, and it is in joy and not in pain that man found his spirit. The conquest of the superfluous generates a spiritual excitement that is greater than the conquest of the necessary. Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need.

 --(Bachelard 1973: 139–40)

The ‘joy of men’ is revealed therefore in gathering around the ‘hearth’, a term that has always defined the kitchen. And it is from this perspective—the hearth as the centre of the house—that my chapter interprets the kitchen environment over the various ages. The theme of feminine interiority is consequently one of the crucial elements in describing the interior kitchen, but even more important is the theme of family or the people who, with their interiority, become part of the kitchen space.

A Traditional Environment: From Monumental Forms to Organized Space

There are no reliable accounts of the position of the kitchen in the house in ancient times. In the Odyssey, Homer designated it as the hearth for cooking food, which the men gathered around (Homer 2008: XIV, 40–50, 420–5) and where the guest might rest (Homer 2008: 520).[6] In the Roman atrium house, exemplified in the city of Pompeii, the culina was the hearth where the family would come together. It was protected by the Lari (the images of ancestors), while the jealous care of the larder (cella penaria) was entrusted to the mater familias. Subsequently a severe family hierarchy would separate the masters of the house and the servants. The hearth became an environment in itself, raised upon a podium, where the coquus (the cook) would stand to cook the food (Maiuri 2000: 67). Nearby was the bread oven and, in other spaces, the sink and drain.[7]

In the Middle Ages, the kitchen was a monumental stark and smoke-filled room,[8] of monastic origin.[9] It was, however, the heart of the residence—a ‘home within a home’—as it identified, even physically, the family that lived there. Possessing a hearth and a home (feu et lieu) was in fact the equivalent of being the head of the household: this was demonstrated by the French census in the late Middle Ages which recorded the population not by individuals but ‘by fires’, or rather by the number of hearths (Contaime 1993: 360). And one of the duties of the woman of the household (f ocaria) was to keep the fire in the kitchen (f oganha) alight at all times during the day and cover it at night for fear of a fire breaking out in the house (Contaime 1993: 386).[10]

In the Ultima cena (1340–50)[11] by the Bottega di Pietro Lorenzetti, two servants are working in the kitchen: with its lit fire and broad hood that sucked in the smoke, the wooden shelf with a vase on it and a utensil hung alongside, the high coffered ceiling and the bare walls, the room represents a ‘prototype’ that was destined to be replicated in all of Europe (Praz 1964: 79). In general, the cooking centre also acted as the heating system for the cold houses of the time, although normally people did not sleep in the kitchen. The hearth was open and the lack of cupboards might lead us to hypothesize that the various furnishings and fittings were hung on the walls. Iron grills and pans substituted the bronze crockery of Roman times; spoons and ladles were made of metal or wood. The pans were hung over the fire with chains or rested on tripods; the roasting spit was among the most important cooking instruments. In Il miracolo delle nozze di Cana (approximately 1460)[12] by Andrea De Litio, the kitchen is only partially visible: the broad hood of the lit hearth, the floor in rough bricks and the roasting spit, which a servant kept in sight in front of him with a rather perplexed air.

The kitchen would subsequently be transformed into a more organized space, separated from the other rooms: in the Renaissance palazzo, comodità (comfort) became an aspiration in all types of homes and united service rooms such as the lavatory and kitchen (Pagliara 2001: 39). In both of these spaces, improvement to the water system and connection to the civic sewage system were essential, so much so that their position within the house was designed a priori. The authors of treatises, such as Leon Battista Alberti or Francesco di Giorgio Martini, insisted on the kitchen being kept apart from the dining room so as to avoid the din of crockery and unsavoury odours. Especially due to the frequent problems of draught chimneys and flues, the kitchen was confined to the cellar or ground floor, removed from the main part of the residence, while in modest homes the family continued to eat in the kitchen (Thornton 1992: 290). They were poorly lit environments, connected to the sala (dining room) by secondary staircases and, later, with a type of lift.

The resolution of the smoke problem eventually brought the kitchen to the piano nobile (first floor), illuminated by windows that looked over the courtyard. The greatest advantage consisted in the meals not getting cold during table service while the servants ate in the room reserved for them (tinello).[13] Equipment included the tub hollowed out in the stone of the sink to rinse the crockery, the ‘kitchen hearth’ for cooking food, and armari or spaces hollowed out in the walls (only rarely closed by wooden doors) for storing the dishware. The larder was the room for foodstuffs, which the master of the house had direct control over (La Ronciére 1993: 150).

Bourgeois Residences: Ethical Overtones and Suffused Intimacy

The idea of intimacy was born in the seventeenth century in the middle-class civilization of the Netherlands (Rybczynski 1989: 65). In a way of life that was as conservative as it was simple in terms of cultural expression, the houses were modest in size and built solidly in brick. Despite the cosmopolitanism of the merchants and businessmen, the residence was perceived as a pleasant refuge to return to. Within their dwellings Dutch families led a cohesive and tranquil life. The rooms were generally ‘on a human scale’, or, in other words, comfortable and never excessive in decoration nor refined in furnishings. The most thoroughly descriptive and, at the same time, profoundly intimate depictions of the houses of the time are owed to the Flemish artists. The paintings often portray scenes of domestic life and are an interesting documentary source, from which we can begin to understand the relationship between the interior and interiority in traditional kitchens.[14]

The painter Nicolaes Maes set the Idle Servant (1655)[15] in a kitchen: a bulky sideboard stands out on a black-and-white chequered floor, serving as the backdrop to the scene; it accommodates on its surface a cat with a game bird between its greedy jaws. The ‘idle’ servant has her head sadly bent over the terracotta crockery set down on the floor, which she still has to wash, while another woman, perhaps the cook, scorns her sloppiness. In the background, a door opens onto a family scene: two women dressed in the traditional dark clothing with white bonnets are spinning, while even further back, a window of opalescent glass closes in this complex world, without letting us see what is happening outside. Here Maes adopts a visual stratagem that is typical of Dutch painting, the doorkijkje, or rather the depiction of interiors through rooms that open on to other rooms,[16] which corresponds to the emphazis on the distribution of spaces en enfilade.

The piece might be considered from other points of view: the scene does in fact have a clearly symbolic value. Acedia (sloth), one of the seven deadly sins,[17] is personified by the young woman, whose moral counterpart is represented by the elder figure, while in the background the other women silently spin the rhythm of life. The doorkijkje consists therefore in the confrontation of different feminine interiorities, placing them as details of a single scene that must be recomposed through the multifaceted vision of the person observing the painting. Maes’s depiction consolidates, however, the traditional idea of feminine indolence that is connected above all to youth and does not apparently concern old age. On the other hand, the painting has a typically realistic interpretation thanks to the description of the kitchen in which the scene is set: the depiction is so precise in displaying the entirety of the space and the details of objects and finishes (see for instance the brass hinges of the sideboard) that it might be considered a true account of a historic period (mid-seventeenth century), of a country (the Netherlands), of the living culture of a middle-class family and, finally, of the interior of the time.

Christian Wolfgang Heimbach (A Kitchen, 1648)[18] depicted a German kitchen with equal precision. Despite it being a more modest environment, with the hearth on the floor, it is completely equipped with pans, pewter plates and earthenware neatly laid out on the plate rack, from which hang ladles and other utensils. However, this scene also has a precise symbolic meaning since it represents the value of parsimony or ‘healthy management’, which the head of the household (a spice, tea and coffee merchant) oversees while the women of the house complete their duties. The kitchen is no longer an untidy profusion of food and objects but represents the new bourgeois order, organized by the monetisation of relationships (Senise and Buscagliene 1980: 108).

It is the interiors of Johannes Vermeer that transmit a profound sense of interiority in their depiction of everyday life. The visual stratagem of rooms that open on to other rooms is present in many works: intimacies that reveal other intimacies in the introvert and protective space of the residence. Whereas in others, such as The Kitchen Maid (1658–60),[19] the protagonist is isolated in relation to the task she is performing. The kitchen, in which the scene is set, acts only as a backdrop. We identify it as such by means of the objects within it; in particular, the terracotta jug the woman is using to pour the milk. Then we see also the low vessel that the milk is being poured into, the coarse loaves on the table that is laid with a green cloth and the bread in the basket, the ceramics embellished with the Delft blue to hold water and the carelessly folded blue tea towel. The room is austerely simple, with no decoration conceded to walls or floor. The perimeter can only be deduced from the skirting board which is a darker colour than the wall. The typical Dutch window floods the figure with light. The milk-woman is dressed in the traditional style of the time. The light bonnet hides her hair, placing the light oval of her face in the foreground; the tension of the gesture (pouring the milk) reveals her gaze, frozen forever on the painter’s canvas. Here too is an underlying symbolic value: the seriousness and innocence of the woman’s face and her concentration on the gesture communicate the value of industriousness, quite the opposite of what is expressed in Maes’s painting. In Vermeer’s work, the kitchen environment is the pure interiority of the human being who inhabits it: the woman, depicted while performing a task, is imbued with the gentleness of a habitual gesture.

From the Warm Workshop to the Moral Aspiration For Order

During the seventeenth century, the trunks and chests that used to be untidy storage places disappeared from the kitchen, replaced by sideboards and other furniture. In addition to this sense of order, which reigned in the kitchen and the rest of the house, tastes for food were also refined: the coarse medieval banquets were replaced with a more refined choice of foodstuffs and methods of preparing them (Flandin 1993: 215). In France, the culinary treaties published between the seventeenth and eighteenth century exalted the gastronomic value of dishes, and cooking became a delicate art, which advanced in step with civilization (Aron 1978a: 124).[20] This change in taste was accompanied by the presentation of food and improvement in tableware with crockery, dishes, tablecloths and cutlery: more refined objects replaced those in common use.

Until 1700, food was cooked on a wood fire, but the use of coal, which began in England in the second half of the century, offered a new opportunity: chimney fireplaces were replaced with cast-iron or brick stoves. The adoption of the potager (a large brick oven with twelve or twenty grates) modernized both the kitchen and the preparation of meals. However, the environment was no longer the centre of the house; among the wealthy classes, the greater the distance between the social status of the masters of the house and that of the servants, the further the kitchen was from the dining room.[21]

The kitchen did not undergo any particular transformation until the late nineteenth century. Rather, wrote Mario Praz, it was ‘one of the more conservative environments: here function prevailed over ornament, which one might say did not exist at all’ (Praz 1964: 232). Praz’s collection includes La cucina di Palazzo Mozzi a Firenze (1825)[22] by Antonio Digerini (Figure 6.1); it is a painting that is particularly dear to the Anglicist and that, in his autobiography, La casa della vita (1958), provides the inspiration for a long poetic digression on his life in Rome during World War II and the perpetual food shortages (Praz 2003: 217).

6.1 Antonio Digerini, La cucina di Palazzo Mozzi a Firenze, 1825, oil on paper, Museo Mario Praz, Roma. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. courtesy ministero per i beni e le attività culturali.

The precision with which Digerini depicted the interior highlighted every detail of the room. The window overlooks the Lungarno: behind a vase of carnations rise the façade of Palazzo Torregiani[23] and the blue sky of a spring day in Florence. The hearth on a side wall illuminates the room in places and a red light reflects off the utensils, furnishings and figures that animate the scene: a man prepares the herbs in a copper pan, a maid fans the fire with a small pair of bellows and two cats rear up on their hind legs begging for a titbit. It is a large room with a high wooden-beamed ceiling. Every tool (the china and the glass and pewter containers) is destined for a precise purpose as is all the furniture (the plate rack, the work surface, the large central table for preparing food, the half-open sideboard and the chimney hood). It is a ‘dark odorous kitchen’ (Praz 1964: 232); one can almost smell the soup cooking in the pot on the stove. Here the man and woman, in the service of the Mozzi family, work in silent harmony: the kitchen is the domestic scene of an interiority that feeds on a relaxed and familiar atmosphere.

The depictions by the Risorgimento painter Gerolamo Induno introduce other Italian kitchens in lower middle-class (La lettera dal campo, 1862)[24] or working-class (Donne romane, scena contemporanea, 1864)[25] settings, yet the two kitchens are not that different. Both sketch the nucleus of family life: sparse environments enlivened by the clutter of utensils and kitchenware, in which the hearth is preponderant. The spice shelves are identical in both kitchens (clearly an item of furniture in common use), as are the red terracotta floor and roughly plastered walls.

During the nineteenth century, ‘a subtle amalgamation of functional rationality, of still rather limited comfort and aristocratic nostalgia was noticeable’ (Perrot 1994b: 247) in the middle-class house model. Particular emphazis was placed on family life: the residence was a safe refuge from the chaotic industrialized world, the only place in which to cultivate introspection. There was, however, a stark contrast between the houses of the poor and those of the wealthy. The English farmhouses were ‘miserable hovels with damp and half-rotten walls, with sagging roofs, infected rooms and little space for sleeping’ (Lasdun 1981: 134). Although there was much discussion within the ruling institutions about what the cottage model should be,[26] its improvement depended above all on the issue of morality. In farmhouses of limited space, the family slept together in the kitchen as the hearth was the only source of heat. Victorian morals, however, dictated the separation of the sexes, and this led to the construction of small rooms for sleeping, adjacent to the kitchen in order to take advantage of the heat. The hearth then was even more the centre of life than the kitchen: it probably remained lit all year long in the ‘Atlantic’ custom, as on the continent the dining-table was the real fulcrum of family life.

The Victorian age promoted a new ideal of life that reached the poorer classes thanks to housing philanthropy. The first phase of industrialization caused increasing migration to urban centres, where workers lived in unhealthy interiors (Mumford 1999: 157–61): the dominating class responded to this dramatic situation (epidemics, high infant mortality rates and an increase in crime) with some containment strategies, such as the laws on the length of the working day, hygiene and safety in the workplace, and a variety of aid institutions. Furthermore, they sought to transfer the model of middle-class life to the lesser-offclasses, which interwove the ideology of comfort and privacy with that of hygiene and order (Maldonado 1987: 102). This partially atrophied the role of the kitchen as the vital centre of the family. It became a place for merely preparing food, separated from the rooms where meals were consumed: a new ‘food topography’ was born (Aron 1978b: 221).[27]

The distribution of space was accurately planned: ‘A kitchen should be light, lofty, and airy’, states The London Cookery and Complete Domestic Guide (1827) (quoted in Wedd 2002: 176). Middle-class houses had a separation between the kitchen, scullery (which in smaller houses was also used as a laundry), larder[28] and coal store. A swinging door separated the kitchen from the scullery, where the crockery and pans were washed, dried and stored.[29] There was therefore a clear functional division between the activities that took place in the kitchen, which corresponded to specific dedicated spaces. In larger kitchens, for example, the area for kneading was separate from the cooking centre, but the real indicator of the wealth of the family was the size of its larder and, above all, the different sections for storing food: wine cellar, dry goods store, vegetable store (near the garden door) and fish larder (with marble slabs cooled by running water).

In 1865, Robert Kerr insisted in particular on the importance of ventilation and illumination in the ‘kitchen office’ (Kerr 1972: 204–5). According to the architect, the ideal ‘cooking- apparatus ’ was made by Fredk. Edwards and Sons,[30] whose model included a lot of instruments and an ordered layout of furnishings for the kitchen and scullery. In addition to the worktable, the most important piece of furniture was the dresser which would rest against the wall; it might have doors on the lower part while a series of open shelves would be located above. The equipment included a cast-iron (initially open, then closed with doors), wood or coal range and the ice house for the refrigeration system, where the winter ice was kept for use in the summer. The first gas-fired range was presented at the Great Exhibition of London (1851): it was commercialized in 1863 (Shrewsbury’s Portable Gas Oven) but only really adopted from 1880 onwards, as people feared explosions.[31]

The Pioneering Kitchen and the Scientific Kitchen

La table de cuisine (1888–90)[32] by Paul Cézanne represented the last decade of the nineteenth century and visually alluded to the idea of the synthetic modernity that characterized the twentieth-century kitchen. In this representation of reality shaped by the painter’s intellect,[33] the kitchen environment is exemplified by objects for the table and food. The room space can only be guessed at: a hint of a chair in the top right, to the left a fragment of another surface, a simple light-coloured floor. The table, laid with snow-white linen, dominates: ‘The tablecloth, a breath of innocence’, wrote Bachelard, ‘is sufficient to anchor the house at its centre’ (Bachelard 1984: 78).

A basket full of fruit, a jug, a sugar bowl, a water pitcher and peaches and pears of different quality and size are arranged on the table. The objects, especially in their form and colours, tower over the environment in the painter’s pre-cubist interpretation. There are no human figures: their presence is hinted at only by the chair that will receive them. This latter is an item of farming crafts-manship, made of wood and woven straw, which—along with the rough floor—indicates a room in everyday use, probably within a modest residence. Although attributable to the artist’s personal maturation, this still life establishes an ideal that is extracted from the kitchen environment, concentrated on the utensils, on things.

It was in the late nineteenth century that the profound transformation of the kitchen began. It is to Catharine Beecher (1870) that we owe the idea of the functional and specialized environment, a concept that would influence design for almost all of the next century. In the text The American Woman’s Home (published in 1869),[34] she proposed the sharing out of domestic duties among the members of the family and examined the reorganization of the kitchen. Taking the ship’s-galley-inspired kitchens as a model, she abolished the sideboard and central table, replacing them with smaller work surfaces lined up along the walls and under the window. All the elements were connected: the width of the sink, provided with water by a pump system linked to the water in the well and rainwater, was equal to the width of the food preparation service area. In a nutshell, it was the first conception of an assembled kitchen. The cast-iron stoves were located in a separate, connected space. It was the first introduction of the idea of a ‘single central service nucleus, around which the plan of the house is no longer the result of an assembly of rooms, but a free space, not tied to distribution and at the same time functionally differentiated by means of built-in and specialised furniture and equipment’ (Frampton 1978: 93–5).

The discipline of home economics was developed towards the end of the nineteenth century thanks to supporters of the rational approach to household management: Ellen Swallow Richards for example (the first woman to be accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the Journal of Home Economics, 1910). The articles on home economics published in 1912 by Christine Frederick in the Ladies’ Home Journal [35] promoted an idea of the kitchen that was influenced by contemporary research into the scientific organization of factory work, developed thanks to the experiments of Frederick W. Taylor and Frank B. and Lillian Moller Gilbreth on the measurement and timing of movements. In their studies, understanding of the degree of readiness and capacity of the individual contributed to the determination of the best task to assign them, so as to further develop efficiency.

In reality, Christine Frederick observed ‘ancient procedures with new eyes’ (Giedion 1967: 484), completely turning around the work of a cook, arranging the movements needed for different operations and analysing the overall plan of the kitchen. Aimed at freeing the mistress of the house from the burden of domestic duties, her theories ended by anticipating the disturbing vision of a highly mechanized woman who, rather than being freed from the chore of work, just organized her time better. The kitchen was now a workshop, positioned at the back of the house, where the woman mostly worked seated upon a stool, measuring her movements. The twentieth century therefore heralded a genuine ‘infatuation with efficiency’ (Sparke 2008: 131): in fact, it anticipated the inventions that had already been developed in America during the nineteenth century. The many American patents for machines for washing and ironing, for refrigerating or cooking food or for washing the dishes, were the first sign of an inventiveness that regarded domestic chores as a task to be simplified and made as functional as possible.

The Family Room: A Quiet and Bright Interiority

Compared to the mechanization of the soul predicted by Scientific Management (originated by Taylor’s theories), Art Nouveau reflected another type of interiority, although the light and bright colours of the interiors were also related to the new enthusiasm for hygiene.

In his work The Kitchen (approximately 1895), which appeared in his book of drawings Ett Hem (1899), the Swedish artist Carl Larsson depicted the kitchen of his house in Sundborn as a quiet room for the whole family (Figure 6.2).[36] In comparison to the Scandinavian taste for dark and gloomy decoration, Larsson’s cottage imposed a model of the house with a bright and personal style: there was a renewed interest for the eighteenth-century and ancient Swedish peasant culture, as well as influences from the Arts and Crafts movement and Japonisme (Benton 2006: 227). But the central theme of Larsson’s visual poetics was ‘living together’ in harmony. In fact, the comfortable kitchen environment was the ideal place for children, too. While simply furnished, the room is partly faced with light wooden staves, while the fire area is protected by plaster painted green. A window, which opens onto the countryside, is ajar to allow the smoke to disperse. Every utensil and object (plates, pots and jugs) has its orderly place as soon as it is no longer in use: on the floor, a dish full of milk awaits the white cat whose gaze is caught elsewhere, perhaps by the other members of the family. The kitchen is a domesticated place serenely inhabited by adults, children and animals.

Figure 6.2. Carl Larsson, The Kitchen, 1895, watercolour on paper (from Ett Hem series, 1899). ©nationalmuseum, stockholm, sweden/ the bridgeman art library.

Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Japan Style are, moreover, the influences felt in the Gamble House (Pasadena, 1907–8) designed by brothers Charles Summer Greene and Henry Mather Greene:[37] much more than a simple cottage, it is a residence that is equally elegant and comfortable, in which a profound relationship with the surrounding nature is cultivated, not only through the different views from the glass windows delicately decorated with flowering vines but, above all, also through the outdoor rooms, which allow the family to sleep outside in summer and even when it’s raining. In comparison to the main rooms in the house, opulent in terms of materials and decorative details, the kitchen is a more simple space but, perhaps precisely because of this, even more welcoming.

It is separated from the dining room by the butler’s pantry, which functions as a larder and a secondary area for serving meals: the route of the serving staff is laid out diagonally, thanks to the position of the two doors, the second of which opens on to the kitchen. It is a genuine workstation, functionally organized, with containers of various heights on the walls and, in the centre of the room, a table with sliding drawers that open on both sides so as not to obstruct anyone working there. The cold room is accessed by a secondary door. The furnishings, doors and trim are made of a certain kind of maple wood (bird’s eye maple), which conveys a particular, slightly vibrant light to the whole room. However, the most interesting element in the kitchen is the screened porch, which is intimate and bright, furnished with a circular table: it is the space where the family has breakfast, in visual contact with the garden which its windows overlook. Although this kitchen is on the other side of the Atlantic, just like Larsson’s family portrait, it is possible to imagine a calm interiority, which concurs with the warmth of the family reunited around the table.

Soul Fragmentation: The Pragmatic Kitchen

In Europe, the expressionism of Fauves disclosed the interiority of the human being through incendiary colours in particular. The kitchen of Maurice de Vlaminck (La cuisine, Intérieur, 1904)[38]—influenced by the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, which the painter admired in an exhibition in Paris—is still a gently intimate space, in which a female figure moves silently. A simply set table dominates the scene, while the woman is in a corner intent on drying a plate with a white tea towel. Here, too, distantly preceded by Johannes Vermeer, the habitual gesture ties the person to her everyday reality, reflecting her interiority, while her gaze is indiscernible, obscured by the red stain that depicts her cheek.

Just a few years later, the expressionist kitchen of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner revealed something quite different. The fiery colours, the simplification of forms and the strong central perspective represent an atmosphere of distress and emotional claustrophobia (Acton 2008: 36). Kirchner was considered unfit for active military service and voluntarily withdrew to Switzerland (in the mountains by the village of Frauenkirch, near Davos), where the painter lived through a dramatic period that is depicted in his work Alpine Kitchen (1918; Figure 6.3).[39] In the painting, he sits at the table of a rustic kitchen, intent on a lithograph; his soul is reflected in, and almost seems to shatter against, the walls of the room. It is not by chance that in the image a cast-iron stove stands at counterpoint to the figure of the man: Bachelard referred explicitly to the ‘fire confined to the stove’ as the stimulation for psychoanalytical abstraction or the most sublime and free dreams (Bachelard 1973: 176). The distortion of the space corresponds to the dissolution of a soul that suffers for the fate of mankind. Fauvist tones echo with flashes and explosions from the artillery that blazed in Europe’s skies. Kirchner’s painting also depicts a profound social and cultural change: it was the end of traditional values, definitively swept away by the war. A new era was about to begin.

In Europe straight after the war, the real needs of the working class and the rejection of the previous bourgeois models led to the architectural debate over existenz minimum, with the search for housing solutions equipped with ‘modern kitchens’. While the Americans had the task of organizing domestic chores in a Taylorist way, in Europe efforts were made to rationalize the working-class household with the minimum kitchen. Erna Meyer (1926, consultant to the 1927 Weissenhof exhibition for J.J.P. Oud houses), Margarete Schütte-Lihotzsky (Frankfurt Kitchen, 1925–6)[40] and Walter Gropius (Dessau kitchen with furniture by Marcel Breuer, 1925–6) were just a few of the protagonists in the debate on the functional kitchen. Located in a specific, small room, the furniture of the Frankfurt Kitchen—the best known prototype of the rationalist kitchens—was arranged in a line and in the corners and included a double, electric-and-gas stove, a sink with a foldaway drip counter, wall cupboards, a dresser and a metal table with drawers.

Figure 6.3. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Alpine Kitchen, 1918, oil on canvas. ©museo thyssen-bornemisza, madrid.

The first European modular kitchen was made by the Belgian architect Louis H. De Koninck. An initial study (1930) depicted a woman in an apron in the centre of the picture with arms flung out towards the Cubex kitchen. Here, the woman seems to be the moral centre of the space she is destined for, but, above all, she seems to dictate its size. The Cubex kitchen was in fact designed on the basis of a precise modular unit (60-by-60 cm for the base unit, 45 or 60 cm high). While drawing on some casiers-standard concepts applied to the kitchen—presented by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeannaret and Charlotte Perriand at the Salon d’Automne (Paris) of 1928[41] —the Cubex was a model that could actually be made by industry as well as be extremely versatile and flexible (Rüegg 1998: 204). Exhibited at the II International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in Brussels (1930), in a show organized by the Belgian national group, its success was so great that it was extensively adopted in Belgium, where it remained in production until 1960.

With the dawn of the 1930s, the continuous kitchen model became internationally established. With its continuous and easily cleaned surfaces, doors with no engravings, lines of containers and not excessively prominent wall cupboards, some scholars emphasized its assonance with the factory assembly line, which is organized into specialized work stations (Lupton and Miller 1992: 41). It was, moreover, Lillian M. Gilbreth who designed the ‘Practical Kitchen’ (1924–30) for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, in which the linear sequence of the cook’s tasks is clear.

In Italy, the architect Tomaso Buzzi was the illustrator (with Gio Ponti) for the recipe book by Emma Vanzetti (1931), and his drawing Galilea o la cuoca meccanica (Figure 6.4) ironically expressed the contradictions of this ‘mechanical bride’ who was subjected to the marital yoke as much as to the role of perfect housewife,[42] as is clear from the recipe book itself: ‘For a conscientious mistress of the house making a meal means tackling the most delicate, most complex and most interesting problem of her ménage. More than a science made of rules, it is an art consisting of nuances’ (Vanzetti 1931: 13).[43]

Figure 6.4. Tomaso Buzzi, Galilea o la cuoca meccanica, 1931, illustration. courtesy archivio tomaso buzzi, la scarzuola, montegabbione (tr), italy.

Tomorrow’s Kitchen: Easier Living

After the Streamlined period, which instigated the remodelling of both the kitchen environment and its appliances with aerodynamic styling, the assembled kitchen once more aroused great interest in American industry: in approximately 1945, user demand steered the market in the direction of brighter and more scenic kitchens, with artificial lighting directed towards work surfaces and the sink, and less rounded surfaces than the streamlining design.

In 1943, George Nelson developed several designs for prefabricated kitchens, which would remain on paper for a long time (Nelson and Wright 1943: 101).[44] Among these, the Food Preparing Unit was a counter for preparing food, structured in units (cold, hot and water), which incorporated the various kitchen appliances. Ten years later, the Kitchen Design Department of General Electric assigned Nelson the position of consultant (until 1962). There were two definite projects (approximately 1960) which would remain in prototype status: the Mini-Max Kitchen, for smaller spaces, and the Mechanical Storage Unit (MSU). This latter was a mechanized cooking and refrigeration system, with components that, thanks to an internal latch mechanism, could be lifted onto the work surface. Strangely, the unit is reminiscent of the complex designs by Thomas Sheraton for writing desks with rising drawers (Harlequin Pembroke Table, approximately 1790).

But it was the articles[45] and the book Tomorrow’s House by Nelson and Wright (1945) that brought the practicality of the American kitchen into the postwar era. Tomorrow’s House, aimed at a non-specialist public, was a guide for designing and furnishing one’s house that tackled the theme of new demands for the home.[46] It expressed the idea of a ‘home-for-everyone’ that was within the economic means of the wider public and also in line with their tastes: a house in which average Americans could easily imagine themselves, outside of nostalgic formalisms. A functional distribution of space and attention to the diffusion of light, to ventilation and heating systems and to the storage and cleaning of objects were the basic principles supported. But the book was truly innovative in that it emphasized the need for a human approach to the problem of habitat. Enhancing personal needs, the focus on family life, and avoiding breaks between the worlds of adult and children were some of the methods proposed for constructing a happy ‘house-of-the-future’.

In terms of the kitchen, the authors criticized a purely Taylorist vision: ‘Efficiency in the home and the well-being of the housewife depend on more factors than steps and minutes’ (Nelson and Wright 1945: 71). The response was to design a large space—‘possibly the biggest room in the whole house’ (Nelson and Wright 1945: 72)—which would mainly be a kitchen plus a living room and a dining room, or rather a ‘work centre-social centre’, welcoming for the whole family and no longer a workshop that imprisoned the mistress of the house. It was an unusual solution in comparison to the European machine-à-habiter in which functional order was openly combined with North American easier living.

Similarly, Mary and Russell Wright acted as promoters of ‘good design for everyone’. Russell planned the most revolutionary dinnerware of the postwar period, which came into widespread use in the United States (American Modern 1938–40),[47] available in rounded forms and an incredible variety of colours, with no decoration. In 1950, Russell and his wife, Mary, wrote the famous Guide to Easier Living (Wright 2003).

The text examined each area of the house in great detail, teaching the public how to organize it and easily keep it tidy. The Guide picked up the theme of efficiently performing the domestic chores of the housewife, and from it a style of living according to a new informal way of living for a newly suburban American public emerged. One image (Figure 6.5) in particular made the changes proposed worthwhile: in the kitchen and dining room, the owners of the house and their guests tidy up together smiling, and the caption reads: ‘Cleanup can even be a part of the evening’s pleasure, if managed properly’ (Wright 2003: 176). The kitchen was no longer an aseptic workshop but a space in which to live together, as George Nelson and Harry Wright had written. It was the sign of the most profound change to the kitchenscape: the kitchen was no longer the reign or gleaming prison of the woman, but the definitive ‘heart of the family’. The ‘lived space’, of Bachelardian memory, is more a mental habitus than a physical one, and has lasted until this day.[48]

Figure 6.5. Russell Wright, Cleanup with Guests. . ., 1950, illustration. courtesy russell wright studios, new york.


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[1] For the figure of the flâneuse, see Bruno 2002: 76, and passim.

[2] Let us recall the case of Swiss Fritz Karl Watel, known as Vatel, who was responsible for the procurement and preparation of the table of Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé. In 1670, on the occasion of the visit of King Louis XIV, Vatel, terrified by the thought of a possible shortage of fresh fish to cook, committed suicide, unable to stand the dishonour. His legacy to the world was the invention of Crème Chantilly.

[3] In Medieval times, witches and healers prepared their potions in the kitchen. The accusation of witchcraft, often by jealous doctors, was therefore aimed at women who knew the properties of plants (see Muzzarelli and Tarozzi 2003: 20–1).

[4] For a general introduction to this theme, see Bassanini 1990.

[5] On the topophilia of the house, see Bachelard 1984: 26.

[6] Odysseus is greeted by the swineherd Eumaeus on his return to Ithaca (Homer 2008: XIV). The hearth in the Palace of Alcinous (Homer 2008: VII, 160–85) seems instead similar to the perpetually lit fire of the megaron. More familiar is the hearth where the parents of Nausicaa sit (Homer: VI, 50), and where King Laertes rests in winter, along with his slaves (Homer: XI, 190). Finally Odysseus waits for Penelope at the hearth, after killing the Suitors (Homer 2008: XXIII, 70).

[7] Archaeological excavations have uncovered rooms with hearths and sinks in the homes of Vetti, Pansa and Meleagro (first century ad).

[8] In that period, the hearth did not have a hood, meaning the kitchen was full of smoke. It slowly dissipated through the cracks in the ceiling, to then emerge from the roof.

[9] An illuminating example of a monumental kitchen is found in the Certosa di San Lorenzo, also known as the Certosa di Padula (approximately 1306–1750), not far from the Italian city of Salerno. Legend has it that a frittata of 1,000 eggs was cooked in the kitchen of the Certosa for Emperor Charles V, on his return from the Conquest of Tunis.

[10] Lighting the fire was not actually a simple task: the first matches were invented in 1530; the self-igniting variety was introduced in the nineteenth century. Before that a flint was used, made of a piece of steel and a splinter of flint which were banged together with force.

[11] Fresco, Basilica Inferiore, Assisi.

[12] Fresco, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Atri (Teramo).

[13] The problem of smoke in the kitchen seems to have been resolved by Raffaello Sanzio since, in 1520, in the designs of his own palazzo in Via Giulia in Rome, he positioned the kitchen on the piano nobile, alongside the living rooms (Pagliara 2001: 43).

[14] On the testimonial value of the pictorial sources relating to interiors, furnishings and objects, see Schiaparelli 1908: XI.

[15] Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London.

[16] A famous example of doorkijkje appears in the work of Emanuel de Witte, Interior with a Woman at the Virginals, 1665–70, oil on canvas, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

[17] The term sloth was used in the Greek age as a synonym for indifference tinged with sadness, while in the Roman age it was a synonym for indolence. During the Middle Ages, it identified a state of melancholic torpor, inertia almost. It was the Catholic interpretation that gave the word its moralistic and negative value of negligence of charitable acts.

[18] Oil on canvas, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürberg.

[19] Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, The Hague. The painting is also known as The Milkmaid.

[20] The expert in gastronomy (mangeur or gourmet) was a figure apart from the cook who emerged in France during the nineteenth century (see on this matter, Aron 1978a).

[21] For the conditions of servants during the nineteenth century, see Perrot 1994a: 145–8.

[22] Oil on paper, Museo Mario Praz, Roma.

[23] The Florentine palazzo, which still exists, is included in the Museo Bardini with other buildings.

[24] Oil on canvas, private collection. The letter is from the son of the elderly couple, husband of the young woman, and was written from the battlefield for the Unification of Italy.

[25] Oil on canvas, private collection. The painting is also known as Ascoltando la notizia del giorno. In the painting, the women are reading a proclamation from the Roman Committee, hoping for the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy. A similar room is in Domenico Induno (Gerolamo’s brother), La visita alla nutrice, 1863, oil on canvas, Fondazione Cariplo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia, Milan.

[26] In 1844, the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes had been established under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with Lord Ashley Shaftesbury as president.

[27] With the expression ‘food topography’, Aron (1978b: 221) identifies the spaces where the ‘rite’ of eating takes place. The social status or way of life of the family changes depending on the number, distribution and importance of these places in the house, and so does the degree of civilization of a food group.

[28] In the mid-nineteenth century, the servants called this room for storing food ‘the pantry’.

[29] Frequently, domestic staff slept in the larder, even in refined residences (Bryson 2011: 110).

[30] The Spectator published various adverts for the ‘tiled kitchen’ by Fredk. Edwards & Sons (49, Great Marlborough Street, Regent Street, London) (see The Spectator 1870: 1304; The Spectator 1872: 1348; The Spectator 1878: 456.

[31] An electric stove was presented at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. General Electric began production starting in 1905.

[32] La table de cuisine—Nature morte au panier, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

[33] Actually, Cézanne exhibited many of his Still lives in his studio. As is well-known, the artist did not realistically represent the forms but used apparently out of scale proportions to balance the general composition of the painting.

[34] The text was written in collaboration with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author’s sister. It was preceded by Beecher in 1841.

[35] Then collected in Frederick 1913. Frederick 1919 followed, which now emphasized the scientific condition of domestic work rather than home economics.

[36] Larsson and his wife, Karin, moved to the cottage in Sundborn in 1889; it was subsequently transformed and expanded by the pair for their large family.

[37] For Frampton (2002: 24), Gamble House was the closest piece of American work to European Art Nouveau of the previous decade.

[38] Also known as Intérieur de cuisine, oil on canvas, Musée National d’Arte Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

[39] Oil on canvas, Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

[40] On German applications of scientific housekeeping, see Bullock 1988.

[41] The first casiers-standards were exhibited by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeannaret on the Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (Paris 1925).

[42] The word housewife, literally ‘she who is married to the house’, emphasizes the gender relationship between the woman and the space. In Bruno 2002: 81–3, the theme of the housewife is analysed with reference to the film Craig’s Wife (1936), taken from the comedy by George Kelly, directed by Dorothy Azner; the main actors were Rosalind Russell, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Darwell.

[43] In Italy, architect Alberto Sartoris (1930) released Frankfurt Kitchen. Italian rational kitchens were by Piero Bottoni in the exhibition pavilion ‘La Casa Elettrica’ (by Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini), IV Triennale di Monza (1930), and in the exhibition Criteri della casa d’oggi, VII Triennale di Milano (1940).

[44] Here the two architects outlined some considerations that would be drawn on in Nelson and Wright 1945. The same article published some sketches for an experimental kitchen design.

[45] In 1940, Nelson wrote fourteen articles on the modern house entitled ‘When You Build Your House’ for the magazine Arts & Decoration; the articles were then collected in Nelson 1946. One of the articles was dedicated to ‘Bathrooms and Kitchens’ (Nelson 1946: 39–41).

[46] The book was illustrated with numerous sketches by Paul Grotz (art director of Architectural Forum) and photographs of contemporary interiors (by Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra and the authors themselves).

[47] American Modern won the American Designers’ Institute Award in 1941 for Best Ceramic Design of the Year.

[48] Imma Forino’s chapter was translated by Victoria Miller, Language Password sas.